One of my former students asked me what made Woody Shaw so great. Here’s my answer to him.
Listen to Woody by beginning with the fundamentals. His sound was focused, warm, resonant, dark, wide, and deep. His articulations were clear and sensitively controlled. His intonation was great. His range from the bottom of the horn to the top was superb. His low register in particular was unusually deep and vibrant.
His vibrato was intimate – and variable depending on his expressive intentions of the moment. And he had an astounding technical facility. His fingering and note accuracies were unsurpassed.
And he used all of this in service of higher musical values. He knew music theory so thoroughly that he was able to create patterns of tension and release far beyond the conventional. He could easily manipulate chromatic resolutions across extended lines that evoked tonal implications along the way. In other words, he was able to evoke keys “all around” the key he was actually in when he improvised. And what made it all work was how he would ultimately resolve those tensions at melodic phrase points that clearly evoked the key he had been playing in all along (while swinging brilliantly throughout!).
In that way, Woody Shaw broadened the scope of tonality by blending tonal implications (frequently remote from the original key) into the fabric of any particular composition’s given tonality – and all of this without ever losing his tonal orientation at any moment during his solos.
Add to that, the elegance of the lines he improvised as distinct from the harmony. They were exquisite developmental narratives that told a meaningful story every time he played.
And I’m so thankful that I was able to hear him in live performance in 1979. To this day, it is still the best jazz trumpet performance I’ve ever heard in my sixty-one years in this life.
Dr. Paul Brewer,
Associate Professor and Director of Instrumental Music at Aquinas College holds a Doctorate of Musical Arts in Music Composition and Jazz Pedagogy from the University of Northern Colorado. Dr. Brewer also has a Bachelors and a Masters degree in Music Education from the University of Central Oklahoma.