Wayne Shorter recorded Speak No Evil in 1964, shortly after he’d left Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and joined Miles Davis’s quintet, but before that group recorded its first album together. It was his sixth album as a bandleader and is pretty widely regarded as his finest album or among his finest albums. It showcases Shorter’s abilities as composer at their height, when he was channeling both the hard bop of Blakey’s group and the modal innovations that Davis and John Coltrane had been pioneering (this album slots in more in the hard bop category, but you can hear the other influences shading the music). In fact, when Coltrane left Davis’s group in 1960 Shorter, who was already known as something of a Coltrane disciple, was at the top of the list to replace him. At the time Shorter was committed to Blakey, but after over four years with the Messengers he decided to go work with Davis, who by then had already put together the classic Herbie Hancock-Ron Carter-Tony Williams rhythm section. I don’t pretend to be a serious music critic, but the fact that Shorter was a key component of two of the most iconic jazz groups ever assembled, the Jazz Messengers and Davis’s second quintet, must mean he was doing something right.
Shorter’s various connections throughout the jazz scene are apparent on this album, as he’s joined by Hancock and Carter, from his quintet with Davis, on piano and bass, Elvin Jones, who had recorded with both Shorter and Coltrane in the past, on drums, and Freddie Hubbard, who had played alongside Shorter in the Jazz Messengers, on trumpet.
All the tracks were written by Shorter, and all except “Infant Eyes” were meant to evoke elements of literary fantasy:
“Witch Hunt” highlights Shorter’s composing in the interesting harmonic interplay between the two horns:
“Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum” really features Hubbard, who takes the first solo and tears it up:
“Dance Cadaverous” stands out as a hard bop jazz waltz, something you don’t see every day:
“Speak No Evil” is a medium tempo number that stretches out in the solos, where you’ll hear a lot of modal vamping and some free jazz-inflected improv from both Shorter and Hubbard:
“Infant Eyes” is a balled written, wait for it, for Shorter’s infant daughter:
The final track, “Wild Flower,” is another waltz (two on one album has to be some kind of record), and has probably gone on to more fame and covers than “Dance Cadaverous”: