Joe Zawinul, Zawinul

Album of the Week, September 17, 2022.

We last met Austrian keyboard player and composer Joe Zawinul when he arrived, seemingly from nowhere, to explore the unknown realms of in a Silent Way. On this appropriately self-titled album, Zawinul continues the journey, this time as leader and not merely as mystic guide. The album is a journey into outer space; it is also an instructive guide in the different ways to create jazz music.

Zawinul’s approach to this album was less group improvisation and more Gil Evans. The group features both Miroslav Vitouš and Walter Booker on bass, multiple drummers and percussionists (on different tracks, Billy Hart, Joe Chambers, Jack Dejohnette, and David Lee can be heard, usually in combinations of two or three), and a front line including Woody Shaw on trumpet (with Jimmy Owens on one track), George Davis on flute, Earl Turbindon on soprano sax, and Herbie Hancock on the mighty Fender Rhodes, alongside Zawinul on acoustic and electric pianos. One track features Wayne Shorter, Hubert Laws, and Dejohnette in lieu of Turbindon, Davis, and the other drummers. And the whole group performs in through composed suites that are strongly reminiscent of Gil Evans’ style, though still keeping room for solos.

Doctor Honoris Causa” opens the album in a demonstration of this approach. The melody, written in honor of Herbie Hancock’s honorary doctorate from Grinnell University, is cut from the same cloth as “In a Silent Way,” with a slow chromatic drift of chords from the keyboards and the horns yielding to an insistent bass line supported by a steady backbeat. The front line then enters, with Turbindon, Shaw, and Davis playing the melody line with one voice as it circles the tonic before climbing up to a diminished sixth. There is a short break of around four measures before the second part of the melody returns, again in unison. Following the same arrangement pattern as some of Miles’ work on Nefertiti, the melody returns over and over again, with longer solos between. Shaw takes the first extended solo, his trumpet climbing over strong support from the Fender and Zawinul’s organ. Turbindon takes the next one, with his soprano sax exploring minor modes around the tonic and drifting away, with the Echoplexed Fender Rhodes of Herbie Hancock taking the next solo, reverberating through the cosmos. Zawinul takes the final solo, steering the group’s improvisations through turbulent air before gently bringing them to a landing. The work may celebrate Hancock’s accomplishments in title, but in execution it’s an evocation of flight.

In a Silent Way” returns to Zawinul’s iconic composition that lent its title to Miles’ pioneering fusion album. Here we hear the work in its full extended form. In doing so, he gives us an insight into Miles’ compositional methods. The original arrangement heard here takes us through an extended introduction in multiple modal chord changes before bringing us to the famous melody. In doing so, the work takes on a very different character from Miles’ wide-eyed, searching rendition. At the last Tanglewood weekend of this summer, I heard WCRB commentator Bryan McCreath point out that much of the power of the opening of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony comes from the open fourths and fifths that constitute the opening theme, because of their harmonic ambiguity. Minus a third in the progression, they could either fall to a major or minor key. The same is true of the Miles version of “In a Silent Way,” which keeps its progressions open for as long as possible before finally revealing its mode. Zawinul’s original extended introduction, which pivots from major to minor with richer harmonies throughout, is more fully voiced, but the ambiguity is lost. It’s still a stunning performance, evoking the Swiss Alps of Zawinul’s youth, albeit with less mystery and more sentimentality.

His Last Journey” is a different animal altogether, a tone poem for bass, piano, chimes, and trumpet. The melody is played in the uppermost ranges of the arco bass over the second bass and a descending piano line, with the trumpet sketching an alternate melody around the edges. It’s a brief dream of a composition that is over all too soon.

Double Image” is the outlier here. Recorded in a different session in late August 1970 with Shorter and Laws, the work is more of a group improvisation than anything else on the record, with the two keyboardists and two bassists alternately working together and improvising separately, with the extended bass arco solo at the beginning exploring the outer reaches. (I’ve gotten pretty good at telling the players apart on these albums, but am not sure whether we’re hearing Vitouš or Booker there.) Zawinul takes the other solo on the track, with the horns and flute providing the echo of the melody in between. The energy level and level of abstraction comes closer here to the more frenetic tunes on Super Nova and Bitches Brew than anything else on the record; unsurprisingly, this is the one composition from this period that would later be recorded by Miles’ electric group on Live-Evil.

