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Woody Shaw: The Last Great Trumpet Innovator

Woody Shaw made his first recordings 50 years ago at age 18.
Tom Copi
San Francisco
Woody Shaw made his first recordings 50 years ago at age 18.

Woody Shaw, who made his first recordings 50 years ago this summer, might be the jazz trumpet's least appreciated giant. Not among musicians, mind you; they recognize his genius whether they're horn players or not. Yet even hardcore fans often know Shaw's name more than his music.

Shaw, who died in 1989 at age 44, was perhaps the trumpeter of the 1970s, an icon for the "Young Lion" generation that followed. Often described as the instrument's last great innovator, Shaw was a virtuoso who restructured the way trumpet players move between long intervals, and wrote his own harmonic and melodic language using notes outside the chords (a technique known as "side-slipping").

His virtuosity and imagination made Shaw equally attractive to both bebop-rooted players and avant-garde pioneers, and he was equally conversant with both. "He was the bridge between Freddie Hubbard and the Art Ensemble of Chicago," notes trumpeter Brian Lynch, whose current project features Latin arrangements of Shaw's tunes featuring multiple trumpeters.

The man himself can be heard on numerous recordings: Shaw's sideman gigs, many of them on landmark albums, are as important in evaluating his career as his leadership roles. A substantial portion of the latter work, however, has just gotten box-set treatment, via Mosaic Records' new 7-disc collection The Complete Muse Sessions. Here are five of the worthiest examples.

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Michael J. West