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Live and On Record
Travis Shook: Lost in the Keys


The 24-year-old Olympia, Washington, pianist Travis Shook exhibits all the usual traits of the hordes of young virtuosi being snapped up and marketed by the major labels. He's got technique to spare, a sure grounding in the jazz tradition, and he sticks close to it. His eponymous Columbia debut features two chestnuts of the jazz repertoire, "Love for Sale" and "My Foolish Heart," the latter inextricably linked with its performance by the man who was arguably the father of modern jazz piano, Bill Evans.

The connection isn't lost on the record company. The CD jacket photos make the most of Shook's bespectacled, Evans-like good looks, even aping a famous pose of Evans, a tight close-up, hand to face clutching a cigarette.

But unlike a lot of other young stars, Shook isn't content merely to show off his exercises at running bebop chord changes or aping Evans's modal introspection. Take his album's opening cut, a deconstructed and reassembled version of the swing-era standard "Broadway." As usually played, it's a simple, riff-like melody, the stuff of easy swing. But Shook introduces it with a declamatory bass figure and then takes off on a series of broken-field runs that parallel or allude to the melody without ever stating it outright. In effect, Shook builds his own composition.

Like much of his playing, Shook's "Broadway" features fleet single-note runs punctuated with plenty of two-handed staccato chording, and there's one moment early in the piece when both hands appear to bicycle backward with a percussive, haywire figure. The devise gets repeated later in the piece, as do variations on that opening bass pattern, suggesting that the outbursts are more deliberate than spontaneous. It could also be that Shook is very fast on his feet, tossing off inventions at will, recalling them when needed. (The press notes suggest that Shook hit the tune especially hard because he couldn't hear himself through a set of faulty studio headphones.) Whatever the cause or method, "Broadway" is a kicky, idiosyncratic performance - it doesn't sound like anyone else.

Of course, that's not to say that Shook doesn't occasionally fall into his own young-lion take on the Blakey years. But even then he's appealing. Saxophonist Bunky Green joins him for Lee Harper's "Astarte" and for Green's own "Little Girl I'll Miss You," and it helps that Bunky himself is the real thing, a veteran, high-powered, keening alto in the Jackie McLean manner (with his own vocabulary of emotive off-pitches and squealing climaxes). And on "My Foolish Heart," Shook tries to out-Evans Bill, introducing the tune with some extremely impressionistic shards of harmony and melody. (The bassist is Ira Coleman; the drummer and co-producer, with Shook, is Tony Williams).

But Shook is most engaging on tunes like "Broadway," or his own "Dewey North," with its asymmetrical theme, all descending angles and, again, marked by a percussive chordal attack. His originality was just as promising a few weeks back at Scullers (where he was joined by bassist Chris Thomas and drummer Gregory Hutchinson). In person, Shook again echoed the Evans eccentricity, this time in posture. He sat in a straight-backed chair rather than on a piano bench, and alternately slouched way back, with his feet nearly curled around the chair's front legs, or leaned forward on the very edge of his seat. And he's the first pianist I've ever seen play with his legs crossed.

Rather than appearing affected, Shook gave off the aura of someone totally absorbed, lost in his music. The trio played two new, untitled pieces, both emphasizing the odd Herbie Nichols-like angles of "Dewey North." And in every tune he used space as a way of allowing ideas to surprise him - a slapped repeated cluster, a beautifully delicate pianissimo falling-leaves sequence of broken chords. And on Oscar Pettiford's "Tricrotism," the band hit a furious groove. Again, it sounded like no one's imitation.

(Jon Garelick, The Boston Weekly, 1994)























































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