John Coltrane: Blue Train
Wayne Shorter: Speak No Evil
Blue Note recently reissued a string of newly remastered classics, and so it seemed as good a time as any to revisit a couple of them, specifically John Coltrane's 1957 date Blue Train and Wayne Shorter's 1965 Speak No Evil. Coltrane's second album as a leader captures the Miles Davis sideman (with whom Coltrane had been playing since 1955) eschewing the later conceptualism of 1964's A Love Supreme and 1966's Ascension for a post-bop blowing set laid down at Rudy Van Gelder's Hackensack, New Jersey studio. On the date, the tenor legend is ably assisted by trumpeter Lee Morgan, trombonist Curtis Fuller, and pianist Kenny Drew, plus fellow Miles bandmates Paul Chambers and “Philly” Joe Jones. Though the aptly titled Blue Train exudes a relaxed air—it plays as if the musicians convened in the studio for a day, familiarized themselves with the charts, and then simply tore into the five pieces—, it's come to be regarded in the years since as a seminal jazz record, to a large degree because it captures the form's essence so indelibly. That the album's sound in some measure recalls the Miles Davis Quintet is easily explained by the involvement of Coltrane, Chambers, and Joe Jones, even if the presence of Morgan and Fuller put ample distance between Blue Train and a Davis outing like Milestones.
That the album is a blowing session is communicated clearly by the opening track which, in between the blues-drenched thematic statements that open and close the piece, gives almost all of the musicians solo room. Coltrane goes first with a free-wheeling exploration that establishes the album's blithe spirit and easy-going charm, after which Morgan contributes a deliciously swinging solo filled with blustery runs. As the second piece, “Moment's Notice,” plays, one can't help but be captivated by the tune's joyous melodic material and the way Coltrane, Fuller, and Morgan, powered by Joe Jones, tear into their respectively soaring solos. In certain cases Blue Train's tracks travel at the kind of speed one associates with a machine in full flight (has ever a piece of music been more perfectly titled than the breathless “Locomotion”?), which makes the inclusion of the Kern-Mercer ballad “I'm Old Fashioned” all the more satisfying. During the eight-minute take, Coltrane caresses the song's melodies in a way that anticipates the timeless Ballads album his quartet would release in 1963.
Though the spotlight can't help be largely on the front-line soloists, one of the recording's major pleasures is hearing how telepathically Chambers and Joe Jones attune themselves to the other musicians and egg them on with their high-spirited attack. All are in exceptional form throughout and, needless to say, acquit themselves splendidly. Blue Train is, of course, the sound of Coltrane before A Love Supreme and the body of work he produced with his quartet (established in 1960 and featuring McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones, and Jimmy Garrison) and the groundbreaking material he produced with Pharoah Sanders, Rashied Ali, and his wife Alice before his untimely death to liver disease in July 1967.
Wayne Shorter's Speak No Evil arrived eight years after Coltrane's set, and not surprisingly the albums are radically different creatures, despite a shared emphasis on the blues. In contrast to the relaxed, hard-blowing nature of the 1957 recording, Shorter's is a nuanced collection of arresting compositions by an artist renowned for not only the titles he issued as a leader on Blue Note between 1964 and 1970 (Ju Ju, Night Dreamer, The Soothsayer, etc.) but also for his participation in Miles's mid-‘60s band and Weather Report, the pioneering jazz-fusion group he co-led with Joe Zawinul. For Speak No Evil, Shorter surrounded himself with trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and drummer Elvin Jones plus fellow Miles musicians Ron Carter and Herbie Hancock on bass and piano respectively. Interestingly, Shorter drew for inspiration upon legends and folklore for the recording, things evident in some of the track titles (in his own words, “… misty landscapes with wildflowers and strange, dimly seen shapes … [and] things like witch burnings, too”). Even so, while there's enough classic jazz present in the material's compositional form to hear it as a descendant of the tradition associated with Blue Train, Speak No Evil also points forward in the way one can hear Shorter starting to deconstruct those conventions and treat the material more elastically.
Interestingly, Speak No Evil, like Blue Train, opens with a blues-based piece, even if “Witch Hunt” pursues a more oblique and free-form style characteristic of the album as a whole. A prototypical series of Shorter statements acts as the glue holding the insistently swinging track together, which leaves space for Jones' inventive patterns and accents to maneuver. Here and elsewhere (the album-closing “Wild Flower,” for example), the Carter-Jones tandem operates in a manner that recalls the fluid interaction of Carter and Tony Williams in the Davis unit, with Carter an anchor for the drummer's oft-explosive attack. Recalling the words spoken by the giant in “Jack and the Beanstalk,” the also-bluesy “Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum” likewise showcases Shorter's distinctive compositional voice in its elegant melodic design. Like “Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum,” “Dance Cadaverous” opts for a gentle, almost ballad-like dynamic level, in spite of the subtle sense of the macabre that seeps into its makeup (Shorter himself stated that in conceiving the tune he had an image in mind of a medical classroom where work on a cadaver is about to be undertaken). Emerging halfway through, Shorter's marvelously delineated solo catches one's ear in the way it alternates between a feathery whisper and something deeper and fuller-throated.The mid-tempo title track opens in a lightly swinging blues mode with a soothing melodic figure (a tad reminiscent of “So What”) leading into a more aggressive upward climb of progressively louder steps. Shorter's solo, which similarly grows more aggressive as it develops, begins with tentative flurries that grow into an impassioned honk that comes at the tune sideways in angular jabs—an effective segueway for Hubbard's declamatory turn. Like Blue Train, Speak No Evil positions a ballad in the penultimate slot, in this case “Infant Eyes,” a tender and finely wrought setting that presents Shorter's unadorned voice at its most vulnerable and lyrical (apparently he had his daughter in mind for the piece). In its quiet way, it's arguably the album's high point for exposing the saxophonist's playing so nakedly, and interestingly the piece largely bridges the gap that is normally taken to exist between Coltrane and Shorter. Among other things, Speak No Evil is a fascinating document for the portrait it presents of Shorter in 1964, boldly forging a reputation as not just a player of distinction but a composer too, prior to the changes he underwent in the 70's and thereafter.