Jaleel Shaw - finding his own voice on the page


Jaleel Shaw may have thought he was getting away from classrooms when he left Manhattan School of Music. But in the four years since he graduated he’s realised that the bandstand is really just a different place of learning.


The alto saxophonist, who last appeared in Scotland with the Mingus Big Band in 2002 and returns this weekend to play at Islay Jazz Festival, has recently joined drummer Roy Haynes’ group. Haynes, still full of energy at eighty, has a resume that includes spells with such jazz masters as Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Stan Getz, and for Shaw, every minute spent in Haynes’ company is part of an ongoing musical history lesson.


"It doesn’t matter what we talk about," says Shaw. "We might just be discussing what food to eat after the gig and Roy will come out with a story about Lester Young or Charlie Parker or Sarah Vaughan that probably nobody else has heard before. He’s an amazing guy and a real inspiration to play with. Without even talking about it, he’ll show me something about my playing or suggest a different approach, just through something he’ll do on the drums behind me."


The twenty-eight year old Shaw was destined to play music, if not necessarily jazz or the alto, from infancy. There’s a sweet picture of him blowing a toy saxophone as a tot on his website and his mother had musical ambitions for him before he went to elementary school. He began playing violin at four and then tried piano and – with less parental enthusiasm – drums before the school band presented him with the opportunity to play alto at the age of nine.


Three years later he joined the same youth jazz programme in Philadelphia that produced the now well-known bassist Christian McBride and organist Joe DeFrancesco and he continued with this throughout his high school years.


"There was only one place I was going to go after that and that was Berklee School of Music in Boston," he says. "I remember when I was about thirteen, going through an interview at school where they asked what I was going to do and I told them: Berklee. The funny thing was, I didn’t know all that much about Berklee, I just knew it was a music school and that a lot of great musicians had gone there. I did say that Manhattan would be okay too – and I ended up going to both – but I wanted to go to Berklee so badly that it was the only school I applied to."


Fortunately, Berklee was just as keen to take him and armed with a scholarship, he entered into an "amazing" experience.


"I’m convinced that my life would be different if I’d gone to any other school," he says. "There was a great atmosphere there, the teachers were great, everyone was working so hard at their music and I think more so than any other school in America, people from all over the world go there. Everywhere I go now, whatever country I play in, I meet someone from Berklee."


From Berklee he moved on to Manhattan to take his masters degree and it was at this point that he stumbled into the Mingus Big Band. By this time he was living out in New Jersey, where rents are cheaper than New York. He was also car-less. A drummer friend from the same apartment block who often gave him a lift home happened to be playing with the Mingus Big Band. So Shaw would listen to the band’s regular Thursday sessions while waiting for his lift.


"I was actually in the back room having a nap when they shouted for me to sit in," he says. "But that was a real case of being in the right place at the right time because that’s been another fantastic experience. I’d played some Mingus music at Berklee, although I wouldn’t claim any expert knowledge, but it didn’t matter. Susan Mingus is really keen to let you be yourself in the band, which I guess is the way Mingus himself was because he had a lot of strong individuals in his band."


The Mingus Big Band continues to be a learning process, too. Shaw is continually enthused by Mingus’ ability to take ideas from different styles of music and fashion them into his own style.


"It’s like organised confusion but somehow it all makes sense and it’s real celebration music, real good time music," he says. "I’ve learned so much about composition from playing in the band and even after four years I’m still getting into the music because there’s so much of it and the band plays quite a lot of pieces that have rarely been heard before."


For Islay Jazz Festival, where he’s looking forward to working with fellow saxophonist Julian Arguelles, pianist David Berkman and drummer Tom Bancroft’s Mingus influenced Six-Pack, he’ll be bringing some of his own music. He’s due to go into the studio with his own band in November and has been working on new ideas between playing with Haynes and the Mingus Big Band and various teaching assignments.


"I want to have my own voice as a composer and as a musician," he says. "The alto has a lot of history; every instrument in jazz has, I know. With the alto, though, I think it’s especially hard to develop your own sound. But when I listen to myself now, it’s like recognising myself speaking. So I think I’m getting there."


From The Herald, September 2006


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