The same names are always cited as the first holy trinity of sax players (Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster). The listing of the second trinity is more subjective, but the first two slots almost always include the same two names John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter.
Two player/composers who signify two sides of the same coin, John Coltrane being spirit while Wayne Shorter representing intellect. That is not to say either forever stayed neatly within the domain of their specific forte.
If John Coltrane’s masterpiece A Love Supreme (Impulse!) was man crying up to God, then Wayne Shorter’s The All Seeing Eye (Blue Note Records) was God gazing down on man.
Around this time other musicians had extended pieces which were sometimes described as “their Love Supreme” (Lee Morgan “Search For The New Land”, Hank Mobley “Thinking of Home”, both Blue Note Records) While compelling in their own right, suite-like construction is where the similarities end. Separated by a year both Wayne Shorter and John Coltrane’s album share the same artistic intent in regards to conveyed emotions, using drastically different sonic tools.
Wayne Shorter started out as one of Blue Note’s stable of artists in the late 50’s early 60’s, some times referred to as the young lions. He cut his teeth before joining the army in various R&B groups.
He was with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers from 1959-1963. Always being about artistic evolution, it was during this time he put an offer to join a new Miles Davis group on the back burner. Like Miles, Art Blakey had a genius for cherry picking collaborators from the best of each generations players. Drummers aside, the list of Jazz Messengers reads like a roll call of jazz royalty. Within each new version of The Jazz Messengers, Art put equal foresight into who became the bands arranger. Horace Silver, Kenny Dorham, Benny Golson to Wayne, he being perhaps the most forward thinking of this impressive list. While Art would experiment with brief forays into ethno-world music, usually using a multi percussionist approach (Orgy In Rhythm Vol. 1&2, Drums Around The Corner, Holiday For Skins all Blue Note Records) that mixed with a modal flavoring, Art never had a major departure from his hard-bop template.
Finally after his five year stint as a Messenger, Miles persuaded Wayne to join what would be known as his second great quintet (1965-1968 Shorter/Williams/Carter/Hancock). This version of Mile’s band created what could rightfully be called high-art and was also the one incarnation of the band in which all the band members did writing for the group. While with Miles’ group all the members recorded Blue Note albums, sometimes using songs which had also been recorded by the quintet.
It was while with Miles too, that there was exciting experimentation going on at Blue Note Records. They had always had the policy of paid rehearsals which allowed for the possibilities of far more complex pieces. Not having to worry about getting a piece down within the first few tries and not having to rely on trying to morph well known standards allowed for a decade of some of the most forward looking music, which has withstood the test of time, some of it just starting to be appreciated now. Of great help to the equation too was that a lot of the musicians had played and composed together over the course of many now, classic albums.
This was Wayne Shorter’s first of two extended ensemble albums. The other, Schizophrenia (Blue Note Records) would be his last fully acoustic album and contain the same line up save for a switch to the less progressive Curtis Fuller on trombone. Schizophrenia is the more accessible of the two, but ultimately The All Seeing Eye offers a more intense journey for the listener.
Although only one of two larger ensemble works by Wayne, this was no mere experiment. It was an artistic avenue which he decided to detour from, much like Herbie Hancock’s one off foray, Speak Like A Child (Blue Note).
The band assembled for this album had an impressive pedigree. They borrowed from all that was going on in jazz at the time, while never aligning themselves with a specific movement or its aesthetic. This suite contains strong elements of chamber jazz, but not the proper staid version of the Modern Jazz Quartet. It also has symphonic leanings but is not outright third stream music. It would not sound out of place alongside pieces by Charles Mingus or Shostakovich. It may be even closer to the later, the free influenced discordance which occasionally bubbles up coming from groupings of instruments as opposed to Mingus’ preference of one screaming.
All the parts of the suit were written by Wayne except for the last, Mephistopheles, written by his brother Alan Shorter.
Contributing to the success of the album was the already established understanding of extended and complex forms by the players.
Drummer Joe Chambers had written one half of the two suite piece on Bobby Hutcherson’s album Components (Blue Note Records) which also featured Spaulding/Hancock/Hubbard/Carter from this album. His playing is full of intricate voicing without ever being distracting. Aside from Elvin Jones or Tony Williams no one else would have been as organic of a fit.
Trombonists Grachan Moncur started his musical life on cello but soon switched. He was in Benny Golson/Art Farmer Jazztet and also cut some genre defying albums with Jackie Mclean and Bobby Hutcherson, (One Step Beyond, Evolution, Destination Out all Blue Note Records) which, although smaller ensembles, share a great deal in common with this album. He still continues to this day to play with and write for his own larger ensembles. He, along with Roswell Rudd have brought a symphonic modernism to playing and writing for the trombone.
