McCoy Tyner, Expansions

Album of the Week, April 13, 2024

The classic John Coltrane Quartet was no more after December 1965, as first McCoy Tyner then Elvin Jones despaired of being able to follow Trane to the places he was going. Trane died, unexpectedly and awfully, of liver cancer at the age of 40, on July 17, 1967. But Trane’s musical legacy lived on, most notably through those who played with him and the unmistakably audible legacy his works left in theirs. Tyner was one of those, and as we’ll hear over the next few weeks, Trane’s influence ran strong in Tyner’s works for years afterwards.

Following Tyner’s departure from the Quartet, he signed with Blue Note Records and recorded a series of albums that gradually expanded Tyner’s compositional and performing concept beyond the boundaries of the jazz quartet. On Expansions, the fourth in the series (following The Real McCoy, Tender Moments, and Time for Tyner), we get an intriguing mix of modal jazz, the avant-garde, and more traditional sounds, delivered by a septet of players that included Woody Shaw on trumpet, Gary Bartz on alto sax (and wooden flute), Wayne Shorter on tenor sax (and clarinet), Herbie Lewis on bass, Freddie Watts on drums, and Ron Carter, who plays cello here.

Shaw would go on to record on sessions with Joe Zawinul (he actually appears on Zawinul), as well as . Gary Bartz had previously performed with Tyner in Charles Mingus’s workshop and would record with him again before working with Miles Davis in 1970 (resulting in the Live-Evil album) and beginning his own influential band, the NTU Troop. Herbie Lewis recorded with a long list of influential 1960s players including Cannonball Adderley, Stanley Turrentine, Bobby Hutcherson, Freddie Hubbard, Jackie McLean, Archie Shepp, Harold Land, and others. And Freddie Watts worked with Max Roach, Kenny Barron, Andrew Hill, Joe Zawinul, Freddie Hubbard, and others.

When you hear “Vision,” you could be forgiven for thinking you were hearing a leftover melody from a Coltrane session, at least until the horns enter. Tyner’s harmonic imagination is strongly influenced by Trane’s modal material. But the horns, who play the opening statement of the melody add a new element that’s distinct from the Coltrane style. And Ron Carter’s cello solo, which provides both melody and texture by playing with light pressure on the fingerboard while bowing (sul ponticello), takes the tune even further into unknown reaches. Wayne Shorter, Gary Bartz, and Woody Shaw each take a solo. Shorter’s harmonic imagination is interesting here as he plays unusually aggressively compared to his performances as a group leader. There are touches of some of his playing on Miles Smiles in the speed and bite of his playing. Bartz plays more melodically by contrast, but brings in some distortion in the saxophone. And Shaw goes even further out, playing into the upper reaches and moving well beyond the chords of the tune. The overall tune pushes beyond traditional jazz forms, urged on by Tyner’s percussive playing and Freddie Watts’ drums.

Song of Happiness” comes from a more meditative center. The opening is played over a static chord with the piano and bass constantly in motion without moving far from the central tonality. A melody starts in the bass and is accompanied by the constantly rolling piano and, ultimately, by wooden flute and clarinet, played by Bartz and Shorter. Finally, the horns come in on a secondary melody and are answered by the bass and piano, tossing the development of the melody back and forth in eight bar patterns. Solos follow from Tyner and Shorter, and the group returns to the flute for the long coda. There’s more than a hint of the East in the arrangement, and it shows how Tyner’s imagination was broadening beyond the minor key workouts of the classic quartet.

Smitty’s Place,” by contrast, feels almost like an Archie Shepp workout, with a clear melody alternating with free playing from the band. Shorter’s solo here is much closer to his normal playing of the late 1960s, with shadows of his Schizophrenia. The pizzicato cello solo by Carter is one of the farthest-out things on the whole record, and Tyner’s closing solo definitely the funniest.

Peresina” finds us back in a familiar minor modal groove, led by Tyner’s assertive solo and followed by the melody which is stated in the horns. But at about the two minute mark the tune takes a left turn into something more complex chordally, and suddenly the feel is less percussive, more dancelike. It’s an interesting tune, well played by the band; again, Shorter’s solo stands out for its left turns into unusual tonalities and moments.

