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Lee Shaw & John Medeski

The Egg
Albany, NY
April 5, 2009

by Randy Treece

The Capital District Jazz Community was treated to a rare concert when pianists Lee Shaw and John Medeski, the old and new guard of the jazz lexicon, performed together at the Egg on this chilly Sunday evening. The audience was fully aware of Lee Shaw, the grand madam of jazz piano, who has an encyclopedic repository of thousands of songs and a matching repertoire of musical statements.  We are well versed about her musical career that spans six decades and how she is mentioned in the same breath with other well known jazz pianists, the likes of which include such luminaries as Oscar Peterson, whom she studied with.  Medeski, of the Medeski, Martin & Woods (MMW) fame, has gained international renown for his wide range of musical styles that include his Hammond B3 organ work with MMW and his adventures into the avant garde jazz scene.  Recent reports revealed that Medeski was one of Shaw's prized students when she lived in Florida.  So some of us "older head," who were fans of the popular TV show Kung Fu would ponder what the "grasshopper" had learned from his musical sensei: whether his skills will rival the Shaolin master of jazz piano or whether must he continue on his journey of learning. Medeski need not travel any further for he has earned his musical black belt.

Reminiscing upon those past lessons where Medeski was urged by Shaw to revel in a music stream of consciousness while conjuring a lizard running or a sunrise, the evening began with an improvisational exercise between teacher and student which Shaw called a "little nutty."  For the most part, this musical comping defies description and characterization, though put to the task I would say that it was Cecil Taylor meets Anthony Braxton.  Although the audience applauded politely, only the musicians truly appreciated the exercise.

However, the band and musical guest did not waste any time drawing the audience back into their grand sphere of influence with "I've Got the Blues."  With Shaw on piano and Medeski on organ, the song had a recognizable and satisfying blues feel to it.  Obviously, Medeski is comfortable with the blues.  Not surprising to those who have listened to him over the years, Rich Syracuse, on bass, had an appealing solo, and Jeff Siegel, on drums, performed admirably.  Credit should be given to their seven-year stint with Shaw, because, in my humble estimation, Rich and Jeff have blossomed into first rate musicians.

Our next song, "Softly, As In a Morning Sunrise," started with a piano prelude from Shaw, that evolved into a classy bolero/rumbaesque type of song with Medeski playing the melody and his melodic solo on his melodica.  The melodica, also known as the "blow organ", is a keyboard which is played by blowing air through a mouthpiece, evoking a sound similar to an accordion or harmonica, a very fitting tonality for this song.  The song shifted and swayed through tempos; just when it came to swinging Shaw would take charge.

Paying respect to one of her dogs, we heard a Shaw original, "Foots," an upbeat, jaunty, and cheerful song.  Shaw displayed her delightful style and was complemented very nicely by an engaging solo by Rich Syracuse.  Shifting gears in a completely different direction, Medeski performed an untitled solo evoking the mythical Cecil Taylor.  I apologize for referring to Cecil Taylor once again, but it is the only way I can describe the experimental nature of the piece.  Suffice it to say that it was far beyond my comprehension, but I must admit it certainly was brilliant and surely looked impressive as Medeski's fingers zoomed over keys evoking provocative and atonal musings.  The first set ended with "Cool Jack," a tribute to local jazz guitarist Jack Fragomeni, who passed
away that day.  Another pleasant selection by the band.

Our second set commenced with a rag, "Virtuoso Rag," which displayed, once again, Shaw's tremendous talents.  Her playing was broad ranging, as the song requires, light and buoyant, and a testament to her cavernous musical and intellectual abilities and expansive musical palette.  The band next delved into one of MMW's main stable songs, a dedication to Sylvester "Sly" Stone entitled, "Where's Sly."  This tune was an upbeat bonanza with great chords and Medeski certainly exhibited his musical wares.  All of the artists got their kicks off on this song. On a more challenging piece, but just as playful, we heard another Shaw composition, "Blues in Eleven."  As Shaw explained, blues are written with either 12 or 16 bars.  Her composition was just 11 bars in length.  Again, to the uneducated ear, it did not sound like a blues, but nonetheless paraded an elemental groove pattern.  It was surprising how the organ afforded the song a different nuance.  The band followed with yet another Shaw original, "Prairie Child," a spry song full of bounce, gaiety, and great pacing.  It had a show tune sensibility about it.  Once again, Medeski resorted to the melodica and its accordion sound lent significantly to the joyfulness of the song.  Here Jeff Siegel got an opportunity to stretch out a little bit.

Slowing the pace for just a moment, "Tears," another Shaw original, was a musical elegy - mournful yet beautiful.  The band shifted to an original blues by Shaw, "Sweet Baby," a tribute to her other dog, which was bubbly and effervescent.  Medeski kept a fetching lite savoir faire balance to the song, somewhat akin to Shirley Scott?s elegant touch, while the rhythm section mounted a supple groove.  We were treated to another playful, though untitled tune, which swung hard and exploded with personality.  It was quite evident that the musicians were having a ball with this number.  In choosing an inspiring way to end this creative show, the band selected "Saint James Infirmary," as their encore.

It is too bad the audience was not larger because this show was a celebration.  There was something for every musical taste: many colors, motifs, and transcendental interactions between the revered teacher and her prized student.

Randy Treece is an avid and ubiquitous fan of jazz music, especially on the local scene. For many years he has contributed jazz artist reviews for "A Place For Jazz" and has written album reviews on request by jazz artists. Randy resides in Albany.