There is a long-standing tradition in jazz of performing pop standards. Songwriters like Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and many others contributed to the fabric of American popular music, and those songs became kind of a lingua franca for jazz musicians.
Iowa City jazz bassist and vocalist Blake Shaw — whose latest album, it happened., is a collection of standards — explained the tradition in an email: “When we meet up with friends to converse, we usually have an idea of what we’re going to talk about. [Pop standards are] how having a conversation in jazz music goes. We know the basics of the tune, but we’re open to the possibilities of the conversation (chords, melody, etc.) going in a different direction than we may have … thought.”
To that end, it happened. is an interesting look at the conversation starters Shaw has in his back pocket. It’s a nice selection of popular songs as well as some deeper tracks. Obvious standouts are Porter’s “Love For Sale” and the Ray Charles song “Hallelujah, I Love Her So.” I had never heard the vocal versions of a couple of tracks on here—in particular, two songs I know best as Miles Davis instrumentals: “On Green Dolphin Street” and “All Blues.”
A calculated act of brilliance was Shaw’s decision to make that latter track the opener of the album in the form of an inspired mashup with “House of the Rising Sun,” grabbing the listener with a reinvention of the very well-known jazz song.
Albums of jazz standards can skew schmaltzy. What keeps it happened. out of that danger is the fantastic touches Shaw brings to his arrangements and the crack players in his Blake Shaw Quintet band. Porter’s “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To” starts out slow, with drawn-out acapella, and builds by adding instruments one at a time until the band is in full force. It picks up the pace before disintegrating into cacophony, punctuated by Shaw exclaiming “Ha! What a dummy!”
With it happened., Shaw shows the full spectrum of his abilities as a musician: arranger, bass player, singer. Most importantly, he shows the ability to translate those into a work which showcases his unique vision and talents.
This article was originally published in Little Village issue 264.