Saturday Night Tunes: Juju

Last time out, we listened to The Lester Young Trio because it had been Lester Young’s birthday earlier in the week (August 27). Wayne Shorter also celebrated his birthday that week, though (on August 25), so here’s something of his to make up for missing his birthday.

We’ve already listened to what’s probably Shorter’s best album, Speak No Evil, but Juju (recorded in 1964 and released the following year) is pretty close. In the 1960s Shorter was a John Coltrane disciple, though he has over the years developed his own style that is a little more toned down and a lot less influenced by free jazz than Coltrane’s was, and he has become as well known for his soprano saxophone playing as his tenor saxophone playing. But his real gift has always been as a composer. Herbie Hancock, who is a pretty great composer himself, once said that “The master writer to me, in that group [Miles Davis’s “Second Great Quintet“], was Wayne Shorter. He still is a master. Wayne was one of the few people who brought music to Miles that didn’t get changed.” So when I’m listening to Shorter’s stuff, I try to pay more attention to the overall picture and not get caught up, as I sometimes do, with this or that individual solo. Reading the liner notes on his albums can be really interesting as you learn what influenced the writing of this or that tune.

Shorter’s quartet on this album is filled out by McCoy Tyner on piano, Reginald Workman on bass, and Elvin Jones on drums, who collectively had been Coltrane’s regular rhythm section in the early 1960s. All the tunes are Shorter originals.

“Juju,” per the liner notes, is meant to evoke an African chant, as you might hear in an indigenous religious ceremony. It’s an intense track with a powerful sound:

Shorter meant the opening of the slower “Deluge” to sound like a downpour, as the melody keeps starting high and coming down:

“House of Jade” is a ballad that really recalls Coltrane’s classic “Naima,” from the album Giant Steps:

“Mahjong” is meant to resemble the structure of, you guessed it, mahjong. The opening melody goes in four-bar sets, with Shorter alternately playing for four bars and resting for four bars. The effect is like a mahjong player making a move (when Shorter is playing) and then stopping to consider the next move (when he’s not). Shorter and Tyner really click on this one:

“Yes or No” is one of the most interesting tracks on the album from the standpoint of composition in that it flips back and forth between a major key “yes” part and a minor key “no” part. Again you can hear Coltrane’s influence on Shorter’s style, even though Shorter’s playing isn’t quite as out on the edge as Coltrane’s:

Finally, “Twelve More Bars to Go” has sort of a double meaning. It’s a 12 bar blues, so there’s the musical meaning in the sense that you’ve always got 12 more bars to go to get back to where you are at any given point. But Shorter also wanted to evoke the feeling of being out on the town and having a good time, so good that maybe you decide to hit another twelve bars before the night is over:

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