Last, “I Thought I’d Let You Know” is the only non-Tyner composition on the album. Written by Cal Massey, who played with Tyner and Jimmy Garrison in Philadelphia in the 1950s, the work opens with a cello feature by Carter before turning to a tender piano solo from Tyner. The two alternate with support from the rhythm section throughout. The overall effect has the serenity of “Song of Happiness” in a more traditional format, as if to say: this, too, remains.

On Expansions, McCoy Tyner’s compositional skills and range are on full display. While still touched by the shadow of Trane’s influence, tracks like “Song of Happiness” and “Smitty’s Place” show that Tyner could stretch convincingly into his own definition of the avant-garde and could command a substantially broader tonal palette. We’ll hear more of that in coming recordings from him; next week, though, we’ll check out another post-Trane recording from one of his later collaborators.

You can listen to this week’s album here:

Kenny Dorham, Afro-Cuban

Album of the Week, October 15, 2022

We’ve seen a lot of different influences in jazz: classical music, blues, rock. But one big strain that didn’t really touch Miles, but influenced a lot of other jazz musicians, is Cuban music. Arriving in the US in the 1940s, by the mid-1950s it was a well established strain of jazz music, championed by Dizzy Gillespie and Chano Pozo, among others. And trumpeter and composer Kenny Durham dove into the music for this, his second album as a leader and first for Blue Note Records.

As we’ve seen with Herbie Hancock’s early Blue Note recordings, dates for the label often drew on different groups of players who were also recording for the roster, meaning that when you pick up a Blue Note recording made in 1955, you stand a very good chance of seeing familiar names in the line-up. Afro-Cuban is no exception, with a group boasting J. J. Johnson on trombone, the great Horace Silver on piano, Hank Mobley on tenor sax, Cecil Payne on baritone, Oscar Pettiford on bass, and Art Blakey on drums. To this assemblage were added Carlos “Patato” Valdes on conga and Richie Goldberg on cowbell. The album was actually recorded in two sessions, with the musicians above appearing in session on March 29, 1955, and the first four tracks on the album were originally released on a 10” LP. Blue Note decided to reissue the record in 1957, adding three tracks from an earlier session recorded January 30, 1955 without Valdes and Goldberg, and substituting Percy Heath for Pettiford on bass.

The album opens with strong Afro-Cuban flavor with “Afrodisia,” the congas telegraphing the artistic direction of the album at once. After the brass line states the opening theme, Dorham’s trumpet provides a solo that combines the Cuban flavor with his own hard bop approach to the music, with hard bop changes alternating with the melodic licks across several choruses. Mobley’s refined sax follows, kicking the group briefly into a different unsyncopated pattern before he settles back into the swing of things and passes it to J.J. Johnson, who takes two choruses before letting Blakey and Valdes trade eights with the entire horn line.

Lotus Flower” is a slower ballad, with the horns introducing the melody over a gently loping bass and conga pattern. Dorham provides a good opportunity to hear the differences in his approach to the horn from other players like Miles. There’s no mute here, and a good deal more motion in the line; Miles would likely have played half as many notes, but Dorham’s approach is equally lovely. The interlude is brief; “Minor’s Holiday” returns to the Cuban dance rhythms of the opening, with Dorham briskly soloing over Valdes’ Cuban rhythms and Blakey’s customarily volcanic drumming. Indeed, while Blakey is normally no slouch in bringing energy to the recording session, here he sounds positively charged by Valdes.

The only composition not by Dorham on the record, “Basheer’s Dream” (written by the redoubtable Gigi Gryce, some seven years before he adopted the Islamic name Basheer Qusim) is here steeped both in the Cuban rhythms of the opening and the post-bop approach that Gryce introduced in his work with Miles on Birth of the Cool. Johnson’s trombone solo is especially tasty here, as he pulls a minor countermelody out of the chord progressions of the song, contrasting with the high solo lines of both Dorham and Mobley.

