Kronomyth 11.3: COLLEC2BL. There are days when I’m convinced the United States hasn’t contributed anything to the world except for jazz and a few good books of poetry. Where the former is concerned, we can boast an embarrassment of riches, as evidenced by this unreleased session from the 60s featuring Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Joe Chambers and Cecil McBee. Recorded in the summer of 1965 (six months after the stunning Speak No Evil), Etcetera is the only of Shorter’s Blue Note recordings to feature McBee on bass. The session is otherwise notable for an energized reading of Gil Evans’ “Barracudas” and four Shorter originals including “Indian Song” and the title track. In the company of the official Blue Note releases, Etcetera falls somewhere beside and perhaps slightly below Adam’s Apple. It’s not as adventurous as the concept albums (Juju, Evil, Eye) nor as meticulously crafted. What’s here are some very solid ideas (“Etcetera,” “Penelope”), but those looking for a showcase of Shorter’s talents will be disappointed. Miles could get away with being understated or even invisible. Shorter doesn’t have that kind of gravitas (yet), and I kept wishing for the saturated sound of a quintet or for Shorter to simply show up with a spectacular solo. Instead, Hancock emerges as the lead soloist on this session. While the playing on here is of too high a caliber to languish in an archival vault, you can understand why Blue Note waited to release it. This isn’t the meticulous Wayne Shorter who scored everything note by note, or the perfect meshing of movable parts built by master machinists. The songs on Etcetera lack the lived-in feel that more time or familiarity might have given them. Given the amount of talent present plus the ratio of Shorter’s Blue Note recordings relative to the interest in them, many will find this nigh irresistible and will be rewarded accordingly. It is not, however, a lost treasure, but rather an artful addendum. [Note that most of this material appeared on the earlier Japanese (and later US) release, The Collector.]
Kronomyth 7.0: SAX APPLE. The earlier Blue Note albums (Juju, Speak No Evil, The All-Seeing Eye) basically amounted to program music around the themes of the Exotic, the Macabre and the Omniscient, resepectively. With no central theme at work, it could be said that Wayne Shorter had entered into a more confident place on Adam’s Apple where he could now let his music do the talking. Or it may simply be that Shorter needed a holiday from arcane subtexts, given his ongoing apprenticeship with the archmage Miles. (Nothing on here, for example, will prepare you for the utterly diabolic version of “Footprints” that Miles recorded with the quintet for the Miles Smiles album.) This is one of Shorter’s most plainly listenable records: the sax is clear and high in the mix, melody wins out over complexity, the rhythm section of Herbie Hancock and Joe Chamber swings, and Reginald Workman provides the hint of structure needed to hold everything together. Personally, I think Hancock and especially Workman are undermiked on this recording, although bringing Chambers up in the mix provides plenty of interesting contrast in the music. The opening “Adam’s Apple,” recorded a few weeks before the rest of these recordings, comes out swinging in a playfully contained canter that feigns toward a full trot which never arrives. Shorter uses a similar melody for the bossa nova-based “El Gaucho.” In between them, Jimmy Rowles’ “502 Blues” gets a warm reading. On side two, “Footprints” makes its first appearance and leaves a far friendlier impression than its subsequent, fiendish doppleganger. “Teru” is a beautiful, ethereal ballad, leading up to the lively, loping stride of “Chief Crazy Horse.” When the album was re-released on the longer CD format, Blue Note restored the Herbie Hancock original, “The Collector,” which the quartet had recorded on February 24 but left off the original album because of time constraints. It’s an experimental and noisy song that underscores how easily this album might have taken the avant-garde direction of Miles Davis. Instead, Wayne Shorter offered up decidedly sweeter fare, which has (rightly) endeared it to listeners over the years. It’s not his most profound or thought-provoking work, but it may be one of his most appl’ing.
