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Masqualero: A Critical Analysis of Covers

Ben Gray
Contributing Writer

Following from my look at Wayne Shorter’s “ESP,” I wanted to look at another Shorter tune because his writing has been an important influence on modern jazz artists. “Masqualero” seemed like a good choice given the recent Halloween holiday (yes, I also considered “Witch Hunt”) and the excellence of this tune. Like “ESP,” “Masqualero” is a Wayne Shorter tune that is tightly associated with Miles Davis. The tune first showed up on Davis’ Sorcerer album in 1967, and remained in Davis’ live rotation for several years afterward.

The line-up on the Sorcerer version of “Masqualero” is the same one from “ESP” - Shorter on sax, Davis on trumpet, Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass, and Tony Williams on drums. The band had been together for two years at this point since the release of ESP, and developed a rapport with each other that approached, you know… “Masqualero” opens with Hancock’s ascending piano chords and the searching bass and drums from Carter and Williams. The group coalesces around 0:15, with Davis and Shorter playing the “Masqualero” riff at about 0:22 for the first time. The tune has a very open feel based on that riff, in contrast with a straightforward head-solo-solo-solo-head format, but they move into a trumpet feature for Davis after playing this riff a second time. Through this section, they maintain a searching feel, coming together for some more intensity just before 2:00 or so as Davis’ solo continues. Around 2:30, Davis hints at the “Masqualero” riff again. Insistent piano chords from Hancock from about 2:45 until 3:00 or so… Davis brings everyone back down with the “Masqualero” riff around 3:15 or 3:20 as Shorter takes a solo. I love the way Shorter’s sax comes in around 4:20 with that breathy low note… Carter’s bass and Williams’ drums are pushing hard around 5:30, giving Shorter some rhythms to play against. The sax solo comes to a close at about 6:20, leading to a piano spotlight for Hancock. Keeping the mood dark and searching as it has been up to this point, Hancock takes a beautiful, searching piano solo, hitting on some nice chordal riffs just before 8:00 and the solo’s ending. After the piano solo, the “Masqualero” riff returns from the horns. An open section follows, with Williams working his toms. They end (as appropriate for what came before it) on an unresolved chord. It’s an interesting tune, never fully coalescing or resolving into what your ears expect and full of ebbs and flows. It feels very open to possibilities.

As I mentioned above, Miles Davis kept “Masqualero” in rotation in his live sets after Sorcerer. Personally, my favorite version (that I’ve heard so far, anyway) is from November 6, 1967, recently released on the Miles Davis Bootleg series. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful playing, amazing group interplay. I wanted to highlight a performance from a few years later, though, from March 7, 1970, released on Miles’ It’s About That Time album. Miles has gone electric here, and only Wayne Shorter remains from the Sorcerer sessions. Davis and Shorter are joined by Chick Corea on keyboards, Dave Holland on bass, Airto Moreira on percussion, and Jack DeJohnette on drums. This version comes out of the end of “Spanish Key,” and starts with Miles playing the “Masqualero” riff over distorted Rhodes from Corea. Out of the gate, they are driving hard... I love the break for Moreira’s percussion at about 0:11 or so before they charge back in over DeJohnette’s crashing cymbals. As on the earlier versions, Davis takes the first solo. The band is still searching, playing with harmony and rhythm, but Corea’s distorted Rhodes, DeJohnette’s crashing drums, and Holland’s driving bassline give this a completely different feel from the earlier versions. Another great break for Moreira at about 1:05, and again later in Davis’ solo (these open pauses continue throughout this arrangement of the tune). Despite the change in instrumentation from acoustic to electric, I think it’s worth noting that Davis’ trumpet still sounds fantastic here. After yet another break for Moreira, Shorter takes a solo starting around 2:45 or so. While the band is still driving very hard, they do relax a bit as compared with the opening of the tune around 3:15 or so. Shorter is playing nicely off of DeJohnette’s drums, with some crazy rhythmic jabs from Corea here as Holland’s bass plays through this semi-chaos. An ominous-sounding section just before 4:30 or so, then things seem to lighten up a little bit, with Corea playing some cool lines against Shorter’s sax. Another break at about 5:30, this time filled by Shorter’s sax, and then the band dives back in. Not long afterward, 6:00 or so, Corea takes a keyboard solo, playing with distortion on his Rhodes for a fairly harsh sound. After some big chords, he breaks things down around 7:00 or so without losing any momentum. Some pretty wild keyboard playing around 8:50, with Corea, Holland, and DeJohnette all playing against each other. Davis and Shorter return around 9:20, playing the “Masqualero” riff and inciting the crashing drums. Around 9:50, they triumphantly play the “Masqualero” riff one last time and bring the song to a close. The song is very, very different in the hands of this band, just a few years after its first appearance. Davis and Shorter both take a very different approach to the song, and the changed rhythm section make this a completely different listening experience.

