Selection: Witch Hunt
Freddie Hubbard (trumpet) Wayne Shorter (tenor saxophone) Herbie Hancock (piano) Ron Carter (bass) Elvin Jones (drums) recorded Rudy Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, December 24, 1964
Recorded Christmas Eve (rapidly approaching) , two tracks went the distance to Take 25 (Fee Fi Fo Fum) and Take 27 (Dance Cadaverous). Everybody must have been tapping their watches! Shorter noted in his time with Miles Davis Second Quintet, Miles never discussed the music, there was never any rehearsal, because no-one knew what would happen next. But Shorter here in the studio, twenty or thirty takes, a perfectionist.
Musically, Speak No Evil sits in the centre of Blue Note’s mid-’60s post-bop maelstrom: Dolphy is Out to Lunch, McLean’s Destination is… Out, and Further Out, Hill is at a Point of Departure , Lee Morgan is in Search of New Land, Hancock alights on Empyrean Isles. Mystical/mythical titles, heraldic horn openings, controlled dissonances, brooding dense compositions, all exploring various shifting melodic terrains.
Graduating after five years at Blakey’s Jazz Messengers Academy, alumnus Wayne Shorter continued to develop his own personal voice. His tone is very individual: if Mclean’s alto is acid, Shorter’s tenor is sour, pungent, his lines sparse and skeletal, a Coltrane vocabulary but three quarters of the notes missing, harmonic progression held in place by anchor points, separated by intervals and pauses, but melodic ideas inherent in the tune.
In the three months up to recording Speak No Evil, Shorter had become a permanent member of Miles Davis second great quintet, one week recording with Davis for Columbia, another week leading his own ensemble at Englewood Cliffs for Blue Note.
His regular pick-up band bass and piano – Reggie Workman and McCoy Tyner – had to make way new friends Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter on loan from Davis, though Elvin Jones remained Shorter’s choice on drums (not Anthony Williams) : Jones characteristically scattering bombs, washes, crisp rolls and accents over the terrain. Jazz writer S. Victor Aaron aptly notes “The Carter/Jones undertow of swing pulls against the overall mysterious feeling of Shorter’s compositions” (I add)… which glide eerily on the surface above.
Though harmonically complex, Shorter’s compositions are often simple melodies which move in an unusual way, forged out of horn unison or horn harmony, giving way to a modal canvas for exploration. Hancock lays down chords but sparingly, only hinting at the intended harmony, contrasting block-chorded accents with bluesy lines and figures, dancing around like a boxer, punching and jabbing at the melodic flow.
Hubbard replaces bright and peppy Lee Morgan (last heard 6 months previously on Shorter’s Night Dreamer). Hubbard underplays, adding texture and colouring, or providing harmonies to Shorter: the post-bop oeuvre valued mood and melodic expression over solo virtuosity. Freddie could still turn up the heat when required, but the album is memorable not so much for Hubbard’s or Shorter’s playing, as for the functional unity of this individually brilliant group of five musicians.
Just three months later, Hancock launched his sequel to Speak No Evil, his iconic Maiden Voyage…another album you must have!
This really is remarkable music deserving of repeated play. Repeatedly. To wheel out the old cliché, as fresh today as it was 50 years ago. Or thanks to MM’s silky stereo and modern mix, perhaps even fresher.
MM deliver a luxurious widescreen presentation, left and right instruments extending beyond the boundaries of the speakers. Not quite as punchy in the rhythm section as some recordings, though it is hard to say how far this relates to engineering decisions now or then, perhaps the way Van Gelder recorded it, MM being sourced directly from actual original tapes. My vintage Liberty stereo pressing (see Collector’s Corner below) is markedly less spacious, with a more “mono-like” compressed stereo presentation.
For reasons unknown (to me) the MM is noticeably quieter than the Liberty and some of my other MM33s. However, the difference in volume can easily be compensated for by adjusting the happiness (volume) control . Having done this, the MM conveys the emotion in the music more strongly than my other vintage stereo reissues. A very satisfying listen that encouraged me to revisit the music in a fresh way.
