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Don't Look Down

John Weatherman
Contributing Writer
the.head.in[at]gmail.com / @TheHeadIn

It's been a pretty Wayne Shorter-y time for me - first was the press flurry surrounding the release of the saxophonist's new album on Blue Note, Without A Net, then an essay on the classicSpeak No Evil at The Head In, and now Free For All, Shorter's third-to-last recording as a member of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers.

Blakey and Shorter both had forceful voices - voices that didn't always mesh perfectly within the Messengers. Some records, such as Roots & Herbs, are Shorter-heavy, leaving Blakey out in the cold stylistically, while others, such as Like Someone In Love, don't necessarily leave the saxophonist enough room to express himself.

Free For All is the perfect mix. From the first bars of its title tune, the record makes its presence felt, and felt strongly. Blakey's records are often battering rams of sound; here, Shorter (who was musical director of the Messengers) joins in completely in creating a musical hurricane that slams into existence and never lets up.

Even weak solos - cough, Curtis Fuller, cough - are carried by the sheer power and momentum of the band. And though pianist Cedar Walton and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard turn in amazing performances, it's Blakey and Shorter who are running this show.

Joe Lovano once described Free For All as being like a live record-- a band taking the same risks and staying as thoroughly uncompromised in the studio as they were live. It's an apt description, and in many ways it sheds some light on Shorter's newest effort.

Here at Nextbop, Jon Wertheim concluded his review of Without A Net by saying that though the music from Shorter and the quartet is interesting, it could hardly be said to truly exist "without a net." The Blade/Perez/Patitucci group is widely admired, and Shorter himself is a jazz legend, assured of his place in history and untroubled, one can be sure, by thoughts that the new record might jeopardize anything for his legacy. Without A Net was risky the same way a Charles Lloyd record is risky - whatever risks are taken are ultimately well within the parameters of the leader's own safe house of style.

To hear Shorter truly without a net, I suggest listening to Free For All. The title is apt; instruments seem to collide in mid-air, and soloists often seem to be playing for their lives. Shorter was on the brink of jazz stardom in 1964, stardom that came with his place next to Miles Davis in the trumpeter's newest quintet and a string of solo records for Blue Note that still sound remarkably fresh today.

But he wasn't there yet. Instead, he was playing with a drummer who had the chops to decimate a weak soloist, who was known for creating mature musicians but who could also spit out a reject without blinking an eye. Shorter's tone cracks and breaks and screams, and he plays with an urgency that the rest of the band somehow lacks... except for Blakey. There is a telepathic connection here, a connection often hauled out as an accolade in jazz reviews, but which is rarely present. I'm sure someone has already written about the telepathic connection of the Shorter quartet. There may be something to it. But listening to Blakey and Shorter on Free For All is like watching an evenly matched and brutal fight. It's thrilling and completely engrossing; to turn off the music would be to know that these two musicians had nowhere safe to land, and would be letting them fall. That kind of compulsion to listen comes from music truly made "without a net."

Besides this virtual crate-digging for Nextbop, John Weatherman (@TheHeadIn) is currently chronicling all 51 of his first jazz record at his blog, The Head In. He lives in Brunswick, Maine.