Doing His Thing: Woody Shaw - "United"

Woody Shaw • United • 1981 • Columbia Records
Recorded March 1981 at Right Track Studios, NYC

The Tracks:

A1. United
A2. The Greene Street Caper
A3. What Is This Thing Called Love?
B1. Pressing The Issue
B2. Katrina Ballerina
B3. Blues For Wood

The Players:

Woody Shaw - Trumpet, Flugelhorn
Gary Bartz - Alto Sax (A3 & B3)
Steve Turre - Trombone
Mulgrew Miller - Piano
Stafford James - Bass
Tony Reedus - Drums

The Vinyl:

Nothing particularly collectible about this piece of wax other than that for many years it was the only way to hear United on it's own in any format. Amazingly it wasn't until Wounded Bird released it on CD in 2011 that it was available as a stand-alone album on CD (it is part of Sony's The Complete Columbia Albums Collection and was available in Mosaic Records' 1992 box set The Complete CBS Recordings of Woody Shaw, which was also released in a 4-LP vinyl version as well).  We are looking at standard issue early-1980s Columbia vinyl here, with the ubiquitous orange and yellow label that was used for what seems like forever.

Anyone familiar with this era of Columbia releases - and anyone who collects any sort of vinyl has to have at least one title in their collection - knows they are lightweight pressings whose sound quality is enjoyable even if it's not up to vintage jazz vinyl standards from the 1950s and 1960s. I picked this up over a decade ago for a mere $3, when I was on a quest to own all of Shaw's Columbia output on vinyl. That was well before the renewed interest in his work that we are beginning to see today (although I think he still remains criminally underrated), yet even now his Columbia LPs can usually be had for under $10 even in NM condition. You'll pay a bit more for his 1970s work for Contemporary and Muse (they are harder to come by), but these Columbia sessions are a cheap and easy way to add some stellar Woody Shaw to your collection.

The Record:

United is the final album that Woody Shaw would record for Columbia during his three year stint with the label. For my money, it's the best of the four studio LPs he laid down for the label, with it's quintet/sextet setting keeping the whole session grounded in pure post bop explorations (this doesn't take anything away from his debut on the label, Rosewood, which is an amazing record and a true late-jazz classic). United serves to remind us just how small the commercial audience for straight-ahead jazz music was at the end of the 1970s and start of the 1980s, as Columbia not only dropped Shaw from the label after it was released, but they also let his entire catalog go out of print as well. If music this good couldn't attract a mainstream jazz audience, then it's hard to imagine what would.

Shaw recording the Rosewood album in NYC in 1978.

The album is reminiscent of some of the post bop releases on Blue Note during the second-half of the 1960s, with memorable melody lines overlaid by inventive solos from all involved. Shaw is in top form as usual, showing off his wide ranging musical ideas that seem to invoke every great trumpeter of the modern jazz age, from Dizzy Gillespie through to Freddie Hubbard. Yet, Shaw was no mere imitator, he was formulating new ideas at a time when many had moved to releasing records full of mediocrity to placate the music buying public. Shaw's work is so strong on United, that even when he pays tribute to the Miles Davis sound on "The Greene Street Caper" - a thinly disguised take on "On Green Dolphin Street" - he uniformly holds my interest, even though I generally only like my Miles-styles played by the man himself.

The lineup of musicians is stellar, with Gary Bartz sitting in on the alto sax on two tracks (one of which, "What Is This Thing Called Love" is the highlight of the album for me) and Steve Turre laying down some exciting solos on the trombone. United also features my favorite pianist from the second-generation of modern jazz musicians in Mulgrew Miller, whose recordings as both a leader and sideman throughout the 1980s into the early-2000s is highly recommended for those unfamiliar with his work. This version of the Woody Shaw Quintet would stay together and record quite a few more records together after he was dropped from Columbia, including two underrated gems for the Elektra/Musician label, Master Of The Art and Night Music, that added Bobby Hutcherson to the group. Don't pass on either of those if you come across them, but as far as I'm concerned, anything and everything Woody Shaw played on is worth adding to your collection, I think he's just that damn good.

The Selections:

The Videos:

First up is a true group of legends performing together in 1985: Jackie McLean (as), Woody Shaw, McCoy Tyner (p), Cecil McBee (b) and Jack DeJohnette (d) running through "Appointment In Ghana," which originally appeared on Mclean's 1961 Blue Note album Jackie's Bag

Next up is a real treat of a video from the 1986 Mt. Fuji Jazz Festival, with Woody Shaw and Herbie Hancock joining the Art Blakey Big Band in front of an adoring crowd for a killer rendition of the classic "A Night In Tunisia."