The music was played live so you can expect longer-than-usual soli and sonic explorations chorus after chorus. Being the excellent recordings that they are, you and I seem closer to the music as if we were in the same room where the instruments were being played. This enhanced the unique pleasurable experience. The music was so appealing and varied in mood that it was impossible to resist its intimate magic. Lee Shaw’s exciting take on the waltz form and her startling re-imaginations of the standard, Body and Soul, on the German record, were breathtakingly captivating and so also were her lullabies and ballads and whimsical portraits such as the group improvisation, Lizards, on the New York record featuring John Medeski. It is no wonder that her music was the toast of the time when she was alive and I would be hard-pressed to forget them now that she is gone. The performers approach – especially that of Jeff Siegel and Rich Syracuse – these gems as if they adore every note. The bassist wraps his voluptuous sound around Ms Shaw’s melodies and tosses off the occasional acrobatic feat with panache. The drummer is also a terrific partner who really takes off when he packs nuanced and crisply artistic drum figures into the piano spaces. Ms Shaw’s guests John Medeski and the European saxophonists Johannes Enders and Michael Lutzeier expanded the palette of music in copious directions, often using their instruments to achieve what most mortals cannot. There were times when I felt that their hyperinstrumentations were hyperorchestras, which promoted sonic variety and boosted virtuosity.
Rather than gimmicks, these quirky-sounding advances had crucial and winning impacts on the expressive possibilities in Lee Shaw’s music, as can be heard on these absorbing discs. Unless you’d heard Lee Shaw’s music before, you’d never experienced anything like the pieces on these records. You could almost see the recordings’ titles emblazoned with …but not simpler… a quote by Albert Einstein that a performer once adopted for a string quartet he wrote in 2005. The musical scores minus any effects were a cavalcade of contrasting ideas in which each player played almost independent material that somewhere and somehow connected the imaginary dots of the music. Lovely themes seemed to emerge from seeming disorder and the narratives were tantalising blends of tranquility and turmoil. Much of the hyperscore, if you like, seemed to be devised in the spur of the moment even though you could be sure that so much thought had gone into its makings. The ensemble passages were framed by soli which combined tidbits of the composer’s music played with each musician’s sonic musings. Both discs begin and end with blockbusters needed into each record in a spectrum of colours and explosive sonorities, wild and disarming tributes to great musicians, like Debussy, gone by with solo parts played beyond the realm of mortal possibility. It all seemed to be something that approached the composer’s dream come true, time after time.
And such primal energy. Who would have suspected that this music was being led by a musician in her 80’s? But this is Lee Shaw. All of the music – her music, I found out later – is similarly tuneful and energetic. On these two records it said a lot that the technically immaculate and musically mindful interpretations of Ms Shaw’s work held its own at the hands of such fine musicians. But really, it was Lee Shaw’s own prowess as a composer that revealed itself in her stronger melody/accompaniment textural differentiations in certain variations. Her arrangements of the music stood out with march0like swagger punctuated by unfettered swing. She and her trio as well as the guests managed to take full advantage of their instruments’ resources without compromising the original formal design and cumulative sweep. One can only say that about Lee Shaw’s group’s interpretations of her music, which is characterised by tightly knit tempo relationships and intelligently scaled dynamics. This was despite the intensely personal nature of the music itself. But then, I suppose, when you are playing the music led by the one musician who composed it all you can be commanded – in the nicest way possible – to go wherever the music needs to go. Indeed, Lee Shaw’s music – not only on these two records I have – I suspect is entirely noble, and there are no harmonic doubts… all that might have been are washed away by the sheer beauty of the instrumental writing. Oh, how I will miss this sort of music to make the cold days of impending Canadian winters go by. Still, I should be grateful that I have these two last discs that Lee Shaw ever recorded.