Moontrane: A Critical Analysis of Covers

Woody Shaw’s “Moontrane” is a great tune by a great composer and musician. Why isn’t this song and this musician more heralded? I suppose because Shaw is a trumpet player whose last name is neither Davis, Hubbard, nor Marsalis, though his playing and writing stands up very well next to these more famous trumpet players. (Something in the air… NPR’s jazz blog just posted a feature on Woody Shaw with some highlights from his career.)

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“The Moontrane” first showed up (to the best of my knowledge) on Larry Young’s Unity from 1966, with Young on organ, an 18-year old (!) Shaw on trumpet, Joe Henderson on sax, and Elvin Jones on drums. They start the tune with the catchy head from the horns with Young’s strong organ chords and bass underneath. I really like the organ bass notes around 5-10 seconds in here, that sound really works to my ears. This band sounds so good on this entire album… At about 0:55, Shaw takes the song’s first solo over Young’s walking bassline and organ comping. Shaw’s solo sounds great here, leaving plenty of space between his phrases that Young fills with his tasty chords. At about 2:20, Henderson’s sax moves to the front for a solo. I really like how he plays with the song’s theme starting around 2:48. Young’s organ takes the next solo starting around 3:40. Young has such a distinctive sound on the organ, very different from the way the instrument is used on a lot of soul-jazz stuff from around this time. Young’s solo is very strong throughout, playing with the “The Moontrane” head in a very original way. Some space is left for Jones on the drums around 5:45 and he takes a fairly aggressive drum solo until the head’s return around 6:30. They play the head and the song ends. A great tune, catchy theme with a straightforward head-solo-solo-solo-solo-head arrangement. They’re not revolutionizing jazz here, they are making great music.

Another organ-led version of “Moontrane” is on Charles Earland’s 1972 album Live at the Lighthouse, with Earland on organ, Elmer Coles on trumpet, Clifford Adams on trombone, James Vass on sax, Maynard Parker on guitar, Kenneth Nash on congas, and Darryl Washington on drums. This version starts out with some nice-sounding organ chords before the horns come in at about 0:10. The recording is pretty heavy on the low-end, with Earland’s organ bass notes up-front in the mix. The guitar plays the head along with the horns, beefing up the sound somewhat here over Earland’s big organ chords. Earland takes an organ solo starting at about 0:45 or so over Parker’s guitar comping. The sound here is more in line with a classic soul-jazz organ as compared with Young’s organ work on Unity, which is not to say that it is bad in any sense, just drawing a comparison… He hits on a nice riff around 1:45 and some big sustained notes around 2:10 leading to a release around 2:35. Around 3:20, Washington takes an unaccompanied drum solo to the delight of the audience and the tune’s head returns around 4:20. They play the head and finish on a deep organ bass note. Earland’s version has taken “Moontrane” more into soul-jazz territory and somewhat oddly removed the horn solos despite the expanded band (as compared with the quartet on Young’s Unity).

In 1974, Shaw released an album titled The Moontrane, with Azar Lawrence on sax, Steve Turre on trombone, Onaje Allen Gumbs on piano, Buster Williams on bass, Victor Lewis on drums. The album starts with the title track, the trombone playing those deep notes in the head that Young’s organ provided on Unity. Shaw’s trumpet solo starts around 0:50. His solo on this version seems more emphatic than on Unity, with more upper register stuff over some nice piano and bass accompaniment (the ascending piano line around 2:00 is beautiful). The opening especially is incredibly melodic, it sounds like a Wayne Shorter tune that was never written. Lawrence’s sax solo starts at about 2:40, sounding great though initially somewhat less energetic than Shaw’s trumpet solo. Lawrence takes a nice, relatively laid-back solo until about 3:45, when Gumbs takes a piano solo. Gumbs is a complete unknown to me, which is too bad – he sounds great throughout this song and album and takes a great solo here over his left hand’s spiraling chords. Just before 5:00, Lewis takes a fine drum solo that plays with the song’s melody and ends with his hi-hat for Buster Williams’ great-sounding bass solo starting at about 5:25. This is a real highlight of this version for me – check the sliding notes around 5:38 and again at 5:48! The head returns around 6:00 until the song’s finish. A great version, essentially the same arrangement as the organ-led version on Unity, with the piano substituted for the organ, except the addition of Buster Williams bass solo at the end of the tune. Everyone in this band plays great together and the recording sounds great – an excellent version of this tune.

Woody Shaw recorded a number of versions of “Moontrane” during his career, but I’ll just mention one more from his 1987 album Eternal Triangle, featuring both Shaw and Freddie Hubbard on trumpets. In addition to Shaw and Hubbard, this album features Kenny Garrett on sax, Mulgrew Miller on piano, Ray Drummond on bass, and Carl Allen on drums. This version starts at a slightly higher tempo, and the head is now broken up rather than the horns stating it in unison, so the melody sort of cascades in through the two trumpets and Garrett’s sax. I believe the first trumpet solo is Hubbard’s, starting around 0:45 with some relaxed playing. Hubbard and Miller interact really well through this solo, with the piano chords filling in the spaces between Hubbard’s trumpet phrases. Garrett’s sax solo starts around 2:20 or so – great playing as you’d expect – I really like the stuff he plays around 3:00 or so. At about 3:20, Shaw’s trumpet solo starts. He sounds great, and it is amazing how different his trumpet solos sound in the three versions of this tune that I’ve mentioned here – it seems like he can take this song wherever he’d like it to go. The reverb on the upper-register playing is a little distracting, it almost sounds like he’s playing through a delay pedal in some places on this otherwise fine solo. Mulgrew Miller’s piano solo starts around 4:50. Great piano playing from Miller as always, not much else to say about this. The head returns around 5:45 and the song ends after they play through it. Another great version of this tune – solos from Freddie Hubbard, Kenny Garrett, Woody Shaw, and then Mulgrew Miller are certain not to disappoint!

