“Amy Biancolli: Musical homage to Albany’s jazz lady”
Date published: 01/19/2017
Publication: Times Union
AMY BIANCOLLI Published 4:45 pm, Thursday, January 19, 2017
I did not know Lee Shaw personally. It grieves me to say this, but I never met her. Never became a regular at her gigs, though I do recall her at the piano in Justin’s. Never knew her as anything but the much-loved, much-talked-about éminence grise of the Capital Region jazz scene, a tiny woman with a giant presence whose influence spanned decades.
But after listening to “Suite Lee,” Joe Barna’s musical tribute to his late friend and mentor, I feel I know her. The Lee Shaw embodied in these six jazz tracks is full of life. She’s quick on her feet, nimble and inventive. Adept at sudden shifts in mood. Emotional but not morose, romantic but not sentimental, smart but not cold, disciplined but ever-playful. She has a reverence for tradition and a knack for experimenting. There’s a wit to her. A spark to her. A warmth. And she moves At 72 minutes plus change, “Suite Lee” isn’t a short work. But it isn’t slow, either. Even in its slower and more hushed segments, there’s a swiftness to it, an urgency, that holds the attention and barrels forward. Barna and his Sketches of Influence aren’t messing around here; they’re making music as though one life in particular depends upon it. “So it would seem much more than music’s being made,” intones Tony Avocato’s dedication poem in the liner notes. “Instead a wealth of memories being played.”
Barna, a drummer, first met Shaw in 1998 as a student at Schenectady County Community College. She was already a legend in local music circles, a transplant from Oklahoma who’d studied with Oscar Peterson. Soon enough, they found a musical kinship, a shared, insistent swing that crossed subgenres of jazz, and Lee became colleague, guru and fan.
When she died in October 2015, Barna was stricken with grief. He plunged into a nine-day composing binge at the piano — sleeping about an hour a night, subsisting on ramen noodles and musically channeling his departed friend in what he later called “this crazy, spiritual kind of manic episode.” The result was “Suite Lee,” which he and his Sketches recorded live at the Sanctuary for Independent Media last January, with Barna on drums, Adam Siegel on alto sax, John Menegon on bass and Nick Hetko at the piano.
The whole thing zings with immediacy: in the opening “Thelonious Lee,” Monkish, midtempo and spry; in the slow and lush “Because of You”; in the fitful and chromatic “Three for Lee”; in “Harmonious Lee,” a zippety and infectious swing tune; in the slow brood of “Ivory Romance”; and in the closer, “Swift Lee,” an arresting mix of catchy piano riffs and wailing, wandering, boundary-pushing sax.
“Suite Lee” isn’t available online anywhere. You can’t just waggle your thumbs and download it from CD Baby or Bandcamp. To purchase a copy, you have to contact Barna directly (see info box), and he’ll either pop one into the mail or drive to a mutually agreed-upon spot for a drop-off.
As he explained it to me, he didn’t publish a big run of copies. Only around 500. And he doesn’t expect to find international fame with the CD, which doesn’t mean he doesn’t want people to hear it. He does. But Barna is as intense and distinct a personality as anyone who makes art out of air molecules for a living, and he’s determined to promote and sell this his way. If, someday, some young protégé writes and records a “Suite Joe,” it’ll be a singular and energetic piece of work, and maybe a little bit out there.
As well it should be. Jazz is a strange thing. Those who love it love it for reasons they can’t always articulate. Those who don’t love it often hate it, or adamantly claim to. But in between the loving and the hating are people in between, a large pocket of listeners who might like a few performers — or groove to certain songs — but hesitate to state a fondness for the genre. With its emphasis on technique and experimentation, especially in the outer reaches of free jazz, it can seem chilly and detached.
But there’s nothing chilly or detached about the music of “Suite Lee.” Even at its edgiest, when Siegel’s solos turn thorny and avant-garde, the music is personal, impassioned and rooted in a bebop foundation of bright melodies and sturdy chordal underpinnings. It never flies too far afield, grounded in the enduring musical presence of the first lady of jazz.
Burlington has a sculpture honoring Big Joe Burrell, the saxophonist who started out with Count Basie and B.B. King. So far, no one in Albany has erected a statue to Shaw. But with this bristling, bustling work, Barna has created his own vivid memorial, an homage and act of friendship that’s forged in love and music. It’s a monument that can stand with any hunk of granite.
[email protected] • 518-454-5439 • @AmyBiancolli