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Albums We Love: Gene Shaw's 'Breakthrough'

A slightly ominous bass line walks onto the scene, setting the mood for Gene Shaw’s probing trumpet to take the listener on an Autumn Walk. This is how the album Breakthrough begins, an obscure masterpiece recorded by Detroit jazzman Gene Shaw for the Argo label in 1962.

The album showcased Shaw as a leader for the first time, allowing him to share his gift for emotive playing as well as solid songwriting chops. Three of the eight tunes on the album were written by Shaw, including a happy blues called AD’s Blues and a slightly bossa number titled Marj. His most powerful composition, The Thing, opens the second side of the record. It possesses a Mingus-like quality as it veers from delicate beauty to jagged discordance as Shaw explores that ugly thing that lurks in the hearts of men.

It’s not surprising that there are touches of Charles Mingus in his writing, as he made his first impression in the jazz world through his association with the legendary bassist. Shaw brought his fiery playing to Mingus’s albums East Coasting and Tijuana Moods. Mingus even remarked upon the release of Tijuana Moods that, “If this album had been released in 1957, Shaw would be a star today.” High praise from a man rumored to have once threatened to kill Clarence Eugene Shaw, hastening his departure from the Mingus band to the Windy City and a fresh start as Gene Shaw.

And so it was that Gene Shaw hit the ground running in Chicago to record an outstanding debut full of depth, sophistication and layers of feeling. His playing possessed the lyrical dexterity of Clifford Brown or Chet Baker, but with a bit of Kenny Dorham’s bluesy strength of character. By whatever trick of fate or history, Breakthrough came and went along with the brief jazz career of Gene Shaw. His music deserves to be loved and remembered.

Derek Smith – host of The Morning Session (weekdays from 7-10 a.m.)

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