Wayne Shorter’s ESP: Analysis of Jazz Covers

Few jazz compositions can claim the adaptability and staying power of Wayne Shorter‘s “ESP.”

This enigmatic piece, originally featured on Miles Davis‘ 1965 album of the same name, has become a cornerstone of the jazz canon.

Its unusual structure and haunting melody have inspired countless artists, leading to a vast and diverse tapestry of covers that pay homage to Shorter’s brilliance while showcasing the innovative spirit of jazz itself.

Read Other Articles in Our ‘Best Song Covers’ Series!

Miles Davis’ “E.S.P.”, E.S.P. (1965)

Wayne Shorter‘s “E.S.P.” stands as the title track and opening statement of Miles Davis‘ 1965 album of the same name. It introduces the groundbreaking quintet featuring Davis (trumpet), Shorter (saxophone), Herbie Hancock (piano), Ron Carter (bass), and Tony Williams (drums). In many ways, this track sets the tone for the album’s adventurous spirit, showcasing the band’s unique chemistry and individual brilliance.

Musically, “E.S.P.” is a prime example of modal jazz fused with elements of hard bop. The absence of standard chord progressions creates a sense of open-endedness, giving the soloists freedom to explore. It opens with a brief but impactful drum solo by Tony Williams, followed by Shorter’s angular, searching saxophone lines. Davis’ trumpet is lyrical and probing, while Hancock’s piano shimmers with unexpected harmonies. The piece features dynamic interplay, with moments of fiery intensity and quiet introspection.

Miles Davis’ rendition of “E.S.P.” establishes the foundation for the diverse explorations that follow throughout the album. It highlights the group’s collaborative spirit, where each musician pushes the boundaries of their respective instruments. This version of “E.S.P.” marks a pivotal point in both Wayne Shorter’s compositional career and Miles Davis’ continuous drive to redefine jazz.

Joey DeFrancesco’s “E.S.P.”, Reboppin’ (1992)

Joey DeFrancesco brought a fiery hard bop energy to his 1992 take on “E.S.P.”, featured on his album Reboppin’. A Hammond B3 organ master, DeFrancesco infuses the tune with a soulful grit and rhythmic verve. Gone are the introspective moments of the original, replaced by a relentless swing groove that sets the stage for blistering solos.

DeFrancesco tackles the iconic melody on the Hammond, immediately showcasing his virtuosity. The organ’s percussive quality lends itself well to the driving rhythmic feel. DeFrancesco’s solo explodes with bluesy lines and thrilling runs, demonstrating his mastery of both jazz harmony and bebop vocabulary. Guitarist Paul Bollenback brings a bebop sensibility, while drummer Byron “Wookie” Landham’s drumming propels the track with infectious energy.

DeFrancesco’s “E.S.P.” is a joyful celebration of the hard bop tradition infused with his own distinctive organ sound. He maintains the innovative spirit of the original while offering a fresh perspective steeped in the Hammond B3’s rich history within jazz. It’s a testament to the versatility of “E.S.P.” while showcasing DeFrancesco’s dazzling musicianship.

Gretchen Parlato’s “E.S.P.”, In A Dream (2010)

Gretchen Parlato offers a breathtakingly ethereal take on “E.S.P.” on her 2010 album, In A Dream. Parlato, known for her delicate vocal control and improvisational flair, transforms the melody into a haunting soundscape. Sparse instrumentation, featuring acoustic guitar and subtle percussion, highlights the intimacy and dreamlike quality of her interpretation.

Parlato’s approach is a masterclass in subtlety and creative vocalization. She uses her voice as an instrument, stretching notes gracefully and incorporating wordless vocalizations that mimic the searching quality of Shorter’s original saxophone lines. At times, her voice intertwines with the guitar, creating a seamless, gossamer texture. Parlato’s rhythmic approach is inventive, using silence and delicate syncopations to create a sense of spaciousness.

Her rendition of “E.S.P.” is a far cry from the hard bop energy of previous versions. Parlato draws the listener into an introspective, almost meditative space. Her version highlights the inherent beauty of Shorter’s melody while showcasing her own innovative approach to vocal jazz. It underscores the timeless quality of “E.S.P” and its ability to be reinterpreted through a wide range of artistic lenses.