The second side of the album reads as more straight-ahead hard bop, but it’s no less delightful, thanks to the continued excellent work of the front line. “K.D.’s Motion,” true to its name, roams all over the chords in the opening chorus and in Dorham’s solo before he passes to Cecil Payne for a rare baritone solo. The transition between Payne and Mobley is almost telepathic, with the latter picking up Payne’s swing for a brief turn before passing it to Silver who gets a relatively rare moment atop the rhythm section before the chorus returns.

Dorham’s “La Villa” begins where “K.D.’s Motion” ended, with a propulsive statement on the drums from Blakey. The tune, which can also be found under Sonny Rollins’ name in several compilations thanks to his presence on a later Dorham session, is blistering throughout as the band navigates through the changes. Solos from Dorham, Mobley and Payne are followed by a spate of trading fours with Blakey and a final statement of the theme. “Venita’s Dance” closes the second side in a mid-tempo statement that’s kept lively by Blakey and Silver’s insistent underpinnings; indeed, it’s eye-widening to listen to Silver’s melodic approach to the chords underneath each of the soloists and to reflect on the two completely different melodies at work each time.

Dorham was perpetually underrated, a situation not helped by his movement across several labels during his career in the 1950s and 1960s; he recorded four more sessions for Blue Note in between records for Riverside, Time, Prestige/New Jazz, and (after he moved to Europe) SteepleChase. He ultimately died young of kidney disease in 1972. But sessions like Afro Cuban offer tantalizing glimpses of what might have been, and are a good reminder of the pleasures to be found in what might otherwise seem to be just another Blue Note session.

You can listen to the album here:

Wayne Shorter, Super Nova

Album of the Week, September 3, 2022.

We’ve tipped over the edge of the world with today’s Album of the Week. Super Nova is our first post-Bitches Brew album, the first Wayne Shorter solo album to feature him on the soprano sax, the first album to tip from post-bop to free jazz that we’ve featured. It’s by turns intoxicating and disorienting. When I bought it in college, I had no idea what to make of it, and I’m still learning my way through it. It’s a ferocious album from an extraordinary group of musicians, deployed in a most unusual way.

For this session, recorded beginning eight days after the last session for Miles’ fusion masterpiece Bitches Brew, Wayne assembled an all-star cast of early fusion players. Guitarist John McLaughlin returned from Bitches Brew and In a Silent Way, playing guitar; he was joined on drums and vibes by Chick Corea (!!). Chick brought Miroslav Vitouš, a young Czech bassist who had played on several of his recent recordings and done sessions with Herbie Mann and Roy Ayers. From Miles’ Bitches Brew band, Jack DeJohnette was the primary drummer for the sessions and also played the kalimba; he was joined on percussion by Airto, the mononymous percussionist that was starting to appear with regularity on jazz fusion albums. Rounding out the band were avant-garde electric guitarist Sonny Sharrock and Niels Jakobsen on claves. And Walter and Maria Booker would memorably appear on one track together as well, on acoustic guitar and vocals.

The title track opens the album in full free jazz mode. Part of the dislocation of the album is immediately apparent in the instrumentation. With no keyboard instrument to center the chords, the soprano sax is the focus of the tonal energy, serene above a swarm of guitar and bass. What sound like screams reveal themselves to be interjections from Sonny Sharrock’s electric guitar. The whole thing might be as close as Shorter gets to the energy of some of Coltrane’s post-A Love Supreme recordings.

Swee-Pea” opens more peacefully, with the vibes, chimes and guitars creating a bed for Shorter’s tranquil soprano sax melody. We’ve heard this tune before, as “Sweet Pea,” on the Miles compilation album Water Babies. Here, Shorter’s threnody for Billy Strayhorn subtracts much of the lushness of the arrangement of the earlier recording, revealing a melody simultaneously more powerful and more fragile on the soprano sax.

Dindi” is a completely different thing again. The opening gives us chaos, in the form of percussion and guitars underpinning the single note solo on the soprano saxophone, all riding over the ostinato bass note that pulses a relentless rhythm. Then everything falls away except for the acoustic guitar of Walter Booker, accompanying the plaintive Portuguese vocals of his wife Maria. Overcome as she begins the second chorus, Maria’s solo ends in a choked sob, and the chaos returns. This was the track that made me put the album down for several years when I heard it as a college student; I just wasn’t ready for the naked emotions at play here.