Think this shocking sequel is immaterial? Then maybe you never had the stomach for the future. Not launching another “Rockit” into the airwaves would be like shutting down the space program after the first moonwalk. Sound-System continues the revolutionary reinvention of music introduced on Future Shock: a wild post-modern mix of mechanical beats, electronic sounds, funk, jazz and rock. What Hancock and Laswell had created with Future Shock was a marvelous melting pot of music that connected jazz with the cutting edge of club mixes. Sound-System puts more into the pot, from African pop (“Junku”) to Santana-styled Latin fusion (“Karabali”). A good half of the record is Rockit Redux, including the singles “Hardrock” (which features a rock guitar lead) and “Metal Beat.” But the real ear-openers on here are “Junku” and “Sound System,” which bring the exotic sounds of Foday Musa Suso’s kora into a post-modern landscape of cut-and-paste sounds and club mixes. As if to take a break from the revolution, Hancock returns to the soul/funk of his late ‘70s work with a cover of Timmy Thomas’ obscure single, “People Are Changing,” slyly underscoring how far music (and the world around it) has changed. If Sound-System defies easy categorization (and it certainly did in 1984), Hancock has labored to break down the walls that would contain jazz into a single box. He embraced electronic keyboards and funk/dance before his contemporaries and remains fearless in his pursuit of personal fusion with the world around him. The art of mixing has seldom found such an elevated platform, and students of the style would do well to sit at the foot of Sound-System and Future Shock and learn from an early master (Bill Laswell). In 1999, the disc was digitally remastered and the extended remix of “Metal Beat” appended.
You know, these Wayne Shorter albums are more trouble than they’re worth. The tantalizing traces of Weather Report hold my attention initially, but then I start drifting off and, by the time the song is over, I’ve forgotten everything that came before it. So I go back and listen to it again, telling myself that this time I’m really going to pay attention, and the same thing happens. I had a similar experience with Atlantis. In fact, I had to listen to Atlantis again just to compare it to Joy Ryder, since I’d completely forgotten what that album sounded like. By the time Atlantis was over, Joy Ryder seemed a distant memory, so back it went on the turntable, ad infinitum. Both albums have songs that I enjoy each time I hear them, in this case “Joy Ryder” and the vaguely Oriental “Cathay.” Just to make sure it wasn’t a case of reaching a Shorter saturation point, I tried listening to side two first. “Joy Ryder” and “Cathay” still came out on top (and the languid processional “Causeways” simply doesn’t make for a strong opening track). Though the players have changed since Atlantis, the instrumentation stays about the same (a carryover from the bass/drums/keyboard/synth sound of Weather Report). Shorter isn’t a flashy soloist by design on Joy Ryder, moving into the background much as Miles Davis had done at this stage in his career, his presence felt primarily in guiding commentary and countermelodic lines that underscore some new wrinkle in the arrangement. There are still moments when he flashes his superlative skill, as on “Over Shadow Hill Way” (which I’m listening to right now and will invariably forget in five minutes), but Shorter the arranger/leader is interested in hearing the music from the talented group he’s assembled, and Shorter the saxophonist doesn’t care if he blows you away with a solo or not. If I give this album a slight nod over Atlantis right now, I reserve the right to withdraw it when Joy Ryder is over. It does strike me as less lyrical and more angular than I expected, perhaps a better companion to the Weather Report story for its edginess and modernism, but lacking the highpoint of a swingout section like “The Last Silk Hat.” And, yes, I had to put that song on again just to remind myself.
Invariably stacked alongside the magnificent bounties of Miles Davis and Weather Report, and ultimately found wanting. There are percolating and purposeful rhythms, swinging melodies delivered in terse bursts from Shorter, but anyone looking for a lost continent of fusion-fueled fantasies won’t find them on the smooth shores of Atlantis. I’ve listened to this album (I mean, really listened) on more than a dozen occasions over the years, slipped it into the background mix a dozen more, and it has yet to leave a treasured keepsake behind. There are ephemeral charms, like the graceful gait of “The Three Marias” and the slightly subversive riffs found on “The Last Silk Hat” and “Criancas,” but they’re drab animals compared to the colorful creatures that stalked Weather Report’s wide veldts. Of course, Shorter’s compositions with Weather Report never spoke to me the way that the songs of Zawinul and Jaco Pastorius did, my tastes usually running to the left of the lyrical. Without those creative foils, the saxophonist does replicate some of the original oddness on his own, but he seems more at home when the pace is less frenetic and the melody allowed to linger. The backing band is predictably solid, including a pair of very capable pianists I was heretofore unfamiliar with, Yaron Gershovsky and Michiko Hill. Alejandro Acuna (a Weather-mate) and Larry Klein hold down the rhythm without much fuss, flautist Jim Walker slips in and out of the music while lending Shorter’s sax lines an added dimension. From the perspective of Miles or Weather Report, the level of musicianship is merely adequate, good citizens behaving with due deference in this province of the Reeded Son. Vocals also play a role in the music, in the case of “Atlantis” raising Chick Corea as a reference point. The fact remains that I’d pack relatively few jazz albums in my desert island excursion, and Atlantis would simply have to be left behind in the interest of economy. You, on the other hand, might have room for a suitcase full of the stuff, in which case Atlantis might be a nice change of clothes when the Weather Report runs dry.