Florian Weber’s “E.S.P.”, Minsarah (2006)

German pianist Florian Weber‘s rendition of “E.S.P.”, found on his 2006 album Minsarah, is a study in expansive exploration and rich pianism. Weber uses the open-ended structure of the composition as a springboard for a deeply personal, contemplative interpretation. His trio, featuring bassist Jeff Denson and drummer Ziv Ravitz, provides a dynamic and responsive foundation, allowing for moments of both delicate interplay and bursts of dynamic energy.

Weber’s piano is the focal point of his version. His harmonic approach is both adventurous and rooted in tradition, with unexpected chord voicings and lyrical melodic lines. His soloing is patient and unrushed, building from introspective phrases to moments of intense rhythmic complexity. Denson’s bass is supportive and imaginative, offering a grounding pulse while engaging in melodic conversation. Drummer Ravitz adds a sense of propulsion and rhythmic elasticity to the ensemble.

Weber’s “E.S.P.” feels like a journey of discovery, with the trio exploring the melodic and harmonic possibilities of the composition. It’s a testament to the versatility of “E.S.P.” as well as a showcase of Weber’s unique voice as both a pianist and a bandleader.

Xavi Reija’s “E.S.P.”, Dream Land (2007)

Drummer Xavi Reija boldly reimagines “E.S.P.” on his 2007 album Dream Land. While remaining faithful to the iconic melody, Reija places drumming at the rhythmic and conceptual forefront, creating an exhilarating sonic adventure. Joined by pianist Roger Mas and bassist Masa Kamaguchi, the trio delivers a high-octane performance that crackles with excitement.

Reija’s drumming is a tour de force. He uses the open structure of Shorter’s composition as a jumping-off point for rhythmic fireworks, seamlessly shifting between driving swing, polyrhythmic explorations, and moments of controlled chaos. His solos are a mixture of technical mastery and playful invention. Pianist Mas and bassist Kamaguchi provide a solid harmonic anchor while also pushing the boundaries of their respective instruments.

Reija’s “E.S.P.” is a thrilling showcase of modern jazz drumming, underscoring the rhythmic potential inherent in Shorter’s composition. The track bursts with energy while still offering a fresh harmonic and melodic perspective. It highlights “E.S.P.” ‘s ability to inspire not only soloists but rhythmic innovators, proving its lasting relevance in the jazz world.

Ulysses Owens’ “E.S.P.”, Unanimous (2007)

Drummer Ulysses Owens‘ 2007 rendition of “E.S.P.”, on his album Unanimous, features a fiery front line of trumpet (Duane Eubanks) and saxophone (Jimmy Greene), adding a powerful brass element to the piece. While Owens’s rhythmic drive anchors the performance, the interplay between Eubanks and Greene becomes a central focus, creating an exciting and dynamic take on the composition.

Eubanks’ trumpet cuts through the arrangement with bright, energetic lines that capture the bebop spirit of the original. Greene’s saxophone is soulful and lyrical, exploring the full range of his instrument. The solos and interplay are full of conversational energy, with the trumpeter and saxophonist trading ideas and pushing each other to new heights. Owens’s drumming is both propulsive and interactive, responding to the soloists while maintaining a rhythmic foundation.

Owens’s “E.S.P.” showcases the collaborative spirit of modern jazz. It maintains the adventurous exploration of the original, brought to life by a dynamic group of musicians. The focus on the horns brings a fresh sonic perspective to the piece, emphasizing its ability to adapt and thrive in a wide range of musical settings.


The diverse range of covers analyzed in this article highlights the profound adaptability of Wayne Shorter‘s “E.S.P.”

Its open-ended structure and evocative melody have proven fertile ground for generations of jazz musicians.

From hard bop to avant-garde, vocal reinterpretations to rhythmic reimaginings, each artist has found a unique voice within the framework of Shorter’s masterpiece.

This serves as a powerful reminder that jazz is a living, evolving art form fueled by the innovative spirit of its practitioners.

Read Other Articles in Our ‘Best Song Covers’ Series!