Water Babies” is sonically worlds away from the version recorded by Miles a few years earlier. And then again: many of the bones are there, only reconfigured. The pulsed base note of Miroslav Vitouš grounds us in waltz time, and the melody, here are in the soprano sax, retains some of its plaintiveness. But the performance is freer. And the ringing chords in the guitar, while continuing to locate the tone in the same minor mode as the prior performance, here leave more possibilities for the other players to explore.

Capricorn” seems destined to be another exploration into chaos, with the intensely powerful opening by bass, electric guitar and drums. Indeed, Jack DeJohnette‘s drums continue throughout the song to roll chaos in the deep. But Wayne Shorter and John McLaughlin are up to something else. Shorter’s solo, by turns serene and fiercely impassioned, takes us to the emotional center of the album, and McLaughlin’s chords support the melody, turning it almost into a second conversation within the cacophony of the rhythm section. It’s a powerful contrast and a stunning performance.

More Than Human” closes the album, with Shorter’s melody seemingly having completely committed to the sonic world created by DeJohnette, Airto and Sharrock. The soprano melody descends chromatically as though landing on the surface of an alien world, buffeted by gusts from Sharrock’s guitar and Airto’s percussive attack. At the end, Shorter steps away from the microphone, still playing, as though exploring the new vista unfolding before him.

The final track’s title gives a clue to a thematic impulse behind the album. More Than Human, the Theodore Sturgeon novel that was published in 1953, is about the gestalt, humans who can pool their minds and abilities together into a whole that is far more than the sum of its parts. It’s a good description for what Shorter’s band accomplishes on this unusual outing. It also explains the album cover, which feels a bit like a pulp science fiction novel itself.

You can listen to the album 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.

Herbie Hancock, Maiden Voyage

Album of the week, June 18, 2022

Listening to the opening of “Maiden Voyage,” it’s hard to believe that it was recorded just two months after E.S.P.—and with three of the same members. It’s also hard to believe that it opens Hancock’s fifth solo album in four years—to say nothing of his work with Miles.

The band that entered Van Gelder Studio in Englewood Cliffs on March 17, 1965 bore some strong resemblances to the one that had recorded with Miles at Columbia Studios in Hollywood on January 20-22. In addition to Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams returned to the rhythm section; they had performed with Hancock on his preceding album, Empyrean Isles, as had Freddie Hubbard. George Coleman, who had played with Herbie on the live recordings of the Miles Davis Quintet from Carnegie Hall, My Funny Valentine and “Four” and More, rounded out the group on tenor sax. But though many of the players on the album had played with Miles, this album is distinctively Herbie Hancock’s work.

I write a lot about chordal structure, rhythmic interplay, and other facets of jazz improvisation in this series, but there is one essential element without which no jazz album can reach greatness: melody. One of the few weak points of E.S.P., to my ear, is the lack of distinct melodies on the second side, after the strong opening of the title track, “Eighty-One” and “Little One.” There’s no such weakness here, and “Maiden Voyage” opens the album with one of the all time great jazz melodies. It’s simple, persistent, and yearning, with a simple tune—up a fourth, then down a whole step and a four note run up a minor scale. But it’s slippery, with the same pattern repeated at a different part of the scale a few bars later, and the whole thing is set over suspended seventh chords, evoking a sense of mystery. It conveys everything about the sense of wonder of the beginning of a solo journey, combined with the mystery of the ocean. It is also unforgettable, and a substantial step forward from the Herbie Hancock who wrote the calculated hit tunes “Watermelon Man” and “Blind Man, Blind Man.

The whole track is a remarkable performance, but especially worth listening to is Tony Williams’ drum work under Hancock’s solo. Through a combination of cymbal work, snare rolls, and a bass drum heartbeat that slightly anticipates Ron Carter’s bass line. It’s an amazing evocation of the ocean, complete with creaking timbers and salt spray, and yet it’s utterly placid on the surface.