Kronomyth 4.0: FROM ART, BLUE NOTES AND MILES TO GO. The second Blue Note set features six original compositions on tenor with Trane’s gang: McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones and Reggie Workman. It’s lyrical (natch) and direct, Shorter’s tenor cutting through the cloud rumblings of Tyner and Jones. The songs are typical of the tamed tempests from the early 60s, marked by sophisticated balladry (“House of Jade”), touristic travels abroad (“Mahjong,” “Juju”) and artful contrasts (“Yes Or No”). Unfortunately, any deeper discussion usually devolves into the jazz critic’s cant of harmonic shifts, modal scales and timbral distinctions, words that only serve to obfuscate rather than illuminate. So, in the hope of shedding some light on this fine work, I’ll tackle a few of the weightier descriptors. Harmonic suspensions (courtesy of Bob Blumenthal’s 1999 liner notes): the carrying over of a note while the harmony shifts. Augmented chords (some guy at Amazon): basically a chord with a sharp note at the end (e.g., C-E-G#). Modal jazz: style of jazz popularized by Coltrane where the playing is founded on a particular scale (or mode) rather than a series of chords. I find these technical terms standoffish, since they tell me what the music is from a compositional standpoint but they say nothing to me about what the music feels like. Now, maybe you get a little chill when you hear the words “modal jazz,” I don’t know. And I suppose I envy you a little if you do. For me, Juju is the throaty tone of the tenor leading an upright and polite discussion while the piano and drums crash and tumble like leaves loosed in a small whirlwind and the bass harrumphing in accord with whatever the sax is saying. No modalities, tonalities or harmonic abnormalities enter my mind when I hear it. Apparently, the session is indebted to Coltrane and purportedly an homage to him. Again, I just know what I like, and I like how Juju swings. It’s a different chapter than Shorter’s later fusion or R&B records, but I think I’ll stick around the 60s with Shorter for the time being.
Kronomyth 5.0: CHRISTMAS EVEL. It’s the day before Christmas 1964, and in the mind of Wayne Shorter medical cadavers (and not sugarplums) are dancing. The previous two Blue Note sessions had their dark moments, but Speak No Evil is downright diabolical in theme: burning witches, bloodthirsty giants, dancing dead. For jazz fans, however, Speak No Evil is a gift come early: Shorter, Ron Carter and Herbie Hancock playing together on the hallowed eve before the dawn of the new Miles Davis Quintet, a group that would represent for many the greatest jazz band ever assembled. In fact, the record looks forward to the minimalism of Miles while stepping out of the shadow of John Coltrane. Shorter and the familiar Freddie Hubbard state the melody tersely, then step back, then step forward for solos. Their presence is one of pungency rather than omnipresence, leaving Hancock, Carter and Elvin Jones to fill the blackness with darting shapes and faces. The best track here is “Dance Cadaverous;” haunting in every sense of the word, it perfectly captures the composer’s macabre mood. (An alternate take of the track is included on the 1999 remaster and has a more animated gait, although the two tracks are very similar—not surprising given Shorter’s tendency to write out the parts.) The remaining five tracks have rightly been regarded as minor classics over the years, from the startling “Witch Hunt,” which comes out swinging like a guillotine, to the ballad “Infant Eyes,” written for his daughter Miyako. With Shorter at the height of his creative powers in the mid 60s and surrounded by a supremely gifted group, Speak No Evil may well be the quintessential Wayne Shorter album. Surprisingly, Amazon’s editors ranked it #9 in the Top 100 jazz albums of all time. The rank itself isn’t so surprising as the fact that Amazon actually has editors; I just assumed they used monkeys or dolphins with laser pointers taped to their fins (the ones that seem to continually strand themselves on beaches, not the smart ones).