Since we were on the subject of Weather Report last time – and the political weather looks decidedly heavy since the Brexit fall-out – it’s but a short hop, step and a saxophone squawk to Wayne Shorter. Specifically, his third album for the legendary Blue Note label, Speak No Evil.
It took me a little while to make that short step, but seeing him live at the North Sea Jazz Festival sometime in the mid '80s made me realise that there was nothing to be scared of. I had this misguided notion that the second great Miles Davis Quintet, the '60s model that included Wayne Shorter and two other foot soldiers on this album, pianist Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter on double bass, played much more atonally than they actually did. My youthful sensibility was still too fragile for anything seriously avant garde.
Shorter played that evening in a marquee in the grounds of the UN’s International Court of Justice complex in The Hague. He was flirting with jazz-funk at the time and the band was nothing to write home about, but Shorter played superbly and was presented with a huge bouquet of gladioli at the end of his set. I remember, too, being transfixed by the female drummer. The only others I’d ever seen behind a drum kit before were Karen Carpenter and Honey Lantree of the Honeycombs, so it was quite a novelty to see a genuine jazz drummer of the opposite sex. It must’ve been Terri Lynn Carrington, who would go on to enjoy a varied and successful career behind a hi-hat.
Speak No Evil was recorded on Christmas Eve, 1964, not long after Miles Davis persuaded him to leave Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and join his quintet. A special day, a special album. If anyone were to ask, and even my closest friends probably wouldn’t, then I’d tell them unhesitatingly that my three favourite jazz albums are Kind of Blue, Mingus Ah Um and Speak No Evil. There; I’ve got that out of my system.
What puts this album a notch above his first two for Blue Note is not necessarily the playing, but the quality of the compositions. Shorter plays uniquely tenor rather than soprano sax on this album, which suits me fine, and although he had his own voice (pitched somewhere just between John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins), he will probably be primarily remembered as a composer rather than a stylist.
He did it for Art Blakey, he did it for Miles Davis and Josef Zawinul, and he certainly does it here. There are six numbers and they’re all memorable in their different ways. The opening ‘Witch Hunt’ and the title track are almost even hummable, sort of, and all six share a wonderful air of mystery. It’s partly the complementary combination of Shorter’s sax and Freddie Hubbard’s trumpet underpinned by a superb but unobtrusive rhythm section and Herbie Hancock’s customarily elegant piano. And it’s partly just Shorter’s unusual way with a melody.
He was known in school apparently as ‘Mr. Weird’ and there’s a slightly unsettling ambiguous quality about the chords he chooses. You never quite know which way a tune is heading. It can float off at any moment onto some quite new plane. On this album, he revealed how he was 'thinking of misty landscapes with wild flowers and strange, dimly-seen shapes – the kind of places where folklore and legends are born. And then I was thinking of things like witch-burnings, too.'
The title track, for example, is unquestioningly beautiful and yet the insistent theme leaves you a tad uncomfortable. It would be a brave film director to do so, but I can’t help but think this album would make a fantastic soundtrack for an adaptation of a Wilkie Collins or an Edgar Allen Poe novel. No one, to the best of my knowledge, has yet made The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym into a film. Here’s the ready-made score…
Nowhere perhaps is this quality more deliberate than ‘Dance Cadaverous’. Shorter was ‘thinking of some of those doctor pictures in which you see a classroom and they’re getting ready to work on a cadaver’. Mr. Weird indeed. It’s a very strange creative trigger and it certainly has the desired disconcerting effect. By contrast, the gorgeous ‘Infant Eyes’, inspired by his daughter, is the most obviously traditional piece in the collection.
In making Speak No Evil, Shorter talked about abandoning everything that he had done before. ‘I’m trying to fan out,’ he explained, ‘to concern myself with the universe instead of just my own small corner of it’. That was quite some creative ambition to harbour. While the result doesn’t deviate as far from the customary Blue Note template of the time as much as, say, Eric Dolphy’s Out To Lunch does, it still transcends the majority of the label’s bread-and-butter blowing sessions. There’s no doubt in my mind, at least, that Speak No Evil is a great composer’s finest hour and a very accessible masterpiece.