Years later, Shorter has continued to explore “Masqualero”. In 2003, his quartet with Danilo Perez on piano, John Patitucci on bass, and Brian Blade on drums played the tune at the Montreal Jazz Festival. Starting with Shorter playing the “Masqualero” riff, the band takes this tune somewhere between the version on Sorcerer and the version on It’s About That Time, generally leaning closer to the later, harder-grooving version of the tune. Around 1:05, Perez takes a piano solo, opening up some nice grooves. Patitucci and Blade are (for me) the highlight of this quartet, and they give Perez a rock-solid foundation here. Perez returns to the “Masqualero” riff around 2:30, handing the tune off to Patitucci. Perez accompanies the bass solo here by playing with some muted piano strings and plucking the insides of the piano, and Blade plays some relatively spare drums for Patitucci to take the front. Just before 4:00, Patitucci returns to the “Masqualero” riff and Shorter takes the next solo as Perez establishes a piano riff. The band gives Shorter plenty of room to work, and forty years after writing this tune, he is still finding new places to take it. Around 6:15 or 6:20, he looks to be in a pretty intense place himself as they move into a very open feeling section. Shorter follows this with some intense sax soloing, playing some atonal-sounding stuff with Perez for a little while. Around 8:00, Shorter returns to the “Masqualero” riff and the band starts to bring this to a close. In contrast to the version on Sorcerer, the band resolves the tune here.

Chick Corea has also revisited “Masqualero”, in a solo acoustic piano setting on his Piano Improvisations Vol. 2 album from 1971 (a year after his appearance on the distorted Rhodes on Miles Davis’ It’s About That Time). He opens with the “Masqualero” riff, moving into a nice open section and returning to that riff at about 0:40. He takes a strong rhythmic piano solo in the middle section. Some great stuff at about 1:45, then he brings things back down a bit. This entire middle section is full of that dynamic, moving from introspective-sounding sections that build toward a climax, then dissolution to rebuild. A particularly good example of this is the build from about 3:30 until a crazy section around 4:15-4:30, before calming back down around 4:45 or so. Wow. The “Masqualero” riff returns around 5:00. He brings it to a close after triumphantly playing this riff again around 5:25. Great solo piano playing from Corea and a great exploration of the tune. The section from 3:30-4:30 is particularly impressive.

Nicholas Payton’s 2006 Mysterious Shorter album with Bob Belden on sax, Sam Yahel on organ, John Hart on guitar, and Billy Drummond on drums (in addition to Payton’s trumpet) also took on “Masqualero”. This version starts with Yahel’s unaccompanied organ in a searching mood. Much as I like Yahel’s piano playing, nobody plays the organ like he does. At about 0:45, Hart’s guitar joins as Yahel’s organ ebbs and flows. The drums join around 1:20 and Yahel adds some bass tones from the organ as the band starts to feel out the tune. The horns play the “Masqualero” riff around 2:00 or so, and move into a trumpet feature for Payton shortly afterward. Drummond provides a nice solid groove for Payton here, with nice subtle accompaniment from Yahel and Hart. Yahel’s bass swells are great, giving the whole tune the feeling that it’s lurching back and forth. Payton takes a very strong trumpet solo here, ending around 4:30 and leading to a sax solo from Belden. He starts with some spare phrasing, going back and forth with Yahel’s organ. Some nice subtle guitar work from Hart around 5:45 under Belden’s sax solo. Hart takes a guitar solo starting at about 6:10. This moves along nicely, and gets surprisingly intense, given the subtle playing of Hart throughout this version. Around 7:50 or so, the horns return to play the “Masqualero” riff. The band brings the song to a close after playing again through this riff at 8:15 or so. This version has a really cool push-pull dynamic, I think in large part due to Yahel’s organ work here. Although he never takes a solo, he has a big impact on the overall feel of the song. Payton’s trumpet solo is particularly strong, too.

