And the Grammy Award for Album of the Year for 2007 goes to…drumroll…tension builds…the envelope is nervously fumbled then opened…Herbie Hancock for River: The Joni Letters! That’s pretty much how it played out. As Hancock graciously paid tribute to many of his colossal influences, jazz aficionados everywhere rejoiced. Nevermind that names such as Tina Turner, Corinne Bailey Rae and Norah Jones were enlisted for this project a la Carlos Santana’s Supernatural. The fact remains that Hancock achieved this high honor without any of the aforementioned guitar hero’s mainstream exposure. Clearly, this feat gives jazz musicians and listeners cause for celebration. In Jaleel Shaw’s case, it’s cause for Optimism.
Featuring a backing corps of Robert Glasper, Joe Martin, Lage Lund, Johnathan Blake and Jeremy Pelt, Optimism showcases the delivered promise of jazz’ tomorrow. The sound is at times relentlessly swift and frenzied like “Flipside” where the maddening pace persists until about the 6:45 mark where Lage Lund’s melodious guitar seems to sooth this beast of a track bringing all of its disparate elements into harmony. At times the sound is hypnotic like the trance inducing “Flight” where Shaw reveals his hip hop sensibility keeping the composition sparse, yet ethereal with little more than Blake’s percussion and Glasper’s Fender Rhodes. The track’s organic feel brings to mind the Jazzmatazz series or Buckshot LeFonque.
Optimism also showcases Shaw’s instinctive ability to either take charge or collaborate with his cohorts. For instance, on the title track Blake and Lund set the tempo but it’s Shaw who acts as the agitator urging the players to assume an increasingly aggressive stance without overpowering them or transforming the track into a brooding mess. Yet, he relents at the 10:15 mark when the track slips into a melodic coda punctuated by Glasper’s searching Rhodes. In contrast, “Love for Sale” casts Shaw as the consummate collaborator propelling Pelt’s trumpet to the forefront where he embraces the standard’s beautiful Latin/New Orleans swing pacing and its familiar refrain.
Though I’m confident Shaw doesn’t anticipate embarking upon a Hancock-like award tour with his latest release, the Grammy exposure should shine a light on a genre of music that many identify only with small, smoke-filled clubs and forsaken vinyl stacked away in dusty milk crates. That light would reveal a generation of young jazz talent respectful of its musical tradition and eager to push its already expansive boundaries. Muscians with whom both Wynton and Branford could identify and jam.
– Adam Roussell