Wayne Shorter - Speak No Evil






Blue Note

Recorded on December 24th, 1964 by Rudy Van Gelder at Englewood Cliffs

Speak No Evil cover


Personnel:

Wayne Shorter (tenor sax)
Herbie Hancock (piano)
Freddie Hubbard (trumpet)
Ron Carter (bass)
Elvin Jones (drums)

Tracks:

Witch Hunt, Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum, Dance Cadaverous, Speak No Evil, Infant Eyes, Wild Flower

Review:

It is not too difficult to place Wayne Shorter’s third album as a leader for Blue Note as the darker twin sister of Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage”. Recorded less than five months earlier with an essentially similar line up, “Speak No Evil” offers on the surface at least the distaff side of the uplifting themes of “Maiden Voyage” with its concentration on themes such as witchcraft and folklore (“Witch Hunt”, “Speak No Evil”), childhood nightmares (“Fee-Fi- Fo-Fum”), animated morgue bodies (“Dance Cadaverous”), all this spelt out in comments from Wayne Shorter reported in Don Heckman’s liner notes and implied in the spooky cover photography. Just as with Herbie Hancock’s master work, this suggests music with a programme. And again there are influences from the late nineteenth century classical composers. “Dance Cadaverous” owes a debt to Sibelius’ “Valse Triste” a composition that Wayne Shorter plays explicitly on his later album “The Soothsayer”. Yet just as ‘Maiden Voyage” escapes the best programmatic intention of its author, so these six Wayne Shorter compositions are not limited by the legend, magic and folklore bunkum in which they are packaged. There is nothing doom-laden or oppressive about this music; it has lightness, almost a playfulness, that belies the themes it is supposed to be portraying. The album is a landmark in jazz composition and realization to set alongside “Maiden Voyage” in its importance.

The cover shows Teruka (Irene) Nakagami, Wayne Shorter's first wife whom he met in 1961. They had a child, Miyako.

Much of the lightness and liveliness of “Speak No Evil” derives from Ron Carter’s inspired bass playing and Herbie Hancock’s piano playing. Other Wayne Shorter albums around this time (“Night Dreamer”, “Juju” or “Adam’s Apple”, for example) feature a band much closer to the John Coltrane formulation with Reggie Workman on bass and McCoy Tyner on piano, backed up by Elvin Jones on drums, as here. Though good, these albums do not develop the same escape velocity. Ron Carter’s bass carries so much of the rhythmic pulse that both Elvin Jones and Herbie Hancock are freed up to break away into much more productive territory.

Wayne Shorter, a native of Newark, New Jersey studied music at Newark Arts High School. He listened to Duke Ellington, Thelonius Monk, Stan Kenton, Charlie Parker and, especially Dizzie Gillespie. On graduating from Newark he enrolled in music education and music composition at New York University and after graduating and a short spell in the Army began jamming on the New York scene where he eventually met and was befriended by John Coltrane; they jammed together and discussed musical ideas. His first appearance on record was alongside Lee Morgan in the Wynton Kelly Quartet on the Vee-Jay album “Kelly Great” in August 1959. This was followed by two so far unreleased sessions with John Coltrane, the second in September 1959 the outcome of a much remembered performance at Birdland which featured (in a addition to the two tenor saxes) Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, Cedar Walton on piano and Elvin Jones on drums. If the recording survives, it has never been released. So, no doubt, John Coltrane was a major influence not only on Wayne Shorter’s saxophone technique but also on his development as a composer working within the new freedoms discovered in modal and post bop jazz.

Joining Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers by late 1959 alongside Lee Morgan and then Freddie Hubbard, he functioned as the main composer and musical director of the most important hard bop group of the late fifties/early sixties. In particular, the album “Mosaic” shows how mature his music had become.

When John Coltrane left Miles Davis’ quintet to form his own group, the mantle of sax player and composer within Miles’ group eventually passed to Wayne Shorter, setting up the second great quintet.

