Review of Awake – Jazz Improv

Jazz Improv’s New York Jazz Guide

Travis Shook is a shaker . . . a mover and a shaker! In this highly impressive performance this dynamic and stylish pianist spews forth a volley of exhilarating, high energy standards and originals, exceptionally well arranged and executed. Playing in the tradition of the great power pianists, McCoy Tyner, John Hicks, Harold Mabern et al., Shook turns the heat up well beyond the boiling point with pyrotechnical technique and raw energy rarely exhibited by the new breed of pianists. His arrangements and interpretations are fresh and original, exuding shimmering harmonies, hammering riff figures and thundering chord changes – all cascading down on the listener like a musical blizzard.

The trio bolts out of the gate in the opening selection “Awake” with a series of lower register expletives, a rather complex if not busy theme, shifting into a series of rousing improvised choruses. Mid-course, Shook pounds through a sequence of chordal riffs, taunting and urging drummer Jaz Sawyer through his paces to the restatement of the theme. The piano trio continues with “Touch and Go,” a tune with an energized intro based on arpeggios, which ultimately settles down unexpectedly into a pleasant Latin groove. Shook sustains his left hand support somewhat behind the beat creating an interesting backpedaling feeling. The opening statement on “Counterblues” immediately establishes an eeriness, pulsing forth with a truly unique, surrealistic theme – an oblique, eccentric harmonization with tenor saxophonist Kebbi Williams. Abruptly, Shook takes flight into a soaring, driving solo jaunt, rigidly punctuated with dense left hand harmonies, and smooth but intense clusters of triplets. Tenorist Kebbi Williams and later, trombonist Ron Westway soon join the fray adding to the tempest.
The shortest tune on the CD and the only ballad is Travis Shook’s “Sacrifice.” This composition is played unaccompanied, that is, solo piano only. It is pensive, thoughtful, and introspective and deftly leads into “Leviathan,” a Latin-flavored composition that Shook skillfully builds to a grand crescendo followed by a refined bass solo by Jennifer Vincent.

The final two cuts of this recording offer exceptional intensity and consummate musicianship. “Broadway,” not the George Benson version for sure, begins with a clave intro that heads helter-skelter into an up tempo myriad of tone clusters and stabbing left-hand chromatic accompaniment to complement Shook’s powerful, countersurging solo excursions. Kebbi Williams’ edgy tenor adds great spice to this exceptionally personalized arrangement. “Nothing Like You” is a multi-faceted cooker guaranteed to raise your pulse at least a few notches! Travis Shook states the theme then abruptly dives headlong into a rapid-fire, elliptical, off -center fusillade of right hand explosions punctuated by a percussive taunting left hand off set by dense overlapping tone clusters. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, the tempo relaxes while vocalist Veronica Nunn stridently, but eloquently, brings this standard back to Earth – a classy, welcome surprise!
If you listen to jazz, as many of us do, because it represents “instant excitement” to you, you’ll savor this CD by Travis Shook. In the liner notes he states, “I recorded these tunes mostly so that I could stop playing them.” This suggests that he’s off to new musical projects. Whatever new path Travis Shook blazes, I’m sure it will be worth seeking out. But for now, this music on Awake has all my attention and is more than worthy of garnering yours..

— Greg Yuska