Album: Ju Ju
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Often times, there is nothing more difficult for an artist than finding their own, original sound within any given genre. Perhaps due to the larger "restrictions" that are in place within every genre, this forces some amount of similarity between artists simply based on categorical grouping. Yet while the phrase "imitation is the most sincere form of flattery" makes sense, when it is placed within a musical setting, this can often lead to little more than a copy of a great sound. A majority of the time, this happens within the "hip" music of a moment in time, when a massive amount of artists attempt to "cash in" by altering their own sound to match that of whatever is popular at the time. However there was a time when the greats of genres intermingled and learned from one another, and the idea of a musical "tribute," while apparent, was firmly placed within an overall original sound. The time was the late 1950's and 1960's and the genre was jazz, as the "cool" sound of the West Coast began to intermingle with the "hot" sound of the East, and styles like bop and swing began to clash with modal and tonal progressions. Though he had been a force within the music scene for some time, it was in the early years of the 1960's that one many began to stake his claim as one of the most innovative and truly unique players of his generation: Wayne Shorter. Releasing a string of absolutely stunning records, there are few moments that better capture the brilliant early sound of Shorter than one will find on the song "Mahjong," from his 1964 follow-up album with Blue Note Records, JuJu.
By the time JuJu was released, Shorter was already one of the most in demand saxophonists on the planet. Four years previous, when John Coltrane left Miles Davis' group, Shorter was the top choice for a replacement, but Shorter chose to stay with Art Blakey at the time. Strangely enough, for the JuJu sessions, Shorter's backing band is almost an exact copy of that of the man with whom he had been studying for the previous months: Coltrane. Led by pianist McCoy Tyner, having these musicians on board, along with the manner of Shorter's playing, gives the album a clear "Coltrane sound," yet there is no question that it is far more than a "rip off" of the legend's style. On "Mahjong," Tyner and Shorter present one of the most stunning musical interactions in history, as the two clearly shared a special chemistry, and the ideas they present to one another throughout the song remain today some of the most brilliant ever recorded. With a rhythm section of the great Elvin Jones on drums and Reggie Workman on bass, the group quite literally mimics Coltrane's "classic quartet." Jones and Workman are absolutely in tune with the others on "Mahjong," as Jones bounces brilliantly all over the track, and though Workman is mixed quite low in the original release, it is his contributions that make the song swing, as well as giving it a deep, soulful mood. Giving a glimpse of what was to come from two of jazz music's finest saxophonists, the sound that is produced on "Mahjong" is one of the most fantastic musical interplays that has ever been performed.
It is on "Mahjong" that one can hear just how much Shorter learned not only from his years as a key member of Miles Davis' groups, but from his personal studying with John Coltrane. It is his work with the later that is readily apparent on this track, as in both tone and style, the song shows Shorter attempting to incorporate Coltrane's sound into his own compositions. Yet one cannot classify Shorter simply as a disciple of Coltrane, as even by this point, Shorter's talents were so stunning and far beyond that of nearly every other musician, that the similarity in sounds can almost be overlooked. Throughout all of JuJu, Shorter seems to almost channel the music through his body, as his playing is so soulful and precise that it almost seems otherworldly. Finding his own lines within the rhythm of the song, Shorter drops one stunning musical idea after another, and his performance here is without question one of the finest of any jazz player in music history. On "Mahjong," Shorter not only proves his skill as a first-rate technical musician and improvisational player, but he also makes his case as one of the finest composers in jazz history. Taking each band member along for the ride, the way in which he crafts their parts not only enables him to realize his own amazing potential, but it allows each band member to have their own moment in the spotlight. Over the years, "Mahjong" has become nothing short of a jazz standard, and this is further proof to what an amazing composer lived in Shorter, as well as him being one of the most important saxophone players in music history.
While it was quite inevitable that a large amount of mixing of sounds and styles would occur during the "golden days" of jazz music, the truly great musicians were able to take the styles of others and seamlessly incorporate them into their own, new sound. Having spent much time studying with John Coltrane, fellow saxophone great Wayne Shorter took much of what he had learned and spun it into an absolutely stunning sound across his first few records with Blue Note Records. While the tone and style of a majority of these songs clearly calls Coltrane to mind, there is little question that this is far beyond simply "copying" a sound, and that Shorter has given a new spin on the style of his teacher. Backed by the group that stands today as one of Coltrane's finest backing bands, the similarities are even more clear, yet all of JuJu stands strong on its own, and this ability to balance his own sound with that of others is what made Wayne Shorter one of the most highly sought players of his generation. "Mahjong" contains a truly unequaled pairing, as the interplay between Shorter and pianist McCoy Tyner is something that must be experienced firsthand to be properly appreciated. While his next album Speak No Evil, unquestionably represents the apex of his career, it is in his work on "Mahjong" that one can hear Wayne Shorter beginning to fully understand his potential, and the combination of stunning musicianship and an absolutely phenomenal overall composition makes the song one of the finest jazz pieces ever recorded.