Wayne Shorter, Speak No Evil

Album of the week, June 4, 2022.

Many of the musicians in this series must be described in the past tense, but Wayne Shorter is still with us. We heard his tenor voice last time as a member of Miles Davis’ band. Today we’re going to look at an album he recorded after that run of dates on the road—an album that still stands among the greatest small group jazz recordings ever.

Wayne Shorter started his career in the Army, serving for two years after graduating from New York University, and playing in a combo with Horace Silver. He was subsequently hired by Art Blakey, who made a career out of finding promising young players and giving them opportunities to shine. During the time when Shorter was in the Jazz Messengers, Blakey’s band, he played alongside trumpeter Lee Morgan, pianist Bobby Timmons, trombonist Curtis Fuller, bassist Reggie Workman, Freddie Hubbard, and pianist Cedar Walton at various times. (We’ll hear from many of these artists later.) Even among this group of young giants, Shorter stood out, eventually becoming the band’s musical director.

Shorter played a few gigs with Miles in 1962 but stayed committed to Blakey’s group, finally giving in and joining Miles for good in the summer of 1964. The group toured extensively through Europe that summer and fall; in addition to the Berlin date we wrote about last time, there are also radio sessions documenting concerts in Paris, Sindelfingen (West Germany), and Copenhagen. When the band returned, with no Davis recording sessions imminent, he hit Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. The first session, in November, yielded three takes that were rejected by Blue Note. The second session, on Christmas Eve, 1964, yielded a masterpiece.

Shorter had already recorded two albums for Blue Note in 1964, with a group consisting of Coltrane sidemen (McCoy Tyner, Reggie Workman, and Elvin Jones) that established his abilities as a leader and a composer, but cast him as a Coltrane disciple. This time around the compositional voice was more assured and also beginning to speak a different language, with modal influences from Miles. That’s not all the record borrows from his work with the Miles Davis Quintet; his bandmates Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter joined him for the recording, alongside trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and John Coltrane Quartet drummer Elvin Jones. (We’ll hear more about all these musicians.)

Shorter starts off the album with “Witch Hunt,” a modal, bluesy track that features strong playing from Hubbard over a relaxed groove courtesy of Hancock and Carter. Hancock’s time in Miles’ group is apparent in his accompaniment, which drops chords into the spaces left by the horns as he brings the band along on the changes. Elvin Jones keeps the time with a relaxed swing, but turns up the heat as the group shifts gears into the chorus and as Shorter’s solo gets hotter, finding a new rhythmic pattern. Carter keeps an implacable heartbeat below all the players. And Shorter and Hubbard trade solos over the rhythm section, finding different approaches to the loping melody that opens the track.

“Fee Fi Fo Fum” is in nearly the same tempo, but relaxes further into the groove and drops a minor third down the chord that “Witch Hunt” explores, lending the impression of continuing the thought that the opening track started. Here Hubbard opens with a brief solo before yielding the floor to Shorter, who brings several different tonalities around the melody before passing the ball back to Hancock.

“Dance Cadaverous” continues the groove in waltz time. The first side of the album, in fact, feels like a slowly unfolding exploration of the same musical idea, with different melodic ideas continuing in the same mode. The sound continues to swirl around the same tonality in a series of hypnotic melodies, but you’d be forgiven for thinking of the songs as slightly interchangeable.

That changes in a big way with the title track, which opens the second side of the album. Here the melody is both simpler, reliant on just three notes to express the statement of the core idea, and more developed, as it moves in and out of the opening tonality, then climbs chromatically up the octave topping out a ninth above, with Hancock closing the pattern with a cluster of chords that descends back to the tonic. The tune is memorable and insistent and sticks around as Jones and Carter dig into the swing underneath while Hancock sketches out the scale, exploring both the chordal patterns and different rhythms. As with other songs in this session, Hubbard’s solo goes high, but Shorter stays in the same range as the melody, persistently circling round the melodic idea.

Things get stripped back even further on “Infant Ryes,” a slow ballad where Shorter and Hancock both strip out all but the most essential notes. Carter’s bass heartbeat is the pulse that moves the ballad forward, functioning in much the same way that Paul Chambers’ bass work did on Coltrane’s “Naima.” Shorter’s solo seems suspended in mid-air above the bed of Hancock’s delicate chord work throughout (Freddie Hubbard sits this one out). It’s stunning and points the way toward a path that Shorter would walk throughout his career.

The album closes with another statement in three. “Wild Flower” is, even more than “Dance Cadaverous,” a waltz, with the two horns playing in close harmony on the opening statement, only to come into unison on the second part of the theme as though two flowers twined around each other and grew toward the sky. The soloists follow the melody into and out of minor keys, exploring around the theme above the ground held by Elvin Jones and Ron Carter, with Herbie Hancock’s slightly off-beat chords giving the impression of someone wandering onto the dance floor with one leg slightly shorter than the other. Like the entire album, it’s mysterious, moody, and more than a little joyous.

Shorter would record more albums for Blue Note (and we’ll hear some of them), but this is undeniably his best known outing for the label. A statement of his compositional and soloistic gifts, it’s a performance that’s rarely been equalled on record. Next week we’ll see what happens when three of these players return to the context of the Miles Davis Quintet not quite a month later.

My copy of the album is the Blue Note 75th Anniversary re-pressing. I’ve picked up a few Blue Note reissues in various lines and have always been pleased, perhaps no more so than with this one, which has the sound of the musicians completely present and lifelike. You can listen to the album here.