From the tranquility of the opening track we are immediately dropped into a storm. “The Eye of the Hurricane” provides an opportunity for Freddie Hubbard to demonstrate the combination of keen melodic sense, rhythmic complexity, and sheer technical acumen that would become his signature sound for the next fifteen years. His solo is astonishing. Coleman’s tenor solo following is less technically precise but is propulsive and carries the energy forward into Hancock’s solo, which is carried out almost entirely in the right hand as the chords drop way back, providing a feeling of calm at the center of the work. It’s a neat trick, but it makes me wonder what the piece would sound like in the hands of McCoy Tyner.

Hancock’s “Little One” follows, and he wisely rearranges the solos a little compared to the version on E.S.P. Here, both horns play the opening phrase, while Hubbard takes the following climb upward over Coleman’s lower accompaniment, and Hancock plays the yearning part that was Wayne Shorter’s on the earlier version. When the waltz comes in, George Coleman creates an entirely new melody over the opening, demonstrating the versatility of the tune and his own unique melodic gift. Freddie Hubbard follows the trail blazed by Coleman but quickly takes the melody to his own territory before passing it back to Herbie Hancock. His work on the solo finds him deep in impressionistic territory. Indeed, with his rhythmic chords alternating with melodic runs, he sounds like a livelier Bill Evans—a distinctively new voice from Hancock, who stretches out in several new directions on the record.

The furthest out direction he visits comes to the fore on “Survival of the Fittest.” What was I saying about melody? Here the hook is memorable but not hummable: slowly crescendoing chords, a saxophone line that sounds a lot like the opening to Wayne Shorter’s “Yes or No” (recorded seven months earlier), a scream in the trumpet, stabbing chords from the horns, a quick fragment of a melody, and then… burnout. Not in the pejorative sense, but in the sense that Branford Marsalis’s band has used it. Solos stretch past boundaries of bars and choruses and into different times and tonalities, anchored by Williams’ frantic drumming. Even here Hancock finds lyrical melody, but in a constantly shifting tonality and tempo. Finally the rest of the rhythm section falls away and it’s just Herbie playing a scherzo over chords that rock back and forth between two minor modes. It’s stunning and time stopping, and when Tony Williams comes back in he maintains the timeless feel with rolling drums in the deep. The horns come back in six bursts, restating the opening melody before abruptly halting.

And then: a surprise. “Dolphin Dance” swings gently and offers us the second most memorable melody of the record, an ascending run from the third to the fifth of the scale then down to the second, an easygoing pattern that continues with the same intervals but then starts from the tonic, the sixth and the third. It’s a vivid image, suggesting dolphins breaching out of the water one after another. And the soloists follow. Freddie Hubbard breaks out of the second repetition of the melody, taking flight for a moment, swimming along with the melody, then kicking it into a new key before passing it to George Coleman. The saxophonist swings his solo hard before going into double-time and eventually employing something like Coltrane’s “sheets of sound.” Hancock brings it back to the circling pattern, touching the other points of the scale before generating a new melody that reaches upwards, pauses, then climbs once more. The final recapitulation underscores the serenity of the melody, drifting into the distance.

It’s a fitting sendoff for the album, which stands as one of the high points of Hancock’s work—and of Blue Note Records in general. Next time we’ll hear a very different work from another member of Miles’ quintet.

You can listen to the album here.

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 Eyes,” 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.

Herbie Hancock, My Point of View

Album of the Week, May 21, 2022

Say you’re Herbie Hancock. You have, at the age of 22, released your first album for Blue Note Records, and it’s a hit. The single cracks the Top 100, and your friend Mongo Santamaria’s re-recording of it cracks the Top 10. You’ve demonstrated that you can compose soul jazz, modal jazz, and ballads. What do you do for an encore? Well, if you’re Herbie Hancock, almost a year to the day you get back in the studio, and you do it again, with a bigger band.

To call My Point of View similar to Takin’ Off is a little unfair. The writing is more assured and distinctive, for one thing. Where you could be forgiven for mixing up “Three Bags Full” and “Empty Pockets” on the first album, each tune on My Point of View is distinctive. And the orchestration is fuller. In fact, the band on this date reads like a Who’s Who of early 1960s Blue Note, with Donald Byrd stepping in for Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, Hank Mobley (fresh off his stint with Miles’ band) replacing Dexter Gordon, and Chuck Israels, who did not release albums for Blue Note as a leader but who would later anchor one of Bill Evans’ most essential trios, on bass. Two other Blue Note luminaries, the brilliant guitarist Grant Green and the cerebral composer and trombonist Grachan Moncur III, appear on half the tracks.

