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Why stop now?: Lee Shaw.

Photo: Joe Putrock

Not Slowing Down

Renowned pianist Lee Shaw’s long and incredible career shows no sign of stopping anytime soon

By Shawn Stone

If it’s the third Sunday of the month, pianist Lee Shaw is easy to find: She’s playing solo for the brunch crowd at Justin’s on Lark Street in Albany. On this third Sunday of November, as a roomful of diners pick their way through omelets and French toast, Shaw is onstage at the piano, perched atop her trademark phone book, playing a perfectly programmed mix of jazz classics, pop standards and her own (critically acclaimed) compositions.

She plays some Bill Evans. She plays her own “Blue Hyacinth,” which, Shaw says, was inspired by the giant blue flowers that grew at a friend’s house. When the Lee Shaw Trio was in Europe last year—a tour that led to her new CD-DVD set, Live in Graz—a German fan told her that there was also a kind of bird (a macaw) called a blue hyacinth. To underline his point, he returned to the club the next night with a picture of said bird. Listening to Shaw’s song, it is hard to decide which it fits better, the flower or the bird. Something colorful, either way.

Without introduction, Shaw starts playing “Makin’ Whoopee.” She introduces the melody by alternating lines between the left and right hands; the contrast of the low and high notes creates a comic effect that echoes the (unsung) lyrics of the song. It’s easy to smile, and hard not to laugh out loud.

Asked about this later, Shaw laughs: “Well, that’s one of the things I do.”

“I know the lyrics to almost every song I play,” Shaw says, “if it has lyrics. And I always think of the lyrics.”

The next time she plays “Makin’ Whoopee,” however, don’t count on hearing it the way it’s described here.

“My goal as a soloist, and with Rich [Syracuse, her bassist] as a duo, and with the trio, is to seldom play the same tune the same way twice.”

“Sometimes we change the tempo, we change the key, we change the meter: That’s the challenge. Is it as easy to do as a trio as solo? I think it is, because we’re so in tune.”

“The trick,” she says, “is playing, and playing together. My drummer and bassist—Jeff Siegel is my drummer, he’s been playing with me for nine years; Rich Syracuse, my bassist, we’ve been playing together 16 years.”

“There’s hardly ever a gig that I have,” she adds, “that Rich is not available. And it’s like a really good—and I underline good—marriage. We listen to one another and trust and respect one another. It’s a fabulous relationship.”

That harmony and sense of musical purpose comes through on Live in Graz, which was recorded in November 2007 in the Austrian city. The CD has eight songs, of which five are Shaw originals; the DVD contains the concert, plus a photo gallery and two interviews conducted by jazz musician, scholar and historian Hal Miller.

This particular tour happened when her drummer, Jeff “Siege” Siegel, took his own band to Europe; some of the club owners asked him about the possibility of the Lee Shaw Trio playing some dates.

“My husband and I had played there with our trio in 1986,” Shaw remembers. “We played Jazzland in Vienna, and I think it was called the Green Spider in Graz.” (Shaw’s husband and musical partner Stan passed in 2001; she pays tribute to him on the CD with her “Stan’s Song.”)

This time, Austrian State Radio sent a crew down to record a show for broadcast.

“And then,” Shaw says, “the last, entire concert was videotaped. My friend Diane Reiner, a wonderful photographer . . . went with us, and took a lot of pictures.”

“When we got home, we looked at one another and said, ‘this is a CD, isn’t it?’ ”

“I called my friend Hal Miller,” she says, “and asked if he would interview me, here at my house, and then interview all three of us. The interview, for me, was somewhat autobiographical. The questions that Hal thought of to ask me. . . . Well, we’ve know each other for a long time.”

“[In] the interview with the trio, we’re talking about our approaches to music. So that’s quite interesting.”

The critical response has been positive. At, critic J. Hunter wrote that “Live in Graz is a compelling portrait of an artist who has survived through decades of change in jazz, and who makes beautiful, evocative music to this day. Most importantly, Shaw is a groundbreaker who presaged the development of women as both players and leaders, and she stands as an inspiration to all those who may follow.”

A few weeks ago, Shaw took the trio back to Oklahoma, where she grew up, to play for the centennial celebration of her alma mater, the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma. When Shaw graduated in 1947, however, it was known as the Oklahoma College for Women.

Shaw remembers: “Oklahoma was, as I grew up, a dry, segregated state.” (FYI: “Dry” means no alcohol.)

“I couldn’t hear any jazz. It wasn’t until I finished my bachelor’s degree, and was in Chicago working on my master’s,” that she had a chance to experience jazz.

“I was going to be a professional classical accompanist,” she says, “because I was good at sight reading and I liked doing that.”

“I had been able to play by ear since I was about 10. If I could sing it, I could play it.”

But her heart wasn’t in it.

“Feeling that something was missing, I signed with a booking agent, and started playing clubs in Chicago.”

“Most of those,” she says, “were very long engagements. I was a year at the Lakeshore Drive Hotel. I was a year at Mr. Kelly’s, a really wonderful supper club in Chicago. People like Anita O’Day, Sarah Vaughan and Billie Holiday performed there, so I had the benefit of listening to all of them.”

“And then, one night, my agent says, ‘I want to take you to hear somebody.’ And he took me to hear Count Basie. And that was—I started all over after that. That was—I heard it, and immediately I was drawn to it, and I had to learn how to play it. It was like learning to play all over again. It was absolutely fabulous.”

When Shaw finishes the interview for this story, she’s off to practice another side of her musical life: teaching.

“So many of the people who are now pianists in this area,” she says, “who are playing professionally, like Peg Delaney, so many have studied with me at one time or another.”

She adds, “one of my former students is John Medeski, of Medeski Martin and Wood; I met John when he was 13, when I was living in Florida.”

Shaw has pulled back on this part of her career, however: “I love to teach, but now I’m very much more involved with playing and traveling.”

“We’re going back to Germany in May,” she explains. “And we’re going to be doing a concert with John Medeski. We’ve got a lot of things coming up.”

And when Lee Shaw is not on the road? You can find her, with her trio, at the Stockade Inn in Schenectady on the second Friday of the month; at Justin’s on the first Saturday of the month; and at 74 State in Albany on the second and fourth Saturdays. With bassist Rich Syracuse, she performs at Saratoga’s One Caroline Street on the third Saturday of the month.

And on the third Sunday of the month? Playing solo piano at Justin’s.


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