"...his playing is simply wonderful."
This is the second volume in the so-called 'Last Recordings' sessions made by Shaw in 1954. The first volume can be found on NI 2709-10, another double album that shows how the clarinettist accommodated Bop into his musical lexicon whilst still remaining true to the fecundity of his swing-based improvisations.
Indeed we start with the National Anthem of Bebop, How high the moon, and this chamber sound into which the MJQ has infused itself via the vibes of Joe Roland, sets up entertaining tensions that are explored, though not entirely resolved, throughout. Another thing that immediately establishes itself is the nature of the arrangements - they are fluid and flexible, accommodate tempo variations and in this case a quasi-cadenza of stunning versatility by the leader. These virtues are extended in Stop and go mambo where the timbral variety espoused by Shaw proves exceptional; so too however does the amount of waggish quotation in which he indulges. This, in Jazz, has always been cross-referential, lazy or simply puerile, according to taste, but Shaw engages in so much of it in these sets that one wonders what point he was making. To me its fluency and persistence have an air of 'end of the line' to them. His endless quotes on Scuttlebutt and Grabtown Grapple are almost fetishistic. Where can you go when you've explored these tunes to their root and then have to start endlessly introducing quotes? Retirement, perhaps.
Never mind, though, as I'd probably rather listen to Shaw c.1954 - quotes and all - than to his coeval Benny Goodman from the same period. The latter had the harmonically complex Mel Powell to coax and goad him at the piano. Shaw has the more mellifluous and richly voiced Hank Jones, whose occasionally Shearing-derived playing illuminates I've got a crush on you and who comps solidly on The Chaser where inventive fours are traded between Shaw and Roland and drummer Irv Kluger. Tal Farlow is on hand, literally, with a superb solo on Stardust in which Shaw's soloing is beyond magnificent. Perhaps this could all be best summed up by the approach to another big hit for him, Summit Ridge Drive. Never a laurel-rester Shaw re-cooks this number and sails forth armed with blues agendas, tempo doubling, quotation spattering, inventive backing harmonies and all manner of break up devices to ward off routine. Frenesi is a fine example of things working well - Milt Jackson-like vibes, more locked hands Shearing from Jones, and above all Shaw's allusive, fluent clarinet.
Overall these are very worthwhile tracks, ones that sealed Shaw's jazz career with bop tinged lyricism, a swinging band and inventive new arrangements. I admired Shaw's virtuosity, ideas and soloing but was sometimes worn down by the air of occasional obsessive jokiness; if this can be assimilated much of his playing is simply wonderful.
Jonathan Woolf, Musicweb-international