Arrival in New York” closes the album with something else again: a sound collage, with taped segments of bowed bass, organ, and percussion manipulated to evoke the cacophony of the New York streets, subways, and harbor as Zawinul remembered them from his arrival in the United States in 1959. As a composition it’s an island unto itself, but it would not be the last time Zawinul would embrace different studio techniques to discover new soundscapes.

So Zawinul points toward a different way to embody Miles’ searching while taking some of the great trumpeter’s collaborators in a different direction. He would continue working with Shorter and Vitouš; we will hear that collaboration next week.

You can hear the album here:

Miroslav Vitouš, Infinite Search

Album of the Week, September 10, 2022

We’ve been spending a lot of time with the members of Miles’ different groups in this thread. At first glance, the debut solo album of the Czech bassist Miroslav Vitouš would seem an odd fit. But there are a few reasons it’s the album of the week this week: there is substantial overlap with Miles’ sidemen, and because of what is coming next.

For his debut album on Embryo Records, Vitouš assembled an impressive list of musicians: Joe Henderson on tenor sax, John McLaughlin on guitar, Herbie Hancock on electric piano, and Jack DeJohnette on drums (all except the last track, where Joe Chambers fills in). The recording was made October 8, 1969, several months after the Wayne Shorter sessions for Super Nova, on which McLaughlin and DeJohnette both played. But the sound they produce here, absent Shorter’s soprano saxophone, is very different. I should say sounds, because each of the six tracks on the album inhabits a different soundscape.

We’ve already heard Miles’ take on “Freedom Jazz Dance,” on his Miles Smiles. Here, after the introduction by the full band, Vitouš takes an extended bass solo accompanied only by DeJohnette, with interjections by McLaughlin on guitar. A solo by Herbie Hancock follows, with the chiming Fender sound climbing up into the upper octaves, followed by McLaughlin’s solo, over an increasingly frantic rhythm section. When Henderson enters, Hancock and McLaughlin drop out and the frenetic energy lessens, but only slightly before he takes his own frantic turn. Closing out with the theme, Vitouš and Hancock turn the reprise into an extended coda.

Mountain in the Clouds” foregrounds Vitouš and DeJohnette in a short fragment of a composition, as if to assert the bass’s primacy as a melodic instrument. It works, but is so brief the tune never fully develops.

When Face Gets Pale” is another bass-led melody with chordal support from Hancock entwined by McLaughlin’s twisting guitar lines. The composition circles the same chord progression over and over again, creating a meditative mood.

Infinite Search” is the track on the album that feels closest to what we’ve heard before. Here the dominant tone is Herbie Hancock’s Fender Rhodes, in duet with Vitouš’s deep bass lines. Together they produce music that reaches both up to the heavens on clouds of Echoplexed reverb and down deep into the earth, grounded by the deep roots of the bass and supported by a two note repeated figure as a ground throughout. The composition wouldn’t have been out of place on Water Babies, and is insistently memorable.

I Will Tell Him On You” is introduced by a theme by Henderson in diffuse clouds of chords from Hancock, which is then elaborated by Vitouš before Henderson returns in a swirling solo, using a technique that he returned to throughout his recording career. If Coltrane had “sheets of sound,” rapidly descending arpeggios, Henderson had whirlpools of sound that circled the tonal center. This effect can be heard to good effect here. McLaughlin follows, neatly mimicking Henderson’s technique before adding flourishes and bent notes that claim the ground as his own. Herbie’s piano solo elaborates the theme with the chiming upper octaves of the Fender before DeJohnette takes a crashing, rolling drum solo. The reprise is followed by a coda by McLaughlin and Hancock. It’s a bracing performance.

Epilogue” is opened by an extended bass solo from Vitouš, supported by Hancock and a bed of chimes and drums. The mood continues through a solo by Hancock, never losing the mystery, until it disappears into a cloud of chimes.

So with his first solo album, Vitouš demonstrated his compatibility with the players in Miles’ orbit who were moving fusion forward, while also proving his own voice. Next time we’ll hear another musician claiming his own leading role in the new sound.

You can listen to Infinite Search here:

Wayne Shorter, Schizophrenia

Album of the Week, July 16, 2022

Miles may have gone through some quieter periods between 1964 and 1966, but he and the quintet were now, it seems, determined to make up for lost time. We’ve entered a period of the discography where it’s difficult to cover the recordings in strict chronological order, between the albums that were all laid down in one session and the others that are made up of tracks from a variety of sessions, sometimes spanning several years. But before we commence the later part of the Second Great Quintet, there was still room for members of the group to record their own solo albums in between quintet sessions. And so we find Wayne Shorter on March 10, 1967, entering Van Gelder Studios once more for Blue Note, this time with a sextet: Curtis Fuller on trombone, James Spaulding on alto sax and flute, Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass, and Joe Chambers on drums, to record Schizophrenia.