In the tradition of Miles, Shorter pictures his wife Irene on the cover. What of the original Blue Note cover? By late 1963 Blue Note had abandoned their beautiful thick laminates for lighter card and semi-gloss flat paper finish, not as tactile, no longer the same object of desire. MM production values are premium, a pleasure to behold.
Francis Wolff trademark chiaroscuro recording studio photography in the finest art-quality rendering, the standard we expect from MM, value added. The boys are in performance, Shorter listening intently ..to .. umm.. take 27, I guess, it’s a wrap. The historical artefact is still the “real thing”. If it’s not within your budget to own a mint 1964 original, this is certainly the next best thing, cover-wise perhaps better.. beautiful in its own way.
Original Liner Notes: Don Hickman, Jazz Editor, American Record Guide rendered readable at full screen in LJC Supa-Sharp Text™
Popsike Top Ten auction results for BLP 4194 (all mono, of course) $429 – $611
There is no escaping the collectability of original Shorter ‘s Blue Note titles. Not in the trophy-league, but in near-mint condition they are expensive. Among high-end Ebay auctions, 4194 Speak No Evil outnumbers rival 4182 JuJu by around two to one, and 4173 Night Dreamer appears hardly at all. Speak No Evil is clearly the collector’s choice.
I don’t have it in original form. What I do have is a Division of Liberty and a UA blue label, which tell a cautionary tale.
I hardly ever played the blue label, my first copy, because I didn’t enjoy listening to it. The Liberty I acquired more recently, but I wasn’t enjoying that much either so it didn’t get much play. I didn’t look into why at the time, as I have now, but just concluded that I didn’t much care for the record. Let’s get close up:
There’s the story!
No Van Gelder stamp. The Liberty reissue of Speak No Evil was re-mastered by a staff Liberty engineer – two or three attempts (suffix -2 after matrix). Moreover both Liberty and UA records should sound similar, because United Artists re-used the Liberty re-master. The hand-etched matrix codes are identical, pressed from the same metal. I experienced identical issues with the Liberty & UA reissues of Rollins 1542. This is not Rudy’s handiwork and it shows.
The Liberty betrays more bad pedigree. Had it been an All-Disc production in 1966-7 with van Gelder stamp things might be very different. From the look of the label, it is almost certainly late Liberty – the label print colours have off cyan-yellow bias and the ® below E circle is malformed, probably 1968-9, a jobbing local printer without a full font set, may be an #-generation copy tape sent out to LA, re-mastered there, hence same metal on site for use by UA a couple of years later.
United Artists blue label black note pressings can sound very good, but not in this case. It is early UA, not yet United Artists Music and Records Group, still Blue Note Records – a Division of United Artist (pre-1973). Usually this can be a good sign, but nothing can overcome its bad Liberty pedigree. This rules out the obvious USA vintage reissue budget alternatives for this particular record. (I make no generalisation to other records, this is a case by case matter.) Having heard this MM33 I think the only real alternative is an original, and the price tag of that is the main obstacle for most of us.
The other lesson from this story as that the quality of engineering and all the related stuff is an important part of whether you feel you want to play the music, connect with it, and therefore how much enjoyment you get from it. Pedigree Matters.
A lot of people have written about the technicalities of this music – about augmented and diminished fifths, quartal modes; about Shorter; about Blue Note and the careers of the musicians, but I have yet to read anywhere one word about the medium of delivery, the format, vinyl. It doesn’t enter into it the equation for any of them. We are on our own here, floating far from land, not drowning, just waving. We know something no-one else does.
UPDATE December 15, 2015
LJC reader Niels has sent in a rip of the track Witch Hunt from his original Blue Note mono 4194 Speak No Evil . Lucky man to have this. We have a different format here, mono, played on different equipment, possibly other variables including very different price tag. I am not sure of anything other than that they should sound “different”. I base my published opinions on on the sound on my full system, or in this case, three different systems, not via a PC soundcard in MP3. However, take from what you will.
My thanks to Niels for the rip.