Sahib Shihab isn't as well known today as most other storied baritone saxophonists like Gerry Mulligan, Pepper Adams, Serge Chaloff and Harry Carney. As I recall from my not-yet-transcribed interview with Sahib back in the '80s, when he was a visiting professor at Rutgers University, part of the reason for his obscurity was his lengthy expatriate status.
After a European tour in 1959 and '60 with the Quincy Jones big band, Sahib began spending a growing amount of time playing in Europe and Scandinavia, eventually marrying a Danish woman and remaining in Denmark after 1961. He made only sporadic trips back to the States, where the music scene's rapid shift away from jazz came as a shock to him.
What I remember most about our encounter was Sahib's size—he seemed well over six feet tall, with a large, thick beard and fierce eyes that didn't suffer fools. And yet he was patient and kind in his answers—a natural educator whose mountain-man presence forced you to frame your questions with care.
When you explore Sahib's recordings, you'll find that virtually all of them are magical. As a sideman and leader, Sahib's lines were always hard crafted and boldly executed while his original compositions were catchy, deep and hip.
Among my favorite Sahib tracks are four originals he arranged for a stellar New York group in November 1957. Originally issued on Savoy as Jazz Sahib, the album featured Phil Woods (as), Benny Golson (ts), Sahib Shihab (bar), Bill Evans (p), Oscar Pettiford (b) and Art Taylor (d).
The three reeds alone would have been dazzling—with Benny's slippery tenor, Phil's urgent alto and Sahib's muscular baritone. But there also was a remarkable rhythm section behind them in Evans, Pettiford and Taylor. Evans [pictured in '57] has brief solos on Blu-A-Round—a rare blues for the pianist—and Ba-Dut-Du-Dat. Evans and Sahib had first recorded together in late '56 and early '57 on The Complete Tony Scott and then on a string of Scott dates in November '57. And that was it. Two highly skilled innovators passing in the night.
Born Edmund Gregory, Sahib moved with his family to New York from Savannah, Ga., as a toddler. As a pre-teen, he began playing alto sax and clarinet, and at age 13 began working professionally with band leader Luther Henderson. When his mother died around this time, he returned to Savannah for a time and worked with Larry Noble.
At age 16 he enrolled at the Boston Conservatory of Music followed by studies at Juilliard. In the mid-40s, he played in Fletcher Henderson's band and recorded with Jay McShann and Roy Eldridge. In the late 1940s, he converted to Islam and changed his name.
Classic Blue Note recordings with Thelonious Monk and Art Blakey in '47 followed as well as dates with Tadd Dameron's Big Ten in '49.
Throughout the '50s, Sahib played alto, baritone and flute on landmark dates with Lucky Thompson, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and Tony Scott. He recorded on Donald Byrd and Gigi Gryce's Jazz Lab, Phil Woods' Four Altos, Oscar Pettiford's big band in '57 and, perhaps most memorably, on John Coltrane's Coltrane that same year.
In fact, '57 was a breakthrough year for Sahib, recording virtually every other week on critical jazz albums as well as leading several sessions. He was in demand the following year as well—and appeared in Art Kane's famous A Great Day in Harlem photo [below] for Esquire. In 1959 Sahib was in the reed section of Quincy Jone's big band, which propelled him to Europe and by 1961 out of Ameria's musical orbit.
As American music changed rapidly in the '60s and beyond, Sahib found he had less and less in common with this country intellectually, preferring to play and record his kind of music in countries where he was most appreciated. Fortunately for us, he recorded often in Europe. Sahib died in 1989 at age 64. I'm just glad I had a chance to spend an afternoon with him. Now I'll have to dig out that tape.
JazzWax tracks: You'll find the four small-group tracks with Bill Evans on Sahib Shihab Complete Sextets Sessions 1956-1957 (Fresh Sound) here. Another one of my favorites—Sahib Shihab & The Danish Radio Jazz Orchestra—from 1965 is here.