ESP: A Critical Analysis of Covers

Wayne Shorter’s “ESP” is the title track off of the first album from Miles Davis’ quintet with Shorter on sax, Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass, and Tony Williams on drums, released in 1965 (Shorter also contributed “Iris” to the group for this album). It’s a great tune, very recognizable as something written by Shorter (this tune could easily have fit in nicely on, say, Shorter’s Speak No Evil album), and yet as far as I can tell neither Davis nor Shorter ever revisited the tune live after the release of ESP.

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The album version is a classic. It opens with Davis and Shorter stating the song’s super-catchy theme in unison over Ron Carter’s bassline, some fairly spare chords from Hancock, and Williams’ driving ride cymbal. After stating the theme, Shorter takes a sax solo starting around 0:30. Great solo, and Ron Carter’s bassline is really something through this. Shorter briefly touches back with the “ESP” theme around 1:05, then pushes on… Miles’ solo starts around 1:25, with a similar feel to Shorter’s solo. Around 1:45, he touches on the “ESP” theme in a high register… the descending trumpet lines around 2:45 seem reminiscent of something, but I think it’s just a spontaneous melody from Miles. Williams’ responses to Davis’ trumpet around here are great, adding cymbal crashes after some of the higher trumpet notes. Hancock’s comping throughout is also great, especially noticeable around 3:20 or 3:30 where he pushes this solo along nicely. Hancock’s piano solo starts around 4:05, building on the last phrase from Davis’ trumpet solo. Hancock’s piano playing in this period is (in my opinion) as good as anything, by anyone, on any instrument; every solo of his has some amazing melodies stuffed in there and this one is no exception. After the piano solo, the quintet returns to the theme just before 5:00. Williams’ drumming at the end here is very cool, he drops back and then pushes forward to give it a shifting feel. Once through the head and we’re done. Great solos from everyone and I’ll have the melody in my head all day, guaranteed.

Organist Joey DeFrancesco included “ESP” on his 1992 Reboppin’ album with Jim Henry on trumpet, Tony Malaby on sax, Paul Bollenback on guitar, and Byron Landham on drums. The group starts here with a drum introduction, followed by the theme starting at about 0:25, stated by the horns over DeFrancesco’s walking bassline and organ chords. At about 0:50, DeFrancesco takes an organ solo after the group plays through the head once. Very nice bass accompaniment of his own solo around 1:20-1:30 or so, and this solo has a lot of momentum behind it. DeFrancesco winds up his solo around 2:45, leading to a sax solo from Malaby with some fairly spare accompaniment from DeFrancesco’s organ and Bollenback’s guitar. Landham’s drums provide some nice accents behind this fairly brief sax solo. Bollenback’s guitar solo starts around 3:40 with a sort of strange, watery tone. Cool ascending patterns just after 4:00 or so that match up with some of the phrases from DeFrancesco’s organ solo. Bollenback plays on the “ESP” theme a bit around 4:20, then the group returns to the song’s head. They state the head, then end on a big organ chord and a cymbal crash. This is a very good version of the tune – nothing mind-blowing, no huge rearrangement of the song, but fine playing from everyone and solid solos from DeFrancesco, Malaby, and Bollenback.

Gretchen Parlato does a version of “ESP,” and included the tune on her 2010 album In A Dream. Parlato is joined by Aaron Parks on Rhodes, Lionel Loueke on guitar, Derrick Hodge on bass, and Kendrick Scott on drums. She opens the tune with a recording from her early childhood. Around 0:20, Parlato starts singing the “ESP” theme. She’s joined shortly by Parks on a Rhodes piano, Loueke’s subtle guitar, Hodge on electric bass, and Scott’s drums and percussion. Parks’ solo starts around 1:20 or so, with some of the audio looped up from Parlato’s recording of herself as a toddler. Hodge’s bass is fairly minimal behind Parks’ Rhodes solo that shifts from the left to right channel in your headphones. Scott grooves along nicely with shifting cymbals and a steady snare. Parlato returns around 2:40 or so to sing the theme again, accented subtly by Loueke. Shortly after 3:00, she opens it up and adds some vocal improvisations that sound a bit like something Davis or Shorter might have played on the original version. With a big Rhodes chord around 3:45, the recording of young Parlato returns briefly, and the song ends with a couple of notes from Parlato and a nice, fat Rhodes chord from Parks. I’m a sucker for a drums-bass-Rhodes jam, and Parks’ solo is very nice. Parlato sounds great on this. Loueke’s additions are subtle, but add a lot, particularly when Parlato returns to the head. Very good stuff.

Florian Weber’s 2006 album Minsarah with bassist Jeff Denson and drummer Ziv Ravitz featured their trio version of “ESP.” The trio starts somewhat ominously, with the drums and bass in duet, at a high tempo, before Weber’s piano joins at about 0:10 to play the “ESP” melody. Around 0:30, there is a breakdown, followed by Weber’s piano stating the melody again, this time followed by a breakdown at 0:50 or so that leads to a back-and-forth between Denson and Weber over Ravitz’s cymbals. This leads to a piano solo with lots of group interplay, Weber playing a very creative and original solo based on the “ESP” melody that he returns to often throughout. At about 2:00, the trio is moving along nicely over Denson’s walking bassline and Ravitz’s drums driving hard. Around 2:30 or 2:40, Weber plays some counterpoint lines that bring Ethan Iverson’s piano style to mind. Shortly after that section, the trio plays through the “ESP” melody again and bring the tune to a close. Wow! Very original playing, though Weber’s playing stays true to the melody throughout. Very much recommended, great trio playing all around and a great rapport among the members of the trio.

