Shadowfax Finds a Home in the ‘World Beat’ : Music: Eclectic group inadvertently finds itself on the cutting edge of ‘New Age’ sound.
Shadowfax comes to the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano Sunday night at the close of an intensive monthlong tour with a stellar new band member, violinist Jerry Goodman. A veteran of Chicago’s pioneering jazz-rock band the Flock, as well as the high-energy Mahavishnu Orchestra, Goodman brings potent new solo power to Shadowfax.
But the essential identity of the Grammy-winning, six-piece group will not change, according to founding woodwind player Chuck Greenberg.
“The combination of violin and Lyricon has been a signature sound of this group for quite a while now,” Greenberg said, “and it’ll continue to be important as Jerry brings his own interpretation to it. But there’s another thing about Shadowfax, and that’s ensemble playing.
“We don’t just do pieces with a melody, a solo and then a repeat of the first melody. We play pieces that are constructed compositions, in which the personality of the player is less important than the sound he brings to the music.
“Jerry’s a great soloist,” Greenberg continued, “and he’ll get plenty of opportunities to shine. But we’ve got a number of strong soloists in the band, and we’ve got pieces to showcase all of them.”
When Shadowfax was formed in 1972, bassist Phil Maggini and guitarist G. E. Stinson had been playing blues with the likes of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, and Greenberg had been an avid follower of the jazz avant-garde. This unlikely combination resulted in a band that, in Maggini’s words, “has been through just about every musical style imaginable.”
The style and the substance that has most attracted the public ear, however, were those of far-ranging, strongly melodic, “world music” sounds--an identity which might seem perfectly tailored for the outward reaching, internationally oriented ‘90s.
“It’s funny, but I think what’s happened is that the trend’s caught up with us,” Maggini said. “And that’s interesting, because it’s the same thing that happened in 1978, when we were playing some kind of strange improvisational music. We had nowhere to go with it, financially or otherwise, when Chuck got the opportunity to do a track with Alex Di Grassi, and that led us to a deal with Windham Hill records.”
The music of performers such as Shadowfax, Di Grassi, Will Ackerman and George Winston were vaguely labeled Windham Hill music, for lack of a better title, despite the clear and obvious differences between the performers. Then the industry came up with the term “New Age,” and Shadowfax became, according to Maggini, “one of the forerunners in the New Age field, even though all we’ve ever done is to do what we do.
“The same thing’s true of world beat,” he continued. “We’ve always had those sounds and rhythms in our music. So, if world music or world beat music is a more acceptable label for the industry or for the listeners, that’s fine with us. Just so long as people keep coming out to hear us and keep buying our records.”
Nearly two decades of experience together have provided the members of Shadowfax with the experience and wisdom to take things slow and easy. “We look at it this way,” Maggini said. “When it’s time to do an album, we do an album; when it’s time to play live, we play live. There’s not much point in going through either process if you don’t have anything to say.
“We’ve been together for 18 years, so we know each other--and the way in which we assimilate ideas--pretty well. As a group we’re going in one direction, but as individuals we’re going in different directions too. When we’re ready to make a statement collectively as Shadowfax, then it’s time to make a record.”
Shadowfax went from Windham Hill to a big label, Capitol Records, before arriving at its present home, boutique-styled Private Records.
“Basically, (Capitol) fired us,” Maggini said. “Isn’t it a wacky business? You can win a Grammy and then get dropped from a label.”
According to Maggini, Shadowfax got caught between the rock and the hard place in a change of regimes at Capitol. “We got lost in the shuffle. When things change hands at a record company it’s always the old story of “How good did you do the last time around?’ Then it’s ‘What can we do to clean house around here?’ Well, we were the ones who got cleaned out.
“When the label started going heavy metal, it was obvious that we wouldn’t fit in, anyhow. Shadowfax may be a lot of things, but we’re sure not cross-dressing robots.”
Is the title of the new Shadowfax album--"The Odd Get Even"--a sly slap at their old record company?
“Nah, it’s just the title of one of the pieces, one that has an unusual rhythm of three against four, that’s all,” replied Maggini--with a suspiciously sardonic tinge to his laughter.
“As far as the business is concerned,” he said, “every time I feel hassled by what’s happening I just try to remember the old saying that puts everything in perspective: ‘When the world hands you lemons, make lemonade.’ ”
Shadowfax plays Sunday at 8 p.m. at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. Tickets: $18.50. Information: (714) 496-8930.