In 1976 Dexter Gordon decided to move back to US after few years in Scandinavia; he got already a contract from CBS records. Gordon started jamming at the Vanguard along with the Louis Hayes/Woody Shaw Quintet and after these live recordings was produced the beautiful double album Homecoming. Michael Cuscuna – the executive producer from Columbia – noticed already Woody's talent and genius on trumpet since the mid 70's: Cuscuna produced for Muse Records all Woody's albums starting from the beautiful The Moontrane in 1974.
In 1977 CBS hired eventually Shaw who could finally produce material for a major label. Until 1981 Shaw released five albums for Columbia: the rewarded Rosewood in 1977; Stepping Stones Live at the Village Vanguard in 1978; Woody III in 1979; For Sure! in 1980 and United in 1981. The Columbia period was the most brilliant in Shaw's career not only for the Down Beat reward in 1978 for the album Rosewood, but also for the level achieved in compositions, arrangements and also improvisations.
In 2011 for Mosaic Records Cuscuna and Woody's son raised Woody Shaw's legacy by gathering the Columbia five albums into one box, including one bonus disc of some unreleased music from the live sessions at the Village Vanguard in 1978. The cover was specifically designed to flag Woody Shaw's philosophy of life and vision of music: integrity, sincerity, heart and constant research of harmony. Both the Chinese characters and the Thai Chi's in the center of the cover symbolize all this fundamental principles to wholly understand the figure of Woody Shaw.
After spending the first part of the 70's in San Francisco, Shaw went back to New York. The West Coast disappointed Shaw artistically even if during the live sessions with Art Blakey at the Keystone Corner in San Francisco, he got the chance to play with the trombonist Steve Turre and saxophonist Carter Jefferson: they will both be playing in Shaw's CBS recordings in the next decade.
Woody Shaw had a very recognizable and unique style on trumpet: a real voice!
Despite the physical and mechanical limitations of the instrument, Shaw could play wider and unusual intervals than anybody did: often fourths and fifths. Trumpet players usually performed shorter intervals - Booker Little in the late 50's introduced this extremely difficult technique on. Shaw's lips flexibility and embouchure were literally outstanding: the three trumpet valves wouldn't allow the same fluency as on the saxophone in order to play in such a difficult way, but Shaw was so skillful that even Miles Davis – a notorious critic of fellow musicians – once said: "Now there's a great trumpet player. He can play different from all of them".
The album Rosewood – dedicated to the Shaw's parents - was a real masterpiece even considering the 14-elements orchestra that Shaw afforded leveraging the budget that Cuscuna allocated to support this project. The brass and woodwind sections played arrangements written by the same Shaw that gained after this recording a great reputation as a composer-arranger and bandleader. The whole recording is a unique and extraordinary example of perfect blend between modal music, soul, straight-ahead jazz and even rock elements. The compositions are beautiful and extremely well interpreted by very inspired improvisers: Joe Henderson - backing again Shaw to retrieve the stellar line-up performing throughout most of the 60's and 70's – is just devastating on the opening Latin-jazz tune Rosewood followed by a spectacular Shaw's solo on trumpet. The beat on Rosewood is very fast, and Woody's articulation and speed of fingers is astounding, particularly on the semiquaver passages. A fast tongue is essential to playing the wider intervallic leaps employed by Woody, and Woody has developed his tonguing ability to outstanding levels. Soul music influenced Shaw as well as many other jazz musicians, making the sound of the band more appealing for a non-jazz audience too. The orchestra led by the woodwind section introduces the soulful theme Every Time I See You coloured by the sweet chords of the Fender Rhodes Piano by Onaje Allan Gumbs.The Legend of the Cheops by drummer Victor Lewis is in a B major. Woody' solo is again very fluent and expressive. Saxophonist Rahsaan Roland Kirk was tributed by the beautiful blues Rahsaan's Run - Shaw suffered from retinitis pigmentosa and Kirk used to grasp Woody's arm and walk around downtown San Francisco despite his complete blindness. This is the most straight-ahead number on the album, an extremely fast blues based on suspended chords in the manner of Miles Davis's Eighty One.
At the Village Vanguard in 1978 Columbia's engineers recorded live the fabulous album Stepping Stones: a post-bop modal acoustic set in two stint nights at Vanguard. The Quintet led by Shaw sounds extremely passionate, straight and deeply soulful. The leader is slashing, cracking and soaring. Yet Shaw is also capable, as on In a Capricornian Way – a slow waltz live version - of a very ferocious cornet solo. On Escape Velocity, he follows the abrasive Jefferson's phrasing with a more elegant catharsis of his own. All Things Being Equal Are Not is ballad from pianist Onaje Allan Gumbs features a very introspective solo by Shaw. The box also features bonus tracks from the same concert and never released before. Joining Shaw is his regular group period, including tenor saxophonist Carter Jefferson, pianist Onaje Allan Gumbs, bassist Clint Houston, and drummer Victor Lewis. One would be hard-pressed to find a better hardcore, post-jazz ensemble in the late '70s. To that end, the music here is soulful, cerebral, harmonically complex jazz that is the epitome of post-bop.
The beautiful album Woody III – dedicated to three Woody's generations – is articulated on the gorgeous three movement piece: Woody I: On The Newark, Woody II: Other Paths, Woody III: New Offering. A12-piece orchestra plays along with the Shaw's classic period Quintet. Woody III represents the most mature recording in terms of compositions and arrangements. Onaje Allan Gumbs on piano plays the chords of Woody I backed by the percussion section to introduce the Latin melody of the first part of the suite and followed by the quite angular improvisation of Shaw's cornet. The next Woody II features a basso solo intro and a typical Woody's dissonant theme coloured by the low brass orchestra section; Woody's solo is just astounding and very aggressive. New Offering – Woody III – written for Shaw's son recalls Eric Satie's compositions: the sound being very introspective and deep. A real testament of Shaw's ability to move from hard dissonant sounds to sweet and innocent melodies performed on the flugelhorn solo. The last two tracks – To Kill a Brick and Organ Grinder - of the recording are dedicated to two great Shaw's mentors and friends: Art Blakey and Larry Young.
In 1980 Columbia produced another studio album reissued on CD as part of Mosaic's limited-edition box. The record is entitled For Sure!
This fine set finds the trumpeter's regular quartet (with pianist Larry Willis, bassist Stafford James and drummer Victor Lewis) backed by Carter Jefferson on tenor and soprano saxophones, trombonists Curtis Fuller and Steve Turre, altoist Gary Bartz and flutist James Spaulding, the percussion of Nana Vasconcelos and, on two tracks, up to six strings. For Sure! involves more conventional post hard-bop material: the tunes Opec and Ginseng People feature awesome solos by Shaw. Singer and vocalist from Edmoton Judi Singh adds vocals to Time Is Right and Why not probably reaching the same intensity as some Flora Plurim's recording along with the band Return to Forever in the mid 70's. The ballad We'll Be Together Again – the opening track of the album – was recorded with a string section and played on trumpet by Shaw.
Columbia affiliation ended with the record United issued in 1981. Mulgrew Miller on piano and Tony Reedus on drums debut in Shaw's band during the recording of this album. Even more than the last For Sure! the tracks in United reviewed some Shaw's originals like Katrina Ballerina and jazz standards like What is This Thing Called Love. Compared to other Shaw's work, this is the most straight-ahead jazz one. Both the compositions and improvisations are quite conventional as well as the instruments involved into the project.
The Complete Columbia Album Collection stands for a real piece of jazz history and represents at best a giant of music: Mr Woody Shaw.