Monday, March 19, 2018

I'd Love to Turn You On #201 - Wayne Shorter - Juju

Looking at contemporary jazz saxophone I believe one can trace the influences back to three saxophone players from the late fifties and early sixties. Those players are John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, and Wayne Shorter. John Coltrane studied and played with Ornette Coleman, as Wayne Shorter studied with John Coltrane. It is amazing how they took each other into consideration rather than trying to evolve inside a vacuum. Juju is a glimpse of Wayne Shorter dealing with the evolving legacy of John Coltrane’s impact upon jazz. As he was developing as an artist he had to assimilate, process, and learn to mature with the musicians around him. The result is one of his most powerful Blue Note releases, recorded in 1964 and released in 1965. I chose Juju for I’d Love To Turn You On because I think it is a great portrait of an artist as he is growing and evolving, reaching for that next step. This is what makes Wayne Shorter such a vibrant player, from his days with Art Blakey through his days with Miles Davis and up until today. He continues to make relevant music, lending a rounded perspective that few can match.

The band of McCoy Tyner on piano, Elvin Jones on drums, and Reggie Workman on double bass is two thirds of the classic Coltrane Quartet. Elvin Jones has a rolling and bubbling swing that interacts perfectly with Tyner’s bombastic chords on the first song “Juju,” laying a perfect bed for the melody. It is only after a few times through the harmonic structure that the frame of the tune, which is fairly simple and repetitive, becomes evident. This reveals the skill of the players, this ability to conceive of dense interlocking textures from simple source material and lay a cohesive bed that Shorter and McCoy Tyner can both solo in. Shorter’s solo seems patient to explore long tones at points, then work long phrases, and then hover on one note, not going any one place. It is the tone of the playing that makes the solo worthy of keeping; even if the solo is a little directionless the spirit of the playing has great zest. The spirit is in the exploration.             

Deluge,” the second tune, is a textbook Blue Note Swing. After the first somber statement by Shorter the entire band joins in for a cohesive, unstoppable demonstration of mid-sixties jazz. Elvin Jones in particular seems to be at the height of his powers, so relaxed that the drumsticks can just bounce on the snare or toms and do no wrong, while at the same time laying down a thick wall of impenetrable cymbals. Shorter then starts a solo with lengthy statements, taking his time working out his ideas and leaving time for the rhythm section to respond and fill space. The quarter note lock-up underneath Tyner’s solo between Reggie Workman and Jones’ ride cymbal is perfect, allowing Tyner to play single note fills or lay down big pedal point chords with his left hand and cascade massive fills with his right hand. The pocket on this tune is so great anything could happen.

“House of Jade” is a downtempo number that eventually picks up a little more speed. It has a ballad feel and the bridge, or middle part of the song, has a pedal point where the harmonic motion holds still in the rhythm section. This allows for increased activity on the melody instrument. It functions much the same way a zoom lens might, to bring greater detail to a certain part of a photo or frame in a picture or movie. The drums eventually double time under the sax solo propelling the rhythmic motion forward even when it drops back to the original time.

“Mahjong” starts with a playful drum solo and piano statement and then Shorter plays the melody which is supported by Tyner’s trademark quartal tones. Tyner is really the perfect piano player for these type of tunes because he can fill the space in songs that have two or three chordal areas in them and still make it interesting. As Tyner fills the space, Shorter plays the melody, and then this happens again. They play a bridge, restate the original melody and then repeat the whole thing. Tyner supplies a thick texture of harmony for his own solo that he can nestle in. While McCoy Tyner fills the space, it might be the opposite of what Shorter was experiencing in Miles Davis’ group where Herbie Hancock would boil a piano voicing down to one or two notes, a chord cluster, or lay out and let space and Tony Williams take over.

“Yes or No” is a real burner of a tune. The melody starts out with a flurry and ends with Shorter holding a long tone as Tyner, Workman, and Jones cruise below it banging out comping chords and flurries of color. This motif repeats several times before the bridge, in which Shorter plays out the song’s title in an up-and-down and back-and-forth manner. Jones’ ride cymbal is a constant North Star of precision during this song, one that all can look to as a guide in direction and meter. Shorter warms up on the first chorus but after that really opens up and plays his most technically demanding and passionate choruses of the record. Tyner takes over but takes a minute to regain the intensity of where Shorter left off, as if maybe he was not ready for Shorter to actually end his solo and was caught off guard having to begin his. A definite high point of the record. They end the record with “Twelve More Bars to Go,” a hard-swinging modified blues. Shorter really works the changes from inside to out. He is the only soloist and the band sounds great. In terms of innovation this has to be the most standard tune on the album. It doesn't have the passion of “Yes and No” or the catchiness of some of Shorter’s other tunes.

Juju was released in 1965 and recorded in 1964. Speak No Evil was released in 1966 and also recorded in late 1964. These are both great Wayne Shorter records. I think they are notable because they illustrate the process of one contemporary dealing with the legacy of another contemporary successfully. By this time John Coltrane was recording Crescent and A Love Supreme so he was continuing to innovate. Both of these artists are moving forward on their separate journeys. Shorter would have more Blue Note records and Miles Davis recordings, and then he would eventually become a founding member of Weather Report.

Hopefully I am turning you on to the fact that yes, Juju itself is great, but looking at it in context of Wayne Shorter’s evolution is the truly fun part. For me that has always been the amazing part of jazz records is how they link together, historically, via recording labels, or band personnel. Have fun listening!

-         Doug Anderson

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