Listen Hear is the latest release from Iowa City composer/musician Blake Shaw. Recorded at Flat Black Studios, Listen Hear is an incredibly accessible jazz album featuring a strong quintet of players with Shaw on the upright bass, Dan Padley on guitar, Nolan Schroeder and Ryan Smith on respective woodwinds and Chris Jensen on drums.
Although this album is easy to listen to, Shaw’s compositions possess enough rhythmic changes and sonic meanderings to keep an attentive listener engaged, making it a perfect combination of being good background music and worth studying closely. Shaw has worked with a wide range of ensembles and is currently working on his Masters degree with an emphasis on jazz. He is clearly a devoted student to the work, and his expertise is shown in the studied precision of the pieces.
“TA Black Blues” is a strong opening track and a well-balanced tune that allows each player an opportunity to show off their chops. Although Shaw’s bass keeps this piece moving along, the stars on this one are the saxophonists, harmonically synched on a truly swinging melody that compels the listener to snap to the rhythm. “The East Room (on the 8th Floor)” is one of the more interesting songs conceptually, with a melody constructed from a machine that beeped when Shaw clocked in at work.
“Solfami” (my personal favorite) is another standout track. Featuring a jazz flute as the melodic lead, this somnolent arrangement is an instant ticket to Chillsville and a testament to each player’s ability to interject where needed and stay silent when not. This track is what people are talking about when they refer to music as a conversation.
“Ira” (named as a dedication to one of Shaw’s professors) also stands out as the only bass-driven piece on the album. Coming in at an impressive 6:22, “Ira” challenges the idea that the primary purpose of the bass is to support other instruments. Listen Hear concludes with its most experimental piece, “Talk It,” which incorporates sound bites from the late, great Maya Angelou.
As Shaw writes in his liner notes, “Whether it be the troubling times we live in today, the ones we lived in the past, the love we feel from others … just talk it — and don’t stop loving.” This is clearly the sentiment driving Shaw’s work, which is simultaneously heartfelt and studied, experimental and grounded, accessible and esoteric.
But it’s the accessibility I want to emphasize. My knowledge of jazz is limited, but I know what goes well with a nice glass of wine and I know what makes my head bob and fingers snap to the rhythm — and whatever that thing is, this album has it.
If that sort of sound appeals to you like it does me, do yourself a favor and order one up by sending an email to email@example.com.
Trust me: you will dig it.
This article was originally published in Little Village issue 201.