And on the drums: Tony Williams. Aged seventeen years and three months when he went into the studio, Williams was already demonstrating his genius behind the kit, keeping things boiling even on tracks that might have been sleepier ballads like “A Tribute to Someone,” and positively lighting up the stage on the modal burner “King Cobra.”

So where’s the similarity? Mostly it is in the consistency of Herbie’s compositional voice. When he writes a soul jazz number like “Blind Man, Blind Man”—written, as he says in the liner notes, as a conscious evocation of his Black childhood—or “And What If I Don’t”—you can immediately hear the kinship to “Watermelon Man” from his first record. They are still catchy tunes, but there’s not a lot of compositional development from one to the next.

I mean, yes, Herbie’s arranging prowess leaps ahead substantially. The guitar lick that Grant Green drops at the turn in the chorus of “Blind Man, Blind Man” is a note of genius, as are the thick blocks of chords that open “King Cobra.” But in the end, you’d be forgiven for thinking that both albums were recorded in the same delicious session.

The album was revolutionary in one way, though, at least for Herbie’s career; it introduced him to Tony Williams. By June of 1963, they would both be playing with Miles, whose next great quintet was beginning to take shape. We’ll hear the first recorded (but not first released!) album from that group next time.

You can listen to My Point of View here.

Herbie Hancock, Takin’ Off

Album of the Week, May 14, 2022.

There aren’t too many jazz players who start a career the way Herbie Hancock did. A Chicago kid who went to Grinnell College and graduated with degrees in electrical engineering and music, he was already an accomplished performer, having made his public debut at the age of 11 performing a movement of a Mozart piano concerto with the Chicago Symphony. He learned harmony from jazz musician Chris Anderson, and from the Hi-Los. He signed a contract with Blue Note Records fresh out of college and released his first album at the age of 22. And the very first song on his first album for the label became a top 100 single, then was re-recorded by Mongo Santamaria and reached number 10.

The band on that first album, Takin’ Off, had something to do with his early success. Dexter Gordon was a well-known player who had been an early bebop standout, but had some troubles (with heroin) in the 1950s. At the same time, he absorbed some lessons from both John Coltrane and West Coast jazz, broadening his style with modal influences, and when he signed to Blue Note in the early 1960s he experienced a Renaissance of his career. Butch Warren was a reliable house bassist for Blue Note, and Billy Higgins brought a deep well of innovation on the drums. And at the trumpet was another star of the Blue Note roster of the early 1960s, Freddie Hubbard.

Hubbard had gotten his start in New York in 1958, and had already recorded with both Ornette Coleman (on Free Jazz), John Coltrane (Olé Coltrane and Africa Brass), and Art Blakey, as well as two albums under his own name, by the time he entered the studio in May 1962 with Hancock’s group. He brought with him a burnished tone and solid technique, as well as a clear comfort with the modal-influenced post-bop tunes that Hancock brought to the session.

It’s Hancock’s compositions that ultimately stand out from this session. The opener, “Watermelon Man,” was a hit, which was a calculation by Hancock; he wanted something to start his career off strong, and he found it in the modified twelve-bar blues, which combined with a strong soul influence and a highly rhythmic approach was enough to loft it onto the pop charts in 1962. That’s when Mongo Santamaria, a Cuban percussionist and bandleader who heard something wilder in Hancock’s tune. Santamaria’s recording paid Herbie’s bills for several years. Hancock returned to the easygoing soul-jazz vein for “Driftin’,” the penultimate track on the album.