The album gets off to a strong start, with a Shorter original we’ve heard before, now in a fuller arrangement. “Tom Thumb” here benefits from Herbie Hancock’s sambaesque introductory statement, as well as James Spaulding’s distinctive tone on alto and the remarkable timbre of Curtis Fuller’s trombone. Herbie’s solo, full of unusual chordal clusters and tones, is notable after all the right-hand-only solos we heard on Miles Smiles, just six months before; it’s a reminder of how much of a full orchestral sound he can bring to the party. James Spaulding’s solo on alto is striking as well, covering a range of two plus octaves and playing with the time before returning to the contours of the melody. After the rocky terrain of The All Seeing Eye, this is almost Wayne Shorter as pop artist, though there’s nothing watered down about those solos.

As if to remind us of the earlier album, “Go” opens with an out-of-time modal chord progression from the horns, but then enters a more wistful balladic feel as they settle into a gentle samba-influenced melody. The group plays freely with time through the intro, but you can always feel the pulse just below the surface. When Spaulding enters on flute, it’s breathtaking, as is the handoff from the diminuendo in the flute into Shorter’s tenor entrance. The concluding chorus opens with Shorter alone before the rest of the horns come in to provide melancholy counterpoint. It’s one of those remarkable Shorter compositions that sneaks under the blankets of your mind.

The title track, true to its name, seems to have a split psyche, opening in a slow out-of-time statement by the horns before kicking into a higher gear as a fast modal workout for the whole band. Shorter’s solo is appropriately fiery, of course, but we also hear Fuller on a blistering trombone solo and Spaulding seems to fan the flames.

“Kryptonite” is a James Spaulding composition, and features him on flute in the opening statement of the theme, alongside the rest of the horns, and then into a flute solo that starts with the opening chords and then finds its way into adjoining tonalities, all while holding onto the rhythmic drive of the theme. It’s a strong opening statement, and Shorter’s solo goes in a different direction, picking up a rhythmic figure from Spaulding and then making his own scale out of the raw material of the chords, before returning to the opening theme and his opening rhythmic statement. Hancock’s solo vamps over or two chords from the theme but is mostly a right-hand statement, before the final chorus comes in.

“Miyako,” named for Shorter’s daughter with his ex-wife Teruko Nakagami (who appears on the cover of Speak No Evil), is a ballad in the spirit of “Infant Eyes,” which was also dedicated to her. The melody is simple here, but the richness of the arrangement—where would this album be without Curtis Fuller’s trombone??—sets it apart, as does the chord progression that takes us from minor to relative major to lands unexplored in just a few bars. It’s stunning…

… but not quite as stunning as the opening of “Playground,” a full band workout that seems to flash from darkness to valediction to schoolyard namecalling in the first minute. We’re not in pop music territory here anymore, but the freer statement feels closer to where Shorter’s muse was taking him. Still, the closing is nowhere near as dark as The All Seeing Eye. Despite (or perhaps because of) the freedom of Shorter’s approach, we still find ourselves unexpectedly in a gospel moment as Hancock exchanges chords and comments under Fuller’s solo. Spaulding’s solo complements the gospel moment, but his repetition of the thematic idea is more free jazz than gospel shout. Hancock takes us back to the darkness from the opening theme, but playfully, with runs in the right hand against rumbled chords in the left, leading into the final chorus with the horns. A repeated blare on the final chord takes the song, and the album, out.

Schizophrenia is as wide reaching as its title suggests, finding Shorter revisiting some of the musical approaches from his earlier albums at the same time as he feels his way into new ways to approach free jazz. It’s a fun record, if measured by nothing else than it seems to end too soon. Some of the fun of the record would return in Shorter’s compositions on the next Miles Davis Quintet album; we’ll hear that next week.

You can listen to Schizophrenia here.

Wayne Shorter, The All Seeing Eye

Album of the Week, June 25, 2022.

