The late martial arts legend, Bruce Lee, once said that knowledge in his sport meant self-knowledge. "A martial artist has to take responsibility for himself and accept the consequences of his own doing." For saxophonist Virgina Mayhew, she's learned that lesson very well.
A native of San Francisco, Mayhew, who has been a part of the New York jazz scene since moving there two decades ago, has made a name for herself playing alongside legends such as Cab Calloway, Joe Williams and James Brown. At the same time, she has also been practicing karate and after 18 years, acheived the sandan level, meaning she is now a third-degree black belt.
It may be unusual to bring martial arts into a music review, but when an artist like Mayhew adapts karate as a metaphor for her growth as a musician, it can make for some interesting results. Sandan Shuffle, her fourth recording as a leader, continues a journey that has lasted more than 20 years. Her backup band serves as a strong supporting unit that's very evident on this recording. Mayhew, of course, stands out on both tenor and soprano while continuing to expand her talents as a composer and arranger.
The ten tracks featured serves Mayhew in a free post-bop style. The title track, commemorating her reaching the sandan level, is a shuffle blues tune that kicks into high gear with her sly, clear playing and commends loudly along with drummer Victor Harvey's crawling beats. Bouncy tunes such as "Spring Is Not Here" and "I Thought You Loved Me" highlight Mayhew's strength as a composer and how a diverse group of musicians really enjoy playing together. "Now I Know" complements her on this sweet ballad written by Harvie S. The entire band blends rhythmically on "Jazz-Like," an upbeat ballad in a slow 3/4 time. Jones changes the tempo at various times while guitarist, Kenny Wessel, delivers a moody solo reminiscent of Walter Becker's Djangosque style of playing.
Mayhew, however, gets mixed results when it comes to standards. Her playing on "Let's Fall In Love" starts off track just before she catches up. "Tenderly," the weakest track, slows down the pace. But on Hoagy Carmichael's "I Get Along Without You Very Well," Mayhew's solo soars clean as she and her band come close to matching the poignancy of a song that was to be one of Billie Holliday's last recordings.
Yet, it was unusual that the last track on the CD was "Monterey Blues," a self-written ode to her native city, that was already featured on her previous release, Phantoms. This version is more upbeat and features Wessel's hard-edged contribution on guitar.
With this latest release, Virginia Mayhew's journey of self-knowledge through jazz and karate, thankfully, is far from over. As long as she gains more black belts with her hobby, Mayhew has proven that like Wayne Shorter and Branford Marsalis, she's on her way to earning a different kind of black belt as a top-notch saxophonist.