Freddie Hubbard had been a Jazz Messenger and also made a string of classic Blue Note albums as leader. His own albums often blended modal jazz with masculine blues drenched hard-bop. As a “sideman” Freddie has appeared on many forward leaning albums. Often his place on these albums has been referred to as that of playing the “straight man” to all going on around him. His oeuvre contains too many appearances on experimental albums, all of them seminal for their genre for this to be true. (John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman). His tone here, as always is bright, complimenting the other voicings well both in tone and what is played. Never does he appear lost or stick out.
James Spaulding is a multi instrumentalist who makes jazz flute work without sounding overly fragile. Here he is heard only on alto sax which he plays with great fluidity and a controlled frenetic series of bursts. He played on Bobby Hutcherson/Joe Chambers Components and also the larger ensemble works of Freddie Hubbard (Blue Spirits, Ready For Freddie, Night of The Cookers all Blue Note).
Ron Carter was, along with Herbie Hancock and Wayne part of Miles’ group. More so than almost any other jazz group these players had always displayed an almost telepathic rapport. Ron Carter’s playing manages to fill the low end, more as a lead voice than one in the background providing a time signature. His tone deep, rounded and rich. One of jazz’s all time great bass players he brings something to every session in which he appears.
Alan Shorter, Wayne’s brother was somewhat jazz’s enigma. Many critics disliked his horn playing, citing a lack of technique, yet he contributed to the early important body of work of new thing jazz progenitor Archie Shepp (Impulse!). Alan was also a writer/social commentator. He would sometimes stop mid concert to yell at the audience about their lack of understanding and “not understanding or being ready for him”. He released two albums which have only now been reissued (Orgasm on Verve). He wrote and appears on the final track, one which is often cited as listeners favorite. Aside from the piece being well written, I find no fault with his technique, nothing lacking. He gels with the band seamlessly.
Herbie Hancock has has created a body of work compelling in its diversity and power, most of the time there is a certain cerebral aspect to his playing which turns some people off. There is ample evidence, although usually occurring on other people’s dates and especially in Blue Note catalog of the sixties, that he could swing too. He has always, even within one piece been able to vary his attack and tone yet remain instantly recognizable. He also does not seem to need a specific playing situation to bring out his best. Solo, duo et al it is equally worth listening to.
Wayne Shorter, like Herbie Hancock has sometimes turned people off with what is viewed as an overly intellectual approach to his playing. Wayne can cut it with the best of them, but he seems to have always put equal effort into the actual compositions. Regardless of the size of the ensemble, his solos statements always serve to enhance the main body of the whole as opposed to a piece just being a vehicle with which to soar over.
The CD is broken up into different songs, although when listening it does make one long suite, flowing uninterrupted. Often during this time, the few that would dare to write and record such music were forced to name the different parts to give the illusion of several songs in hopes of radio play.
I enjoyed the entire album. Some stand out moments are:
On the title track when Freddie Hubbard enters he sounds somewhat like Miles in his aggressive mode, but with far greater articulation. As he solos there are percussive burst from Herbie Hancock which come and go. Wayne enters the piece with a buzzing solo which builds seeming to gain moment from the locomotion of the drums and the percussive piano patterns. All this occurs as a thick tapestry of bass continues uninterrupted under it all. There are some great time changes and a Morse code like beat which both piano and sax state as the piece slows, before picking up again as it approaches its climax to the flurry of piano runs and hi-hats and the main theme being stated once more by the group en-masse.
Genesis starts with a piano pattern which could have been composed by one of the piano figures from the romantic era. The piece quickly morphs in both tempo and texture. Everything drops away for a symphonic sounding bass solo from Ron Carter with soft modernist piano heard playing low underneath. This is indicative of the mercurial quality to be found in Herbie Hancock’s art.
Face of the deep with its slow tempo start of bowed bass and multi horn voicing is amazing for not just its moodiness but the outright beauty of the initial piano figures heard. Within this piece are moments of a trio, brushed drums, bass and piano. It is laconic and sweet like watching a rose wave in a soft breeze. The first sax solo too follows in this mood, not breaking the spell.
The often cited Mephistopheles starts with an off kilter sounding march which then changes as the bass and drums again beat out a Morse code type of beat. The piano provides a percussive staccato. The solos have an urgent sense of drama to them that Berlioz or Goethe would have approved of.
This is by no means light music, nor would it be for most people instantly accessible. A bad trend over the last few years has been the co-opting of jazz. Jazz has become homogenized, made safe, a soundtrack for people to shop at the Gap to. There is nothing wrong with jazz’s lighter moments, but aside from tiny pockets of resistance, it is ceasing to be an active living art form, high art, in much the same way as American cinema.
This album, like a handful of others allows us to hear greats creating art of the highest order and we should all take advantage of that less it disappear like anything else unused, unappreciated.