Masqalero by Nicholas Payton on Grooveshark

Conrad Herwig’s The Latin Side of Wayne Shorter, released in 2008, explores “Masqualero.” Herwig, on trombone, is joined by Ronnie Cuber on sax, Brian Lynch on trumpet, Eddie Palmieri on piano, Ruben Rodriguez on bass, Pedro Martinez on percussion, and Robby Ameen on drums. Opening with Martinez’s percussion, followed by a strong groove from Palmieri and Ameen. The horns play the “Masqualero” riff around 0:30, but unlike in some of the earlier versions above, the band doesn’t slow down or pause in any way here, keeping the energy very high, driven by the piano and drums’ insistent groove. Herwig takes the first solo, starting in a high register on his trombone. It’s a strong solo that gains some energy from the horns underneath starting around 3:00. At about 3:30, this moves back to the insistent piano and some high-register trombone playing. Lynch’s trumpet solo starts shortly afterward, around 3:50. At 4:45, Lynch hints at the “Masqualero” theme during a great trumpet solo, still driven by Palmieri’s piano and Ameen’s drums. Around 5:20 or 5:30, the other horns join underneath the trumpet solo. The trumpet solo comes to a close around 6:10 after some bent notes. This leads to Palmieri’s piano solo, under which the drum groove changes quite a bit. While the groove that Palmieri plays is different here than he was playing underneath the earlier solos, he is no less insistent in pushing this version forward. At about 8:30, Palmieri’s piano solo comes to a close and the horns return for a composed section that isn’t found in any of the versions above. The horns play through this nice arranged section full of unison lines, leading to a horn swell at about 9:45 that is followed shortly afterward by the “Masqualero” riff. Just after 11:00, they bring the tune to a close. This is a hard-driving version with a new arrangement. It’s got a less open feeling than some of the other versions because of the rhythm section, but strong playing all around and a great, original arrangement of the tune.

Masqualero by Conrad Herwig on Grooveshark

The last version of this tune that I’ll mention is from the Sunny Jain Collective’s 2002 release As Is. Sunny Jain, on drums, is joined by Rez Abbasi on sitar-guitar, Steve Welsh on sax, and Gary Wang on bass. They start the tune with a cymbal crash, followed by some low bass, then guitar and heavily effect-laden sax. Around 0:40 or so, they play the “Masqualero” riff. The middle section of this version is led by Abbasi’s sitar-guitar, as Jain’s drums move into a strong backbeat for Abbasi’s spacy sounds and the atmospherics from Welsh. Around 2:15, Jain’s drums move into a sort of jungle/drum & bass mode for Abassi to solo over. Some of Welsh’s sax atmospherics remind me of Joshua Redman on his work with the Elastic Band (say, on Redman’s version of ”Lonely Woman”). Around 3:30, Abbasi plays with the “Masqualero” riff… the riff is played outright at about 3:50 as the band starts to bring this version to a close. They play through the “Masqualero” riff several times, then bring the song to an end with an effect-heavy sax tone. An interesting take on “Masqualero”, highlighting some spacy sounds from Abbasi and Welsh during the middle section.

The loose, open structure of “Masqualero” has lent the tune to some widely different interpretations from the original on Sorcerer. Just looking at the three versions above featuring Wayne Shorter on the sax (not to mention the other live versions of this tune from Miles’ quintet), there is an enormous variation from Sorcerer to It’s About That Time to the live version from the Wayne Shorter Quartet in 2003. The other versions mentioned here show some of the many, many different approaches to this tune. It’s quite an improvisational platform that sounds like it could go in literally any direction.

Ben Gray is a listener with a lot of ideas about this music around in his head.