Shaw Touches on Personal Experiences at Jazz Gallery
It was a family affair at the Jazz Gallery in New York’s Flatiron District on April 6. After being greeted by drummer Johnathan Blake’s daughter and son, saxophonist Jaleel Shaw pointed out that his mother, aunt and several of his cousins were also in the audience. The evening marked the official release of The Soundtrack Of Things To Come (Changu), Shaw’s third solo effort.
Shaw introduced the members of his band, which included Blake, pianist Lawrence Fields and bassist Linda Oh (who stepped in for Boris Kozlov at Gallery). Both Shaw and Blake, natives of Philadelphia, have not only played together since they were 12, but are also best friends and neighbors. The familial bonds throughout much of the evening were appropriate given the fact that the new album is Shaw’s most personal recording to date.
“I was commissioned to write music for the Rubin and Brooklyn museums,” Shaw said after the first set. “I wrote these compositions, gave [these songs] titles and everything. And a few months later, all of these crazy things started going on.”
According to Shaw, he wrote much of the album before having these cathartic experiences. “I look back on the song titles and realized that I had prepared myself for things to come,” he said.
Prior to opening his earlier set with “I Wish I Didn’t Know,” Shaw explained the song’s backstory, which deals with the emotions surrounding the loss of a parent. While he was not particularly close with his father, his younger sister had even less of a relationship. Shaw promised his sister that if their father passed away, he would not tell her. But when Shaw learned about his father’s death during a phone conversation with a cousin, the shock of the news forced him to break that promise.
The rhythmic crashes of Blake’s cymbal-heavy opening on the tune not only offered perfect counterbalance to Shaw and Fields; it thematically shifted the mood of the tune from somber to introspective. Shaw’s quiet relay of the melody grew more intense and expressive during his solo, as if he were getting things off his chest. As Shaw and Blake conversed musically, it evoked a feeling of an actual conversation shared between Shaw and his father.
“Sister,” one of the commissioned songs that Shaw wrote, was initially inspired by a photograph, part of a larger exhibition entitled Miscegenated Family Album by artist Lorraine O’Grady. “I went to the Brooklyn Museum and walked around for a long time trying to find things that I thought I could relate to,” Shaw said. “[O’Grady] studied the history of these sculptures of Egyptian sisters, and she found out that the relationships that the sisters had were almost identical to the relationship that she had with her [own] sister.”
In light of the more personal changes in his life, Shaw dedicated the song to his younger sister. Starting “Sister” off with an unaccompanied alto sax solo, this not only brought out the song’s inherent soulfulness, but as the tune gradually shifted from insular to expansive it played on the strengths of Shaw’s talented quartet. “I really wanted this to be more of a collective,” he said. “I didn’t want it to be something that just featured me. It was all about that collective energy coming across.” Fields’ affecting chords warmly wrapped themselves around Oh’s straightforward touch on acoustic bass as Blake supported the duo with subtle rhythmic snares.
A week before, Shaw wrapped up another emotionally charged performance as a sideman with trumpeter Tom Harrell during a sold-out stint at the Village Vanguard. The performance featured Blake— longtime member of Harrell’s group—tenor saxophonist Wayne Escoffery, bassist Ugonna Okegwo and Esperanza Spalding on bass and vocals. During the performance, the group drew some inspiration from Harrell’s Vanguard debut of a forthcoming project entitled Colors Of A Dream, due for release later this year. “I think it’s one of Tom’s most spiritual records,” Blake said. “There are a lot of different colors in the music, and it deals with groove and soul that’s going to [touch] a lot of people.”
Shaw also credited much of his own melodic sensibilities on the new record to another influential artist, Fountain of Youth bandleader Roy Haynes. “When you talk about melody, he’s the most melodic, modern drummer I’ve ever played with, at 88 years old,” he said. “He’s going to help embellish whatever it is you have to say and add colors to it.”
Following a long line of great Philadelphia musicians—John Coltrane, Shirley Scott, Grover Washington Jr.—Shaw’s The Soundtrack Of Things To Come keeps in line with the tradition of melody serving as the driving force behind a song. “When I was writing, I was focusing too much on the deadline and I was just writing stuff that didn’t touch me,” said Shaw. “I realized that I wanted to write stuff that I [would] want to listen to. I want to listen to it and feel like, ‘This is me.’”
—Shannon J. Effinger