News transformed, and the magic of Woody Shaw!


Many of you may have noticed that I haven’t been keeping up my blog/news feed lately. I have been doing a lot of traveling, gigging, teaching, composing, and therefore not enough typing! I have been thinking a lot about this blog however, and I have decided that instead of a semi regular news update I will be using this space to deliver a semi regular exposition on topics that I am interested in. Don’t worry, you can still find info on upcoming projects on this blog, but that material will be mixed in with some deep thoughts (or maybe sometimes just some ground level thoughts.) on what I am working on musically. This could mean an analytical view towards a particular piece of music in which I nerd out in stuffy academia speak over how awesome a certain scale or harmonic device is, it could be simply what I am listening to, or it could even be a summery of what I have been practicing. In short, this blog is going to be a way for me to document my day-to-day/week-to-week work and will hopefully be a way to share ideas with you, people who apparently enjoy reading blogs.

This will come to no surprise to those of you who know me, but as my first major nerd out on this blog I give you:

Setting Standards
A brief analysis of the hard bop and avant garde elements in the music of Woody Shaw
Keith Karns

Talking about Woody Shaw’s music is difficult, and perhaps that is why it is rarely done. It is not that he is an unimportant trumpet player, in fact most contemporary trumpet players can be found in one way or another to have been directly influenced by Shaw. (Terrance Blanchard, Wynton Marsalis, Chris Botti, Ingrid Jenson, ect.) The problem lies in the fact that while Shaw’s musical pedigree is a direct line out of the hard bop lineage of Clifford Brown, Lee Morgan and Freddie Hubbard, he also developed his own unique style that was a move in a new direction from that lineage. It is therefore no surprise that this stylistic duality still perplexes many listeners.

Shaw’s style is a marriage between what many consider to be the mainstream jazz of the nineteen sixties (collectively known as hard bop) and the music of Eric Dolphy and John Coltrane (collectively referred to as action music or the avant garde) of the same period. This union comes as no surprise because like Coletrane himself, Shaw spent his formative years as a musician working with masters in both idioms. Shaw manages this union by preparing and resolving his more adventurous phrases with bebop language, using different modes or scale cells, applying a fluid harmonic rhythm, using bebop tools such as substitution to superimpose chords on top of one another, and seeking out melodic material that is not idiomatic to the instrument in order to chart new territory in his music.

The synthesis of these two styles is perhaps most readily evident on the 1983 album Setting Standards (Muse 1983). On this record, Shaw is playing over traditional forms and chords that make his approach more identifiable, rather than on his more modal offerings a few years earlier. Setting Standards was one of three studio albums of standards Shaw would make in the last decade of his life. One of the main reasons we have these records today is because of an effort on Shaw’s part to gain a wider audience. (Colombia Records dropped Shaw in the early 1980’s to pursue younger talent that was thought to appeal to a wider demographic.)

“I realize that I have my own individualistic say and I think what I’m trying to do is couple that with [music] that people can relate to as well as convince an audience of my own personal musical say.”
(Shaw, Jazz Alive 1979)

The first chorus of Shaw’s solo on “There is no Greater Love” stays fairly close to the changes. Shaw uses bop language to maneuver through the chorus. Subsequently, there is very little ‘out’ playing other than through substitution, and what is present is quickly resolved. The first chorus functions as a kind of home base that enables the harmonic and rhythmic experiments of the subsequent choruses. What is interesting here is in the second bar of the break and mm. 7‐8. Shaw sideslips over the implied G7 in the break by utilizing Abmaj instead of G7. He repeats this in the turnaround in mm.7‐8 but alters it in m. 8 by moving up from the Ab by a minor third to Bmaj.

Substitution is one of the pillars of bebop language but the harmonic procedure in the turnaround smacks of Coltrane. These two spots could also be considered a use of the pentatonic scale, a topic that will be explored in depth later.

Shaw’s second chorus seen in Example 1‐2, is much more active harmonically and melodically. In fact this material functions like a rhetorical answer to the material in the first chorus, expounding on and developing the harmonic and melodic gestures there. It is important to note that in these sections the integrity of the line supersedes vertical harmonic structures, and often it is more important to consider the resolution of a line than just the vertical content and duration of a chord. (See Example 3)

Shaw’s linear approach from mm. 33‐37 is reminiscent of Coltrane and Dolphy. Woody is weaving in and out of the chords linearly, not limited by the harmonic rhythm or even the harmonic structures themselves. Shaw described this process in a 1978 interview with Chuck Berg for Downbeat. Shaw balances the ‘out’ material from mm. 34‐37 with incredibly clear bop playing in the second A of the chorus, mm. 41‐48.

