Monday, May 29, 2023



JuJu – Wayne Shorter (Blue Note)

Wayne Shorter – tenor sax / McCoy Tyner – piano / Reggie Workman – bass / Elvin Jones – drums

A 1964 session, sweetness, and light meet fire and deep-seated anxiety in seeming alternating breaths. Shorter is thoughtful, probing the moods of his ingeniously laid-out material with finesse that hints at more expressionistic playing to come–his tone always struck me as inner-directed–while the band delivers everything their names promise. Elvin Jones continues to be convinced that he is the greatest drummer in jazz history.

Sorcerer – Miles Davis (Sony)

Sorcerer, the 1967 album from Miles Davis, has been in my CD player the last couple of days and, to pun badly, I have been more than a little entranced by how amazingly well these improvisers, all of whom are distinct and potentially dominating in ensemble efforts, work so cohesively as a group. There is a perfect kind of modal combustion here, with Miles Davis contrasting his spare and angular sense of improvisation with the formidable resourcefulness of this album’s principal ensemble, Wayne Shorter (saxophone), Herbie Hancock (piano), Ron Carter (double bass) and Tony Williams (drums). The music is an unusual combination of the unforced and the aggressive, resisting the temptation to either go slack in their pace or stray toward the harsh vicissitudes of anguished, strident experimentation, a pulsing course of off-accented rhythms, musical swaths of varying tones and colors, and ingenious interlacing between primary soloist Davis, Shorter and Hancock. Ensemble exploration at its peak, it seems, as the three of them actively listen to and anticipate each other’s ideas during the respective solo spots. This is what the great Davis groups did: find unexamined nuance and moods in the musical tones. Davis and Shorter offer up a few exquisite moments of dialogue as they answer, query, interrogate and respond to musical propositions put forth by the other. As great as the previous occupant in the saxophone chair had been, the redoubtable and effusively brilliant John Coltrane, Shorter was a better fit for Davis’s ideas for the ensemble at the time, 1967, when this disc was recorded. His solos are less galvanic than Coltrane’s were, more composed, filled with lithe and delicate phrases , wonderfully respondent to the rhythms and pulse Williams and Carter provided and the full range of ideas Hancock underscores and textures the sound with. Davis is at his best: lyrical, on the edge of atonal, bracing when needed; the tone of his notes isolated and longing.

A Tribute to Miles Davis – Wayne Shorter (saxophones) Wallace Roney (trumpet), Herbie Hancock (piano), Ron Carter (bass), Tony Williams (drums).

You need to bear in mind that this is not a dusty museum exhibition where the music of the late trumpeter and bandleader is dutifully eviscerated and mounted on a pedestal. Quite the opposite: Davis alum Hancock, Shorter, Carter and Williams, along with firebrand trumpeter Wallace Roney perform a few familiar tunes with vigor and intensity. Mere reverence is replaced with passion and a willingness to stir things up. Roney is a wonder and an inspired choice to fill the trumpet position; he has a hard-core virtuosity that rivals Freddie Hubbard, and yet retains a sublimely modulated, vibrato-less tone: clean and pristine. His register-jumping flurries on the live version of “So What” or the delicately etched readings are remarkable examples of pace and phrasing. For an instrument known for its uniformly declarative sound–with the notes as executed by the most superlative of players sounding sharp, full; hard bits of color sculpting whole structures of sound from the metaphorical block of granite–Roney had something else: the rarest of things in jazz trumpet; the ability to make his extemporaneous statements fluid; one note flowing out of the one before it and into the one that follows in a deceptively easy legato that made you think of the accelerated fluidity of saxophonist John Coltrane. Roney, I’d wager, is the obverse of Hubbard; in my life I’ve witnessed the glory of two of the most compelling jazz trumpet players: one, the skyrocketing lyricist Hubbard, for whom precision and speed were in the mastery of musical ideas that sped by in breathtaking forays; and the other, no lesser, Roney, whose virtuosity was in the service of seemingly unlimited ideas of restatement, reconfiguration, and reimagining of a composer’s written score.

And, square as it may sound, it is always great to have Hancock et al return from their wanderings in the fusion wilderness and apply their singular skills on material that requires the best of their improvisational genius. Shorter, for my money, remains the best saxophonist of the post-Coltrane generation, assembling his solos in abstracted sections and deliciously snaky tangents. Williams is, to say nothing else, an astonishing drummer: a continuous rumble of polyrhythms, rising and falling with the many sly turns of this music. Bop, ballads and casually asserted samba rhythms are highlighted with William’s strong, graceful stickwork.

Both Directions at Once – John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter

Incredibly, what comes to be a full-length album of mostly new, previously unheard material from John Coltrane has emerged lo these many years since the man’s passing, and it is masterful. What’s mind-boggling is that after decades of posthumous Coltrane releases that were previously unheard versions of familiar material --I haven’t done a precise count, but it occurs to me that there are enough live versions of Coltrane’s disassembly and reconstruction of the Rodgers and Hammerstein show tune “My Favorite Things” to warrant a series critical comparison in how the saxophonist and his collaborators adjusted their improvisations gig to gig-- but rather something wholly fresh: new compositions and ideas recorded when this ensemble was at their peak. 

The story told as to why this album has surfaced on now comes from Wikipedia, which asserts that the band --Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, and Elvin Jones-- entered Impulse Records studio in 1963 to lay down the master tape of an album of new material for eventual release. Somewhere in the lapse between that recording and its 2018 release, the original tape was destroyed when the label decided to cut down on expenses regarding storage; what we have here is from a copy of the tape Coltrane had given to his wife. It’s not useful to dwell on the reasons for the delay and best, I think, to appreciate how profound this gift of music happens to be. Both Directions at Once, the title, comes from a discussion Coltrane once had with Wayne Shorter at some point, in which had come up the idea of starting their solos in the middle and working their ideas backwards toward a calmer section that would have been the casual, tentative build up; and then the other way: toward greater fluency, acceleration, intensity from the tenor saxophone’s horn; going “both directions at once.” You get what they were talking about in mere minutes; Coltrane’s playing is serpentine and advances effortlessly through the registers with rail-splitting chromaticism. 

He darts, dodges, telegraphs and races along melodic lines he creates on initial choruses and subsequently rethinks and rewrites with each return to the song’s head; ideas brawl, embrace and interweave in swift, howling glory. The improvisations are as fine: searching and soulful as anything he released in his lifetime. On hand were the members of his Great Quartet: Elvin Jones on drums; McCoy Tyner on piano; Jimmy Garrison on bass. This is a quartet that has weathered time; circumstance; hundreds of hours playing together; with the sinewy yet agile polyrhythms of the ever-brilliant Jones and the no less skilled Garrison buoying and propelling Tyner’s color-rich harmonies and Coltrane’s thick sonic weaves. There is nothing tentative about his disc. It is quite a bit of music from this epoch-defining unit; there is nothing better than coming across Coltrane you’ve have not borne witness to yet.


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