There are lots of covers of “Moontrane” out there that are very worthy of your ears, but I’ll mention just a few relatively recent versions of this tune. The first is from Ben Williams’ Sound Effect on their album State of Art. This version features Williams on bass along with Gerald Clayton on Rhodes piano, Marcus Strickland on sax, Matthew Stevens on guitar, Jamire Williams on drums, and Etienne Charles on percussion. This version starts out with Clayton’s funky Rhodes chords, quickly supplemented with guitar, bass, and percussion, before the head of the tune is played by the sax and guitar starting around 0:30 after some nice ascending basslines from Williams. The band moves through the head, grooving hard, until around 1:20 or so when Williams takes a bass solo over Clayton’s Rhodes cushion. It’s a strong, melodic solo and I really like Clayton’s comping (panned hard left in your headphones). Marcus Strickland’s sax solo starts around 2:40 and the drums and percussion bring up the volume and energy level. Starting at about 3:50, Clayton borrows the last statements from Strickland’s sax solo and builds his solo from that. Amazing how he took Strickland’s phrase and built on it from there. After a brief Rhodes solo, the band returns to its groove for the head around 4:30. At about 5:30, Strickland takes the lead as the song dissolves a bit over Jamire Williams’ cymbals, then grabs back onto the groove at about 5:50 for a funky vamp. Clayton, Strickland, and Stevens’ interplay over Ben Williams bass sounds great as the song fades. This version has taken “Moontrane” into decidedly funkier territory while keeping the essence of the tune intact. Great playing from the whole band, very cohesive and an original arrangement.

Another recent version of “Moontrane” I’ll highlight is from the John Raymond Trio, a drum-bass-trumpet trio with Raymond on trumpet, Danny Weller on bass, and Austin Walker on drums. The chordless trio format makes for a less full sound than the versions I’ve mentioned above, but Raymond’s trumpet handles the tune’s head over Walker’s drums while Weller’s walking bass holds it all together. Raymond’s solo starts around 0:50 over a single bass note until the walking bass returns at about 1:00. It’s a relaxed solo that moves along nicely… great bass underneath the solo around 1:40. Raymond briefly returns to the head around 3:50, then continues along. A bass solo starts just before 5:00, and Danny Weller sticks somewhat closer to the “Moontrane” melody for his solo while building some strong lines over Walker’s brush snare drum. Raymond plays the head around 6:20 over bass harmonics – cool ending to the bass solo. Starting around 6:45, Walker gets some open drum breaks between the trio’s playing. I particularly like how he plays with the melody around 7:15 or so and then in his next opening gets a cymbal sound I really liked. The trio returns to the head around 8:10 and then to a single bass note groove starting around 8:40 that sort of reminds me of the opening of Ben Williams’ version of the tune above. They basically ride that until about 10:00, then finish with the ending of the head for a nice close to this version.

The last version of “Moontrane” that I’ll mention here (though by no means is this a comprehensive list) is from a Ukrainian guitar trio that is unknown to me, but has a nice version of this tune up on youtube. The Danil Zverhanovsky trio features Zverhanovvsky on guitar, Volodymyr Gershenzon on bass, and Roman Yakovchuk on drums. The trio starts with a long-ish vamp on the opening chord, reminiscent of Ben Williams’ arrangement, before the head comes in at about 0:45. A guitar solo starts around 1:30 over nice cymbal-heavy drumming and prominent electric bass accompaniment. Zverhanovsky has a very fluid sound and the trio sounds very comfortable on this. Something about his guitar line around 3:15-3:30 or so sort of reminds me of Gilad Hekselman, another guitar player with a very fluid sound. Around 3:45, Zverhanovsky hints at the “Moontrane” head and a bass solo starts around 4:00. Gershenzon’s sounds very electric if that makes any sense and like Zverhanovsky, he plays some great, fluid lines through his solo. Around 5:30, the trio comes back together after the bass solo and Yakovchuk gets some nice open drum breaks in here, responding to Zverhanovsky’s guitar lines. The head returns around 7:30 and the trio vamps again on that opening chord starting around 8:00, adding a groove-heavy coda to the song where Yakovchuk’s drums really shine and Gershenzon’s bass brings some serious low-end. Great stuff around 9:00 as the drums pick up the intensity toward the end. I’ve been unable to find out much about this band, but I found this page saying that Zverhanovsky is a Ukranian guitar player now studying at the University of Art in Graz, Austria. This was a great version of “Moontrane,” sticking with the original arrangement while adapting it to the guitar trio format, and all three of these guys play great, sounding like a more experienced band than what look to be three college-aged musicians. I’m hoping to hear more from these guys; Zverhanovsky has some more videos of his bands up on youtube for the interested – lots of good stuff on there well worth checking out.

With the possible exception of John Raymond’s trio, all of the recent cover versions mentioned above have taken “Moontrane” in a very groove-oriented direction. That’s not to say that the versions on Larry Young’s or Woody Shaw’s albums didn’t groove, but the vamps on Ben Williams’ and Danil Zverhanovsky’s arrangements are certainly given more space and emphasis than in the original. Again, that’s not to say that these covers are not melodic, but Shaw’s innovations on his own tune are tough to top (in my opinion). This is an excellent song that has been a platform for some great improvisations and has opened my ears to some musicians that were almost completely unknown to me before this column. I’ll point out again that “Moontrane” first showed up on Unity almost 50 years ago in 1966 with Shaw at eighteen years old. How many eighteen-year-olds are doing things that will continue to resonate forty years later? I’m sure that in another fifty years, “Moontrane” will still have new spaces for exploration. Keep listening.

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