I will forever rue the fact that Lee Shaw will never make music again. Her music ranks among the most viscerally exciting that I have ever heard. It comes from a place of stunning, spectral space of shimmering soundscapes and has a very special way of entering mind and body. Its melody first surrounds you like a diaphanous cloak, the beautiful harmonies it engenders then caresses the skin making ready for the rhythm – the varying tempos at which it is played – to beat the body into submission, than raise it up with a second wind of energy that makes you want to dance almost ceaselessly. And then there is the cerebral manner in which it affects the inner machinations of the mind. That might not be the same for everyone. For me, however, my head turns into an animated, cavernous concert hall with a dreamlike soundscape that weaves together a fluttering of voices, music and sounds as if beaming from a myriad of speakers on stands, chairs and walls throughout this imaginary hall. The notes rain down on me from the inside turning the day’s fatigue into liberating energy and elemental sorrow into unfettered joy. It’s all in the unconventional, personal and percussive manner in which she plays the piano.
I had not heard Ms Shaw until some years ago, when Ann Braithwaite sent me not one, but two, recordings made around the same time. The first was The Lee Shaw Trio Live at Art Gallery Reutlingen (ARC, 2009) and the other was Together Again Live at the Egg (ARC, 2009/2010). The former recording was made at an intimate venue in Germany and featured two outstanding saxophonists the tenor-man, Johannes Enders and the baritone saxophonist Michael Lutzeier. This was, of course, in addition to Ms Shaw’s long time band mates – bassist Rich Syracuse and drummer and producer Jeff ‘Siege’ Siegel. The latter recording was made at the fabled Egg in Albany, New York. It brought Ms Shaw together again with her former protégé, the prodigiously talented John Medeski, who plays piano, Hammond B3 organ and melodica on the album. Nothing can prepare you for both these deeply collaborative projects. I was led into their world with the mantra ‘less is more’. This is not something that you would expect from a pianist so brimful of energy as Lee Shaw. I had not known at that time what to expect and had, foolishly expected a traditional but stately performance from an octogenarian. I was wrong.
Hail, I said silently to myself as I made as if to clap my hands excitedly, to ARC Records for the gumption to include these two recordings in their repertoire. The releases, I soon began to realise, explored the work of a composer and musician who must have made a significant contribution to the art well before the time of many a talented young musician. I realised fully well that I was in the thrill of infatuation as I often am when being surprised by something completely delectable. My pulse was set racing by vaunted arpeggios and dazzling runs, surprising twists and turns in melodic invention and in the monumental disdain for stilted convention and musical stasis. It made me think that Lee Shaw was a brilliant virtuoso pianist before she was a composer and vice versa. So it was not surprising that she wrote so idiomatically for the instrument, nor was it unexpected that she played it with such unbridled mastery as if it were a proverbial extension of her very body. Nor, I might add, was it unexpected that all of these pieces – whether for piano or saxophones or bass and drums – were so rich in grace, poetry and whimsy, as well as harmonic imagination.