In between, though, are several more challenging works. “Three Bags Full” opens with a modal figure that would have been at home on Coltrane’s Atlantic records, but played with a swinging rhythm. “Empty Pockets” is in a similar mood, with a modal theme that is fiercely swung by the rhythm section and jauntily soloed by both Gordon and Hubbard. And “The Maze,” which opens the second side, is a deceptively straight-ahead sounding workout that twists and turns through a circle of chords, returning again and again to the same progression. This piece is ultimately a showcase not just for the soloists, but also HIggins, who explores more complex rhythms and timbres against each soloist in turn.

The last track on the album, “Alone and I,” is the farthest step on the album, a tender ballad that showcases not only Gordon’s romantic side but also Herbie’s sensitive, tender voice, with a solo that carries echoes of 19th century Romantic composers but that is also steeped in jazz. It’s a distinctive voice, and following the soul jazz and modal workouts of the rest of the album is something wholly new. Takin’ Off was aptly named: Hancock was definitely going places. We’ll hear the next stop on his journey next time.

You can listen to the album here.

Cannonball Adderley: Somethin’ Else

Album of the Week, April 9, 2022.

Miles, being Miles, was never one to stay locked into a format for long—and for a musician who wanted to continue to play and record, a small group was surely a more attractive—and affordable—option than the 19-piece orchestra he had recorded Miles Ahead with. So he spent the rest of 1957 in various small group formats, including a brief version of his quintet with Sonny Rollins and several groups in France. But in late February and early March 1958, he rejoined with Coltrane, fresh from his work with Thelonious Monk, alongside a new face: at the alto sax, Cannonball Adderley. The record they recorded as a sextet, Milestones, more than lived up to its name, with several original songs that signaled that Miles was not done upending the jazz cosmos.

And five days after the group finished recording Milestones at Columbia’s 30th Street Studios, Cannonball and Miles were across the river in Hackensack, New Jersey, recording at Rudy Van Gelder’s with the Jones brothers on piano and bass and Art Blakey on drums. The session was for Blue Note Records, and so had to be issued under Adderley’s name. It was the only recording of this lineup, and featured a single original composition, Miles’ title track. But that track is not the one that Somethin’ Else is remembered for. That honor goes to “Autumn Leaves.”

Miles had fully embraced the modal approach, based on scales rather than chords, by this time, as evidenced by his band’s arrangement of “Milestones,” “Autumn Leaves” takes the modal approach further, blending the chords of the standard with a modal intro and outro in a Doric minor scale. Miles is muted throughout, playing with an intimate closeness that is at once deeply felt and reserved. The contrast with Adderley’s solo is striking, with Cannonball bringing both heat and a certain volubility. Unlike Coltrane, though, the alto sax line is not cried so much as shouted, and you can hear the seeds of Adderley’s later successful embrace of “soul jazz” in the way he brings the melody around in the high reaching line of his improvisation. Italian pianist Leo Ravera points out that the track becomes more intimate as it proceeds, with each soloist bringing the dynamic down until Miles and Hank Jones close it out in another modal passage. The whole thing is a stunning performance, and the first sixteen bars give me chills every time I listen.

The rest of the album is a striking blend of styles. It is interesting to hear “Love for Sale” rendered here, with Davis’s cool approach surrounded by a rumba-inspired approach, completely different from the version he would record just a few months later with his own sextet. “Allison’s Uncle” is more straightforward bop, celebrating the birth of Nat Adderley’s daughter. “Somethin’ Else” continues in this vein with a theme that alternates statements from the trumpet and the sax, in a form that is more than slightly reminiscent of Miles’s “The Theme.” “One for Daddy-O” is a straightforward blues with a less than straightforward theme, veering from major into minor and leading into a wailing solo from Cannonball. And “Dancing in the Dark” is played as a straight ballad, in which the alto reveals a strong stylistic debt to Coleman Hawkins.

This group would never play in this configuration again. But Cannonball would remain a fixture of Miles’ sextet for some time to come. They would play together at Newport and, in between Miles’ next sessions with Gil Evans, perform on radio broadcasts and at the Plaza Hotel. And, almost a year to the day after they traveled to Hackensack, they would enter the studio to begin recording their next studio album, an undisputed masterpiece.

In this light, it’s worthwhile hearing this date two ways: once as the high point of Miles’ stylistic development to date that it represented, and once as the prelude to Kind of Blue.

Listen…