Back To Normal: Hear No Evil

Wayne Shorter - Speak No Evil - Front

Read the introduction and see the full album list here.

Jazz standards are unpopular these days, for good reasons (high schoolers pointing their trumpets in The Real Book at the Berklee Jazz Festival) and bad (tradition versus innovation, blah blah blah, see my previous post). Myself, I’m against jazz standards for two reasons: they blind us to the great tunes of today which should share equal billing (and fake-booking, if you’re into that sort of thing), and they dull the vitality of the ”standards” themselves.

Wayne Shorter is in the news recently for his newest record, and return to Blue Note – Without A Net. Writing my review for Nextbop inspired me to go back to the source of my love for Wayne – his awe-inspiring Speak No Evil, recorded during his first stunt for Blue Note in 1964. At least half of its six tunes are considered jazz standards, but looking back from 2013 – almost fifty years later – Speak No Evil is far from dulled.

It’s an equilibrium record. You know what I mean – the kind of record where everything hangs suspended in a perfect balance. The slightest tap on either side of the scale, we feel, would disrupt the whole thing.

Nothing taps Speak No Evil.

It was recorded by a quintet perfectly matched; more perfectly, it seems to me, than any other of the records made in 1964-1966 by this almost incestuously promiscuous group of musicians, almost all from the bands of either Miles or Coltrane. Maiden Voyage, Lifetime, Fuchsia Swing Song, The Soothsayer… 

That last record provides a useful counterpoint in Tony Williams’s drums. The Soothsayer (and all the records made by or with Wayne Shorter that feature Williams) is an uneasy record, a jittery, sharply angled record. It contains beautiful music – there’s no denying the beauty of its music – but it never seems to settle into any identifiable space.

Speak No Evil lives in its own world, and Elvin Jones is its master carpenter. Speak No Evil is very much an ensemble record, but it is also very much an Elvin Jones record. Would the dark energy of ”Dance Cadaverous” (a criminally underplayed tune) have been possible without the solidly hollow sound of Jones’s tom-toms at its beginning, or the crackle of his snare? Would the maelstrom of swing that envelops the title track exist without Elvin’s seemingly eight-armed contribution?

He doesn’t do it by himself, of course; just as the lead carpenter doesn’t build the house by himself, Elvin’s energy and momentum are beautifully complemented by Wayne’s crew on Speak No Evil. Herbie Hancock plays one of his most delicately powerful solos on ”Infant Eyes,” and lays down a muscular, bluesy passage on ”Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum.”

There’s a particular face I make when I hear ”Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum.” It’s the face I often felt myself make at certain glorious moments when playing music myself, on the bandstand; the best recorded music brings me those same feelings of being on the brink, teetering on the edge of something wonderful. My whole being tenses as the music reaches the edge of the creative cliff, and there is pure joy as the music takes off, rather than drops.

This record is that cliff. Every melody, every solo, contains that moment of tension, stretched and drawn out like a rubber band, then snapped back into what, by the time it’s over, seems inevitable. The depth of field is incredible: to listen to ”Dance Cadaverous” or the rawness of ”Witch Hunt” on tinny speakers is a crime.

Perhaps that’s the real problem with jazz standards. ”Witch Hunt,” in particular, has become a standard jam session tune for young musicians thanks to books like The Real Book. But those charts are just another version of tinny speakers. A chart could never capture the urgency with which these melodies are played, the immediacy of their existence on vinyl. As with Lee Morgan’s best tunes (”Party Time” is one), it seems impossible that the melodies on Speak No Evil could ever have been written down, even by their composer; there is a seamless interaction between written and improvised melody here.

I’ve mentioned ”Dance Cadaverous” a few times already. When you close this browser window, pause a moment before going to Twitter or Facebook or Buzzfeed or whatever your plans may have been; open iTunes and plug in your best speakers, or better yet walk to the turntable and take Speak No Evil out of its sleeve; and listen to ”Dance Cadaverous.” Do not speak. Just listen. The read this essay again, and maybe then, you will see what I can barely hint at here; because the truth of this music is only found in this music.

New Again

soul-station-4fc638939b116

Read the introduction and see the full album list here.

Looking back on many of the greatest jazz recordings, it can be hard to separate the sound of a particular record from the associations we have with its creators. It’s not easy to listen to, say, Steamin’ With The Miles Davis Quintet the way it would have been heard at the time, or even as the band expected it to be heard – because we know that Miles went on to have at least two more exemplary bands, John Coltrane pioneered the avant-garde and died in 1967, etc.

With the first jazz records I remember hearing, though, I have the opposite problem. Even though the sound of Thelonious Monk’s piano, Oscar Pettiford’s bass and Kenny Clarke’s drums on Thelonious Monk Plays Duke Ellington, for example, completely exemplify their unique styles, I can’t quite connect the sound of that record with any other by those musicians. The sounds are obviously the same, and yet I have a hard time contextualizing them.

That’s simply because I didn’t have any context when I first heard them. Soul Station is a good example, because there’s a lot of context to be found. When tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley walked into Rudy Van Gelder’s New Jersey studio to record the record that would become his best known, he was two years out of a long association with Horace Silver (Mobley was one of the original Jazz Messengers), one year away from a short stint replacing Coltrane in Miles Davis’s quintet, and sounded as good as he ever would.

With him in the studio was the piano/bass team he would join with Miles Davis – Wynton Kelly and Paul Chambers. Both were Blue Note regulars, but Mobley’s chemistry with them on his own records and with Miles is underrated. Art Blakey, Mobley’s old boss, was on drums.

There’s the context, readily available and pretty neatly laid out and logical. But this record isn’t so logical as all that. Even though Alfred Lion and Mobley succeeded in laying out a completely typical hard bop date – complete with Bobby Timmons-esque tune titles like ”Dig Dis” and plenty of bluesy melodies – they failed in actually creating one. What was made was an exemplary hard bop date, and one that sits, like all classics, outside of its creators’ regular trajectories.

There’s no second horn on this date, a rarity in a quintet-obsessed era, and the extra space is used to awesome advantage by Mobley. The leisurely but inevitable progression of Mobley’s solo on the title tune wouldn’t be possible if Freddie Hubbard, Lee Morgan or Donald Byrd was waiting impatiently in the wings.

The absence of another horn also means that Soul Station isn’t an interrupted statement. These four musicians play so well together as a unit that it’s hard to imagine the chemistry surviving an addition to the group; in fact, we don’t have to imagine it, as 1961’s Roll Call is the same quartet plus Freddie Hubbard on trumpet. The music is good, but it’s no Soul Station.

Nothing really is, to me, anyway. Now that I have years of listening to jazz under my belt (and coming on four of writing about it), I can identify all the context to be found in Mobley’s work, and in the styles of his sidemen on Soul Station. I can even hear it, sometimes. But habits are hard to break, and my habits about listening to this record were formed when I knew nothing about jazz – about bebop, hard bop, Mobley, Blakey, Blue Note or anything. That’s what makes this, and most of the other records I’m discussing on this blog, hard to write about. It’s easy to hear the music, but hard for me to label it. And I like it that way.