As 1965 ran on, Miles Davis continued with health problems and personal setbacks. His hip replacement in April had failed, but he checked himself out of the hospital due to boredom in July. In August he was back in the hospital for another go at the hip replacement, this time with a plastic ball joint. The band continued recording, though. We’ve listened to Hancock’s Maiden Voyage. Tony Williams recorded his debut solo album Spring in August with Wayne Shorter and Hancock alongside. And Shorter recorded The Soothsayer in March, The Collector in June, and recorded the Lee Morgan album The Gigolo with his old Jazz Messengers bandmate in June and July. And in October, Shorter returned to Van Gelder Studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey with an octet to record his next album, The All Seeing Eye.

To say that this new album was a radical departure from what came before is accurate, and might understate how dramatic a development this was for Shorter the composer. Not only was this the largest group he had ever written for — with Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Freddie Hubbard returning from Speak No Evil, and now augmented by trombonist Grachan Moncur III, alto sax James Spaulding, drummer Joe Chambers, and Shorter’s brother Alan composing and playing flugelhorn on the final track — but compositionally this was far from the normal territory he covered. Even coming after some of the danker tracks on E.S.P. we are in new territory here. There is little of the blues or standards jazz on this album. We teeter over the abyss.

Shorter meant this as a concept album, exploring the meaning of life and the existence of God and the Universe. It’s easy to hear a search for the divine in the title track, which opens the album. In some ways the tune here is the most conventional one on the album, but the thick chords take it to a completely different place. Hubbard has a blazing solo that Shorter picks up and carries forward. Hancock slows things back down with his solo and the band comes back at the end to close things down.

The opening track is wild, but nothing prepares the listener for the free opening to “Genesis,” which presents a full keyboard chromatic scale by Hancock that builds from the abyss to a modal statement of the theme, first in the piano, then continued in the horns. Coming out of the band’s opening statement, first Carter and then Shorter take their own free statement of the melody. Shorter builds to a rhythmic pattern that he repeats on a single note for four measures before Hancock picks up the pattern, while Shorter spins back out. Hubbard takes the next solo, keeping in free time while exploring different tones and octaves with his horn. Moncur slowly explores an ascending chromatic scale as the part of Creation that he surveys unfurls. At the end the main theme comes back with the chords from the horns, followed by the piano theme to bring the composition full circle. Twelve bar blues this ain’t.

Chaos,” despite its title, is more conventional, albeit deep in modal jazz. Shorter has called this “what man has done… to God’s creation,” and the music reflects a deep tension, conflict and warring voices, all over the constant pulse of Carter and Chambers. First Shorter, then Hubbard and Hancock make fiery statements before the ensemble plays out the theme again and begin to spiral back out, ending the track in a rare fade-out.

The Face of the Deep” is a relatively more conventional slow ballad, rendered fresh both by the dense voicing of the horn quartet on the theme and by Hancock’s contemplative solo, accompanied by sensitive work from Chambers on the cymbals and a slow heartbeat from Carter. As an aside, this record features some of Carter’s earliest use of the portamento that would eventually become one of his signature techniques. Shorter’s solo here is reminiscent of his work on “Infant Eyes,” with an approach as much about space as about his notes. The horns return after to restate the theme with an ominous swell that leads into the final track.

Mephistopheles,” the sole composition by Alan Shorter on the album, seems at first puckish, with an angular melody in the horns that is played in clusters of notes. But then the rhythm section enters with an insistent ground played in the bass and piano accompanied by subtle cymbal work by Chambers, and the horns return with an ominous restatement of the theme followed by a scream. Shorter picks up the solo over rolling drumwork and that continuing ground, sketching a portrait of an uneven, unpredictable ruler of the underworld. His brother follows with a flugelhorn solo that continues the exploration of the Hadean region, playing against stabbing chords in the piano as he circles the melody, raising it higher and then descending back into the pit. Moncur gets the last word from the horns, with a solo that reflects less fire and more heat, taking the persistent beat of the ground and adopting it for his own descending solo. Chambers takes the ground and double times it for his own solo, then breaks free of the boundaries of the bars before returning to the ground beneath the horns who restate the melody once more, finishing with a final scream.

Shorter would explore many more boundaries of music, both with his solo recordings and his work with the Miles Davis Quintet, but The All Seeing Eye stands as a conceptual milestone in his catalog, both forbidding in its thorny complexity and inspiring in its dark beauty. It was not a permanent change of direction, and next time we’ll explore yet another side of him as a composer and sideman alongside another of his Art Blakey bandmates.

My copy of the record (top) is the recent Tone Poet reissue from Blue Note, which sounds superb. You can listen to the full album here.