Drummer Xavi Reija’s 2007 album Dream Land includes a version of “ESP,” featuring Rafael Garces on sax, Alvaro Gandul on keys, and Bernat Hernandez on bass. This version makes some subtle rhythmic changes to the tune’s head, with the sax stating the melody over Rhodes chords and electric bass. After one time through the head, the group moves into a Rhodes solo. There’s a cool push-pull dynamic around 1:00 here, then Hernandez gives Gandul a nice walking bassline to play over, and this moves into a very strong solo. Gandul plays some ascending chords to end his solo and they move into a sax solo around 2:45. The keys and bass drop out entirely here for a sax/drum duet. Garces plays with the “ESP” theme a few times here and the bass returns around 3:30, along with some spare comping from the keys. Around 5:00 or so, Hernandez and Gandul link up to perfectly, with Hernandez playing a 3-note pattern on the bass and Gandul adding his Rhodes chords with the same rhythm. Shortly after this, all but the drums fade out for an unaccompanied drum solo from Reija with some effects added. The group returns at 6:45 to play through the “ESP” theme again. Same arrangement as at the opening; they play this once through and bring it to a close. Very strong keyboard and sax solos, and the bass playing from Hernandez complimented what the other players were doing perfectly. I very much liked Reija’s drumming through the tune, though the digital effects on the drum solo were an odd touch. Overall, though, a strong arrangement of “ESP” and great playing from this group.

Drummer Ulysses Owens’ 2012 album Unanimous, with Nicholas Payton on trumpet, Christian Sands on piano, and Christian McBride on bass, featured their version of “ESP.” This version starts out with an unaccompanied drum introduction from Owens. At about 0:35, Owens starts a fast pattern on his ride cymbal, and around 0:50, a chord from Sands and McBride’s bass join Owens’ drums. Payton’s trumpet plays a couple of notes, followed by Sands stating the skeleton of the “ESP” melody, around 1:10. After this, Payton takes the lead, playing the “ESP” melody with a very smooth tone and a different rhythmic take on this than the original from the Miles Davis album (somewhat similar to the rhythmic approach taken by Xavi Reija’s group, above). This moves into a trumpet solo starting around 1:45 over a strong ride cymbal from Owens and McBride’s always-impressive walking bassline. Sands’ piano chords punctuate Payton’s phrases here… around 2:30, Payton plays some beautiful, sustained notes that sound great over the bed of sound from the rhythm section. At 3:10 or so, Payton’s trumpet plays something that reminds me of Davis’ solo on the original version of this tune. Shortly after that, Sands takes a burning piano solo, returning to the “ESP” theme periodically as his right hand plays some fast lines over McBride and Owens’ impressive foundation. This is a really virtuosic piano solo from Sands… following the piano solo, there’s a cool breakdown section that highlights Owens’ drums, with accents from McBride and Sands. Payton’s trumpet joins in briefly around 6:30, then re-states the melody at about 6:55. After playing through the head, the group brings this version to a finish as Owens’ cymbals crash and Payton’s trumpet plays some sustained high notes. This is a strong version, confident playing from everyone. Owens and Sands, the youngest players in this group, play like they have something to prove, and it is exciting to hear them do it.

The Adrian Cota Project (Cota on drums, along with Luca Ferrara on guitar, Jeremy Corren on Rhodes piano, and Aidan McDunnugh on bass) does a version of “ESP” with the melody on the keys and guitar, rather than played by horns in the original and in most cover versions I’ve found. This version starts with a solo introduction from Jeremy Corren on the Rhodes. The “ESP” melody starts around 0:35. Cota adds a drum roll, then the rest of the band joins in. After playing through the head, a section for the keyboard and guitar to trade phrases starts around 1:00. Over a Latin-ish bassline and a great drum groove, Corren and Ferrara sound great – it’s obvious from the video that the whole band is into this. Things calm back down around 3:10 after that intense section. Nice stop-start drums around 3:40 or so, moving into a spotlight for Cota’s drums while the rest of the band keeps the tune going, Cota filling in the spaces – he sounds great here, this reminds me a bit of something Marcus Gilmore might play. Back to the head around 4:55, again with the melody stated by keys and guitar. Nice, nice version of this tune, heavy on the groove.

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The quintet on the Miles Davis ESP album was fully acoustic, but that group would later move toward an electric sound, with Herbie Hancock playing the Rhodes and Miles moving toward his electric sound of the late 1960s into the 1970s. On the ESP album, though, that is an incredible acoustic quintet. It’s interesting, then, that many of the covers of “ESP” have used electric instrumentation. I’m a sucker for big, fat Rhodes chords over a strong groove, so Gretchen Parlato, Xavi Reija, and Adrian Cota’s versions of this tune worked very well for me. Ulysses Owens’ and Minsarah’s covers of this tune both took the “ESP” theme into very modern jazz (post-post-bop?) territory while sticking with an acoustic lineup. It’s interesting how the versions from Ulysses Owens and Xavi Reija both took a similar rhythmic approach to the song’s theme, despite the different instrumentation and overall feel of the tune in these two versions. Almost fifty years since its first release on Miles Davis’ album, “ESP” is continuing to evolve and to serve as a launchpad for inspired improvisations. Keep listening.