This was an intensely productive time for Wayne Shorter. His Blue Note career as a leader had begun in April 1964 with the recording of “Nightdreamer”, followed by “Juju” in August of that year; in September 1964 he had joined the Miles Davis quintet; in January 1965, Miles Davis’ “ESP” appeared (with both “ESP” and “Iris” authored by Wayne Shorter). “Speak No Evil” recorded in December 1964 comes on the crest of this wave.

Alongside Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter is arguably the greatest living American jazz composer, arguably the greatest living American composer in any genre. Yet surprisingly very little of any merit has been written on his music. Michelle Mercer’s recent book on Wayne Shorter “Footprints” has little to say on his music. Perhaps it is just that this music is so complex in conception that it has just been too difficult to write meaningfully about him. Dave Leubert in seeking to add the chord sequence to “Dance Cadaverous” to his excellent Song Trellis pages remarks: “I have not been able to find any source which publishes the entire sequence for this tune. There are two examples in Mark Levine's "The Jazz Theory Book" which give large fragments of this progression. I have tried to transcribe the chords that were missing from Levine's transcription……..” Does this mean that the sheet music for “Dance Cadaverous” is out of print (or was never in print)?

Notwithstanding this, are we really looking at a case of neglect of a great artist here?

Once again, Miles Davis offers a very clear view. As he told Quincy Troupe in his biography (p 263): "At first Wayne had been known as free-form player, but playing with Art Blakey for those years and being the band's musical director had brought him back in somewhat. He wanted to play freer than he could in Art's band, but he didn't want to be all the way out, either. Wayne has always been someone who experimented with form instead of someone who did it without form. That's why I thought he was perfect for where I wanted to see the music I played go…….. …When he came into the band it started to grow a lot more and a whole lot faster, because Wayne is a real composer. He writes scores, he writes parts for everybody just as he wants it to sound….. Wayne also brought in a kind of curiosity about working with musical rules. If they didn't work, then he broke them, but with a musical sense; he understood that freedom in music was the ability to know the rules in order to bend them to your own satisfaction and taste. Wayne was out there on his own plane, orbiting around his own planet. Everybody else in the band was walking down here on earth. He couldn't do in Art Blakey's band what he did in mine; he just seemed to bloom as a composer when he was in my band. That's why I say he was the intellectual musical catalyst for the band in his arrangement of his musical compositions that we recorded."

As an example in passing of the kind of intellectual approach that Miles Davis is referring to, it is worth noting that the title track on “Juju” is a remarkable composition in that it is based on a mode deriving from the whole note scale. This scale is composed only of notes two semitones apart. As a result it only exists in two forms. It is interesting to observe that the whole note scale was used extensively by Claude Debussy, a known influence of Wayne Shorter’s. Other examples of the use of this mode include Bartok’s “String Quartet No 5” and Berg’s “Piano Concerto”. Both John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk had experimented with this scale.

Some further interesting and detailed analysis of Wayne Shorter’s approach has been provided by Bruno Råberg.

“The early Shorter compositions are stylistically in a typical neo-bop style with 8th note runs in the melody over II-V oriented progressions. There are also many Dom7 passing chords and deceptive resolutions that give them Shorter's distinctive touch”.

And then noting as we have done (see Charlie Parker - Complete Savoy and Dial Sessions) that most be-bop was conceived and executed as improvistation over chord progressions mapped out by George Gershwin and the other mainstream composers, he adds: “In these cases it was often the familiar harmonic progressions, with logical and clear tonal centers, that gave a composition cohesiveness. The melody could afford to be very flexible and less "catchy" or singable because the harmony provided stability. What Shorter started to do was to have the melody give cohesiveness over unfamiliar, complex, and vagrant harmonic progressions. Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk and others had, of course, already started to compose independently of these familiar chord changes…… What put (Shorter's compositions) in a class by themselves was Shorter's distinctive personal voice that is even today unmistakable…...”

