Sunday, September 20, 2009

September 20: Wayne Shorter, "Speak No Evil"

Artist: Wayne Shorter
Album: Speak No Evil
Year: 1965
Label: Blue Note

The so-called "greats" of jazz music can be easily separated into two, distinct groups: those who played other people's compilations, and those who wrote all of their own material. While one can make the case that those in the former group are still amazingly talented musicians, the ability to compose reveals the true musical genius of an artist, and one cannot help but consider them superior in comparison. Standing high atop this second list of musicians is one of the greatest performers and most unique and innovative composers of all time, saxophone master, Wayne Shorter. While many will argue that Shorter was superior in his capacity as a composer than as a musician, the fact of the matter is, his saxophone talents are unquestionably some of the greatest ever recorded. Though he would eventually become the saxophone player in what is widely considered Miles Davis' finest quintet, his work as a band leader generated some of the most amazing music in history. Shorter still performs and records to this day, and his longevity enables him to have one of the largest and most impressive recorded catalogs in history. However, it is his work throughout the 1960's that solidified him as one of the greatest in the history of jazz music. Within these recordings is the album that finally made him seen as a unique artist, a true innovator of style, and one can experience the true genius of Wayne Shorter on his magnificent 1965 album, Speak No Evil.

Though he would go on to make his own legend and record with many of the greatest musicians in history, the truth of the matter is, like nearly every saxophone player of substance, Shorter lived in the shadow of John Coltrane for most of his early career. The fact that he used nearly Coltrane's exact backing band for many of his finest albums, including the legendary JuJu, obviously did not help his case. However, after the JuJu sessions, Shorter dismissed Elvin Jones and Reggie Workman, and brought in is bandmates from his time with Mile Davis. With this new group of equally stellar musicians in place, Shorter brought in six brand new compositions, and the manner in which he plays throughout Speak No Evil finally began to force critics to see him as a new, equally brilliant musician, as opposed to "just another disciple." Recorded on Christmas Eve, 1964, Speak No Evil is an absolutely phenomenal display both playing and writing skills, and the new lineup enabled listeners to finally realize the unparalleled beauty that lived within his unorthodox compositions. Shorter's ability to use never before thought of harmonic structures and an almost bluesy approach to the bop sound truly make his songs sound like nothing else ever recorded. Helping to bring these fantastic piece of music to life, Shorter enlisted the help of one of the most stunning backing bands ever assembled.

As is a common theme amongst the great jazz albums in history, the lineup of musicians on Speak No Evil is nearly as impressive as the music they create. Though the grouping would record a number of albums together under the watch of Miles Davis, it is their work here that proves their amazing talent as a unit. Though he had not yet cemented his name as the king of jazz-funk fusion, pianist Herbie Hancock is clearly very comfortable with this group of musicians, and his performance is one of the finest of the early part of his career. Often seemingly to play in a "call and response" pattern with the other musicians when he isn't taking center stage with his fantastic solo progressions, Hancock shines on every single song. Though he was not a part of the Davis quintet, trumpet player, Freddie Hubbard brings a hard bop sound that gels perfectly with Shorter's style. The way in which the duo play off one another is often stunning, and the chemistry between the two is a sound rarely found elsewhere in music. As has been seen many times throughout the jazz albums covered in this blog, when one needed a top notch bassist, the man many turned to was Ron Carter. On Speak No Evil, Carter's playing is truly beautiful, and the light manner in which he flies through the songs gives many of the compositions their signature mood. The only holdover from Shorter's past sessions is the unmistakable Elvin Jones. With one of the most stunning resumes in music history, there are truly very few jazz drummers deserving to be mentioned in the same breath. Listening to the way in which he interacts with Shorters' playing, it is abundantly clear why Shorter could not visualize his music with a different drummer. With the amazing caliber of musicians that Wayne Shorter brought together for the Speak No Evil session, it is not as surprising that the group was able to perfectly record all six of the superb compositions in a single evening session.

Even with the stellar musicians with which he surrounds himself, Wayne Shorter still manages to easily shine as the finest in the bunch. Making himself unique in the fact that, depending on which of his saxophones he his playing, he has a completely different sound, it is clear that Shorter was a talent unlike any other in history. When Shorter is playing tenor sax, he presents a more tough, succinct sound; while his work on soprano sax displays the more gentle, loving sound that he is able to create. This ability to have such a wide range in sound available is undoubtedly one of the key factors in Shorter's ability to compose such stunning pieces. Clearly able to play winding lyrical melodies as well as work within the modal or tonal structures, the music of Shorter explores territories that had never before been heard. The way in which Shorter constructs the compositions found on Speak No Evil truly jump-started an entirely new writing approach. Countless times throughout the album, it sounds as if there is a much larger band playing, and this is simply due to the way in which Shorter arranged the instrumentation. Whether Shorter is fusing together the hard bop style with modal piano or melding the blues with inverted lyrical patterns, there are very few artists who were able to be as successful with such creative musical imaginings. Shorter even presents the song "Wild Flower," which holds the distinction of being one of the few jazz waltzes ever composed. This seemingly boundless ability to write is not only what makes Wayne Shorter so iconic, but makes the Speak No Evil album so fantastic to experience.

Though musically, he may be best known for his work with other artists, it is impossible to deny the stunning musicianship and unequaled writing ability of Wayne Shorter. Whether he was bringing the final, key element to Miles Davis' quintet, or leading his own group of outstanding musicians, Shorter is by far one of the most important figures in all of jazz music. Mixing together musical styles that previously seemed too far apart to work, Wayne Shorter's compositions rank among the greatest ever, and their impact is still massive in modern times. Moving from basically using the backing group of John Coltrane to his own, equally superior group, Shorter surrounds himself with equally talented, visionary artists. With the rhythm section of Ron Carter and Elvin Jones, the songs are able to swing as easily as attain avant rhythmic qualities unheard of anywhere else in music. Pianist Herbie Hancock ebbs and flows perfectly alongside the stunning trumpet work of Freddie Hubbard. The quintet gel in a way which is virtually unheard of anywhere else in jazz history, and the resulting session remains one of the most stunning musical collections ever recorded. The combination of Shorter's phenomenal, pioneering writing and his sensational musicianship easily makes Wayne Shorter and his Speak No Evil record stand high among the greatest in jazz history.

Standout tracks: "Witch Hunt," "Speak No Evil," and "Wild Flower."

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