“The thing about Eric's music is that you could either play the changes or be free on it. He taught me to play inside and outside at the same time. It had form and made a lot of sense. Eric is the one who helped me find my own individual approach to playing Eric Dolphy was really important. I studied his music like hell, man.”
(Shaw, Trumpet In Bloom 1978)
This passage departs from the “home base” established in the first chorus. It is important to the liberal use of the lydian mode at the beginning of the line. The lydian scale sound is a characteristic thread common to nearly all of Shaw’s solos throughout his career. Shaw delays resolutions of most chords such as in m. 34 and 35. What makes the line work is the strong resolution to the D7 and masterful execution of the line. Woody is also using a substitution device similar to the one seen in m. 8 of the first chorus. In m. 39 he anticipates the G7 and subs it for a C#‐7 and uses the E diminished scale to outline the #9, b9, and 13 on the G7.

Shaw utilizes several different techniques in his ‘out’ playing. Example 2 illustrates one way he approached this kind of work in respect to increased and decreased harmonic rhythms using predominantly diatonic scales and modes. In addition to using diatonic devices to create chromatic color in a passage, Shaw also uses wide intervals as linear devices to move in and out of a set of changes. By moving in wide intervals such as in Example 1-4, chord-tones and non-chord-tones alternate respectively and Shaw can keep the sequence going until he is ready to resolve, usually through traditional bop language.

Another device Shaw uses to move in and out of a particular chord that is closely linked to his intervallic approach is the pentatonic scale. This is perhaps Shaw’s most well known melodic device. Example 1-5 illustrates this technique. Shaw’s initial scale choice will always contain at least two notes common to the given chord. The other notes in the pentatonic scale will usually imply a #11 as seen here, a #5, a #9 or a b9. When employing pentatonics Shaw will either use one scale to blanket several chords, using odd note groupings to create rhythmic complexity as seen in Example 1-5, or he will choose a simple pattern and sequence it in major or minor thirds or in fourths as in Example 1-6.


In mm. 56‐69 Shaw sequences a pentatonic cell through the circle of fourths to resolve to the D‐ chord. He does this by outlining the C major pentatonic scale. This is one of the great warhorses of Shaw’s arsenal and can be heard not only in many of his solos, but in many of his compositions such as The Moontrane, Tomorrow’s Destiny, and Stepping Stone. This technique becomes much more exciting when applied to odd note groupings and complex rhythms such as the ones in Example 1‐4. This particular excerpt is of interest because while he is utilizing the pentatonic scale, he does it over the cycle of fourths and utilizes an extremely common pattern. What makes it unique is his choice of chords superimposed over the original changes.

What might be the most striking aspect of Shaw’s music is simply his sheer virtuosity on the trumpet. While trumpet virtuosos are in fact a staple of jazz history, Shaw’s music is so impressive because unlike his counterpart Freddie Hubbard, Shaw gravitates towards material that is not idiomatic to the trumpet and instead gravitates toward a melodic concept more akin to that of one of his saxophone contemporaries. In a 1976 interview with Melody Maker Magazine, Shaw said,

“I used to listen to [Coltrane] and Dolphy and think, wow, how come nobody plays like that on the trumpet? So I swung round from the Freddie Hubbard, Lee Morgan axis and tried to play the trumpet like a saxophone. And in so doing I learned a whole lot more about my instrument. I found I had to play pentatatonic scales through all the keys and after a while I found that I could jumble all these notes up and get a beautiful stream of harmonic color. At the same time I could play any changes.”
(Shaw, Woody Shaw the Intimidator 1976)

Woody Shaw was one of the first musicians to find a balance between the avant garde music of the 60’s and the hard bop tradition. Shaw’s approach to improvisation includes all the standard bop warhorses such as substitution, enclosure, and angular phrases. The difference between Shaw and one of his hard bop counterpart is that not only does he utilize these elements differently from any one else, creating a unique chromatic approach to harmony and melody, but he also gravitates toward lines that are not idiomatic to the trumpet and in that way he charts new territory on the instrument.

Works Cited

Muse. Setting Standards. Comp. Woody Shaw. MR 5318. 1983. Compact Disc.
Shaw, Woody, interview by Billy Taylor. Jazz Alive Jazz Alive, (September 1979).
Shaw, Woody, interview by Linda Reitman. Linked to a Legacy Downbeat, (1983).
Shaw, Woody, interview by Downbeat. Master of the Art (1982).
Shaw, Woody, interview by Chuck Berg. Trumpet In Bloom New York, NY: Downbeat Magazine, (1978).
Shaw, Woody, interview by Steve Lake. Woody Shaw the Intimidator New York, NY: Melody Maker Magazine, (1976).

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