Of the Blue Note dates with Wayne Shorter as leader, as on “Speak No Evil” he writes:

“Some of the melodies (Armageddon (on “Night Dreamer”) and Deluge (on “Juju”) stick almost exclusively to a minor pentatonic scale. This scale is also the basis for the blues scale and therefore these tunes have a very "bluesy" character. As a contrast to the simple inside melodic part of the tune there is always a bridge that provides variation and interest enough to make the composition complete. What also provides variation and makes these compositions very different from earlier writing is the harmony. Underneath these quite singable and simple sounding melodies lie very complex harmonic progressions. What we get is a perfect balance between complexity and simple lyricism. …. The harmonic progressions break the common written and unwritten rules, and especially the root motion changes its role from providing simple movements in 4'ths and 5'ths to being vagrant and taking very unexpected paths. Due to Shorter's uncanny sense for tension and release, and an obvious knowledge of the basics of harmony, we still feel the organic flow of logical harmonic progressions”.

This very clearly sums up the real strengths of “Speak No Evil”. On takes such as the opening “Witch Hunt” and “Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum”, the overall feel is bluesy and relaxed with straightforward melodies blown over a shifting harmonic progression that is unexpected, even disconcerting at some subterranean level that seems just out comprehension. There are fine solos, especially from Herbie Hancock and Freddie Hubbard. “Dance Cadaverous” allows more of the disconcerting subsurface to emerge out front in the melody and sounds as a result more obviously complex. The title track caries much of the melody in unison playing by saxophone and trumpet with infills from piano until Wayne Shorter’s long solo which is accompanied by some complex shifts in tempo and again makes clear that the underlying harmonic development is anything but simple. The life affirming “Infant Eyes” takes the form of a ballad written for Wayne Shorter’s daughter, Miyako, and consists mainly of one long haunting exposition by Wayne on saxophone with a coda by Herbie Hancock. That said, the nine bar ABA structure is anything but orthodox. The transcription published by Bruno Råberg shows a shifting tonal centre with use of several modes to carry the melody. The album is rounded out with “Wild Flower”, a final open and optimistic conclusion that, especially in Freddie Hubbard’s and Herbie Hancock’s contributions seems to presage “Maiden Voyage”.

Another great puzzle is the development of Wayne Shorter’s writing and performance. As his Blue Note albums became more complex (“Schizophrenia”, “The All Seeing Eye”) and got to involve larger ensembles, the music started to loose its focus. The unique transforming intensity of his musical vision seemed to be degrading, wearing out. By the time he entered Weather Report he was leaving most of the composing duties to Joe Zawinul and, in the same way, his saxophone soloing was becoming more minimalist. During the 15 year period in Weather Report he composed probably no more than 20 new songs. After Weather Report, he returned to composition and improvisation as leader of his own bands but without anything like the authority and productivity of the early Blue Note years, as for example on “Atlantis”. Was it the influence of Miles Davis at this time that fired up his creativity? With the absence of Miles, was that compulsion to go beyond expected limits of creativity in music placed in abeyance? Wayne Shorter’s recent re-emergence with a quartet featuring John Patitucci (bass) and Danilo Perez (piano) and Brian Blade (drums) in a series of acclaimed concerts, partially recalled on the album “Beyond The Sound Barrier” brings the argument full circle. Once again he is composing and improvising wonderful, cutting edge jazz.


Together with “Maiden Voyage” and “Nefertiti”, “Speak No Evil” is one of the seminal jazz albums of the 1960s.

Star Rating *****

Related reviews: Weather Report "Night Passage"    Wayne Shorter "Beyond The Sound Barrier"  Wayne Shorter "The Soothsayer"   Miles Davis "Nefertiti"


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1 comment:

Rob J said...

One of the most elegant jazz albums to be ever released. I have had this album on pristine vinyl for over twenty years, and the marvellous RVG production has only enhanced the sublime quality of the music. The beautiful "Infant Eyes" has never been matched before
or after, even by him.
If Wayne Shorter never released any more albums, he would still have a place in jazz history. File next to "Soul Station" as an essential Blue Note recording....