Howard Leshaw's Essential "Rebirth" of the Cool
Shadow Song contains inspired jazz, through and through. Each crack composition is an integral part of the bewitching whole. The effect is enhanced by beautiful photographs of Greenwich Village's Washington Square Park under heavy snowfall. Bundle up, and walk briskly through the triumphal stone arch. You've just entered the New York City jazz scene of fifty years ago. These songs are Howard Leshaw originals, but expect echoes of Gil Evans, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Gerry Mulligan, and gang. Ever since bebop birthed cool, this sub-genre has demanded respect through skilled arrangements, subtle swing, gorgeous harmonies, and deceptive underlying heat. Generally characterized by larger ensembles, and largely relocated to the West Coast, Howard Leshaw proves cool jazz can still be done by just four guys back East. This highly creative music is hard on the musicians but easy on the listener.
Shadow Song's ballads are especially reminiscent of Coltrane, though a little less austere, a little more concise, and a little more vibrato. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Leshaw's stature as a world-renowned klezmer clarinetist is ever-so-slightly revealed in spots. By stark contrast, Shadow Song is a mostly mellow affair, the success of which further demonstrates Leshaw’s deep musicianship. He is a rare musician, fully at home in polar opposite conceptions.
Pianist Jon Davis (Stan Getz, Joe Henderson, Milt Jackson, Jaco Pastorius, Brian Melvin, Bobby Shew) is an excellent mood-setter. Davis' improvisations are brilliant, brooding, but occasionally repetitive. Thankfully, he proves his worth in quality, rather than quantity of original ideas. His overall effect is steeped in jazz melancholy. Paul Gabrielson (The Kingston Trio, Mike Strickland, Jay Thomas, Steve Korn) is a muscular bassist with a big, buzzy sound. His solo on "Flower" maintains a macho distance from the melody, slyly hinting at it before suggesting his own. Gabrielson is a name you'll start seeking out. Set against the otherwise historical feel, Dean Rickard is a highly evolved drummer, supplementing an already full-sounding drum set with diverse world percussion. His deft and discerning touches reinforce the mysterious qualities of Leshaw’s compositions.
"Sayief" opens like the ultimate jazz-spirituality document, A Love Supreme. Percussion signals a call to worship, and the others instruments file in respectfully. "Sirirat" is a sexy bossa nova, as compelling as a Getz/Gilberto number but without all the hype. With accentuated cymbals and staccato piano chords, "Jade" really swings. By the time all four musicians are up to speed, it sounds so much like Guaraldi you’ll imagine Snoopy dancing on poor Schroeder's piano lid. "Flower" and "Siempre Lulu" are perhaps the most modern sounding, making excellent use of space and stillness like a good Ahmad Jamal structure. Speaking of melody, "Buckle’s Waltz" is an instant classic. By the end of this tune, you’ll be humming one of several harmonic variations. If you’re a real musician, you’ll be transcribing it for next weekend’s gig, and that’s no lie. The title track "Shadow Song" brings it all back around with another ethereal introduction. The effect is lulling; but as the curtain is torn, a narrow shaft of light builds to a blinding finish.
Leshaw fans say his music sticks in their heads all day long. It’s easy to see why, and no one's complaining. With Shadow Song as the soundtrack, your life just got a lot cooler. Most highly recommended to all jazz fans.
-David Seymour is a freelance jazz journalist in Saint Louis, Missouri, USA.