The connection between the heralded trumpeter, Woody Shaw, and tenor sax baron, Joe Henderson, could be said to be divine, providence, maybe even destiny.  The music they composed together as the front line for pianist, Horace Silver, and organist, Larry Young, along with their collaborations and Shaw’s electrifying career may arguably be the manifested reality of Henderson’s prophetic words spoken upon first hearing Shaw play as a teenager in the early 1960’s. “He shocked me then.  He’s got all the basics down, he’s developed his own style, and his future is without limits,” Henderson foretold.

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With his trademark beard and glasses, prolific recording career spanning 15 solo albums, 30 plus features as a sideman, and nearly 40 years of service to jazz, Henderson’s words are authoritative as he fits the part of the wise old sage, a sort of Obi Wan Kenobi to Shaw as Luke Skywalker. Shaw, the near self-taught phenomenon, who was born in the same North Carolina soil that educated Dizzy Gillespie was blessed with photographic memory and anointed with perfect pitch.  These “superpowers” bestowed upon the “promised one,” the last of a dying breed of trumpet stylists’ to carry on the tradition of Dizzy, Clifford Brown, Lee Morgan, and Miles Davis, makes the lore of the Shaw/Henderson relationship that more intriguing. So, like the sage and the superhero, the prophet and the promised one, the stage is set for a unified gift of sound embarked upon in the fall of 1965.

The Van Gelder Studios in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey provided the sonic backdrop for Woody and Joe to commence their inaugural fusion of sounds as they provided the soothing yet searing front line to Horace Silver’s 1965 Blue Note recording, The Cape Verdean Blues.  The bluesy “African Queen” and the beautifully composed, mid tempo tune, “Pretty Eyes” follow a similar pattern of royal harmonic lines, followed by dynamic solos often with Henderson leading the charge.  Shaw follows suit with his clean, precise attack to the song demonstrating his rapid fire, polyrhythmic explosion of sound.  Horace Silver described Shaw’s inventiveness by saying that Shaw “is full of beautiful fire, drive, imagination, and harmonic knowledge.  I like him better than any other young trumpeter.”  “Mo’ Joe,” the last tune to round out The Cape Verdean Blues was composed by Henderson seemingly in a gesture to foreshadow what was to come in their next collaborative adventure.

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As if Rudy Van Gelder transformed his studio into a home away from home where Henderson and Shaw only slept and prepared for the next record to bless with their melodic musings, the very next month in November of 1965, Shaw and Henderson provided the brass to power Larry Young’s seminal recording, Unity. The recording, a landmark album, dubbed an exploration in innovative experimentation was edgy due to not only their melodic meshing of sounds, but four out of the six compositions were written by either Shaw or Henderson. Their stamp, along with Young’s Hammond B-3 play, elevated Unity enough for Billboard magazine to call it a “sureshot for jazz fans.”  Unity gave the then 21 year Shaw one his earliest platforms to showcase his compositional genius that developed in his teens. Three of his songs, “Moontrane” his popular tribute to John Coltrane, “Zoltan,” and “Beyond All Limits,” now certified standards, hint at early signs of Shaw’s quest to revolutionize the “harmonic vocabulary” of the trumpet. By this time, the young star was ready to embark on his musical journey and he recruited Henderson to join him.

Shaw’s first recording as a leader, In the Beginning, the hard to find demo release on the Muse Records imprint rounded out a prolific 1965 for both Henderson and Shaw. The recording session which would later be released nearly 20 years later in 1983 as the LP, Cassandrite, featured an impressive league of extraordinary gentleman that would meet the demand for Shaw’s “before his time” inventive approach. Along with Henderson, Herbie Hancock, Joe Chambers, Paul Chambers, Ron Carter, and Larry Young, the recording comes alive on the Henderson penned tune, “Tetragon.” Shaw is remarkable. In what seems to be a gesture of respect from veteran to rising star, in 1968 Henderson recorded his Tetragon album and title song without the use of a trumpet on any track as to not tarnish the imprint left on the original recording of the song.

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Continuing their foray in collaborative sounds in the 70’s, Joe and Woody teamed up to release “Jazz Patterns” in 1970 and Henderson’s, “In Pursuit of Blackness” in 1971. It wouldn’t be until Shaw’s soulful release, Rosewood, six years later where Shaw and Henderson join forces again. On, the lovely groove, “Everytime I See You,” it is apparent that they don’t miss a beat and their relationship of sound is squarely intact, potent, and a declarative statement of their musical union. Along with similar style, Woody and Joe shared a kindred spirit that led them to explore and discover together and take on similar challenges like performing with trumpet ace, Freddie Hubbard, and teaching.

When the consistent force of Joe Henderson meets the ever changing, innovative flair of Woody Shaw, I am reminded of Henderson’s prophetic words that shaped their sound and sealed their collaborative destiny as one of the most inventive duos’s to collaborate.

Words by Johnathan Eaglin


2 Replies to "Woody Shaw and Joe Henderson: The Sage and the Superhero"
Rick Koler says:
June 2, 2012 at 12:55 am

Henderson and Shaw made it happen.

April 30, 2013 at 12:47 pm

Their music has left an indelible impression. I’ve just rediscovered the recording ‘Three Muses’, which epitomizes this classic front line.

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