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Remembering Betty Davis: 5 Essential Tracks By The Singer/Songwriter, Fashion Icon & Funk Pioneer
The sexy and ferocious funk agitator Betty Davis may have experienced limited commercial success at her peak, but her influence rippled through the decades
You know the Bechdel test, which measures the number of women in fiction who talk about something other than a man? Let's apply a metric like that to singer/songwriter Betty Davis.
Sure, her husband of a year, Miles Davis, is a big part of her story, and she of his. She inspired his tunes "Mademoiselle Mabry" and "Back Seat Betty," and appeared on the cover of his 1968 Filles de Kilimanjaro album. Davis even shepherded him into the look and sound of '60s rock, spurring her husband to make albums like Bitches Brew. In his infamous 1989 biography Miles, the musician called his former wife "a free spirit — talented as a motherf<em></em>*er — who was a rocker and a street woman."
But if you remove the Prince of Darkness from her timeline completely, Betty Davis would still be a major player in the funk sphere — with unforgettable style, attitude and autonomy.
Davis' body of work may be mostly confined to the early- and mid-'70s before dropping out of music for decades — but what a catalog. Despite not getting their proper due until the 21st century, 1973's Betty Davis, 1974's They Say I'm Different and 1975's Nasty Gal are must-haves for any funk collection — and so is Is It Love or Desire?, recorded in 1976 but unreleased until 2009, when Light in the Attic saved the day.
All four albums are imbued with ferocity, sexuality and rhythms that could compel a corpse to get on the dancefloor — and today, the world is a little less kinetic. Davis died on Feb. 9, in her almost-lifelong hometown of Homestead, Pennsylvania. She was 76.
In recent years, Davis had enjoyed a resurgence in popularity. In 2017, she got her own documentary, Betty: They Say I'm Different. In 2018, Davis had her own episode of Mike Judge’s animated “Tales From The Tour Bus,” ending a season that featured Bootsy Collins and James Brown. With Questlove's 2021 documentary Summer of Soul, her tune "Uptown (To Harlem)" — recorded by the Chambers Brothers — reached a new audience. Her music was featured in TV series from "Girlboss" to "High Fidelity" and "Orange is the New Black."
Davis may have not been a capital-F feminist, but They Say I'm Different is full of examples of how she led the charge as an independent Black woman — and how young, female musicians of color can follow her lead. "I asked my grandmother if I just had to do as I was told — be sweet and pretty for the boys," she's quoted as saying in the 2018 documentary. Grandma responded by playing her Ma Rainey — charting her a course in the lineage of the Mother of the Blues.
Contemporary artists took notice. According to the aforementioned statement, eight-time GRAMMY nominee Janelle Monae called her "one of the godmothers of redefining how Black women in music can be viewed"; four-time GRAMMY winner Erykah Badu added, "We just grains of sand in her Bettyness." And Light in the Attic's Matt Sullivan cited her "unbending DIY ethic," which she forged by taking control of her songwriting, production and image.
For a brief tour through the career that funked up the world, here are five essential tracks by Betty Davis.
"Get Ready for Betty" (single, 1964)
Before Davis was Davis, she was Betty Mabry — and she knocked out this self-referential single in 1964. While it fits more in a streetwise girl group mold than the funk-with-teeth Davis would become famous for, it's nonetheless a charming, hooky and driving statement of purpose. "Get ready for Betty," she sings in the chorus. "I don't mess around." True that!
"If I'm In Luck I Might Get Picked Up" (Betty Davis, 1973)
This is about where primo Davis begins — her self-titled debut can shoot electricity through your cells. If you don't reflexively nod along with "If I'm In Luck I Might Get Picked Up," do you even have a nervous system? Her cat-in-heat yowl with a male accompanist egging her on is pure joy — and it's not hard to hear how this music galvanized a generation of Afropunks.
"He Was a Big Freak" (They Say I'm Different, 1974)
Davis got even more savage with They Say I'm Different, perhaps her ultimate statement of intent. "He Was a Big Freak" turns up both the volume and sex: "When I was his mother/I'd hold him like a baby in my arms/ When I was his lover/ Oh, I'd drive him out of his mind!" she insists. It all sounds like she's got a furry, high-heeled boot on his neck, demanding satisfaction — or else.
"You and I" (Nasty Gal, 1975)
Any number of clock-cleaning funk tracks could conceivably make this list. But to get a fuller scope of Davis as an artist, consider how she could operate in the blue part of the flame. "You and I" finds her not roaring, but vulnerably crooning. "I'm just a child tryin' to be a woman," Davis sings, though she sounds nothing if not womanly.
"Bottom of the Barrel" (Is It Love or Desire?, 2009)
Any '70s artist with a random album in 2009 is bound to raise eyebrows — did some bushy-tailed up-and-comer write songs for them, produce them and trot them back into the spotlight? (No names named here.) But Is it Love or Desire? was recorded back in '76 — it just didn't see the light of day for decades. The whole program is worth hearing, but the mighty "Bottom of the Barrel" displays how her music could have only grown more brazen and inspired.
Luckily, in 2022, we get one more: Crashin' from Passion, a reissue of a 1979 release. Until then, if you love funk but don't know Betty Davis, you're in luck — get picked up.
Photo: Don Arnold/Getty Images
9 Artist-Hosted Podcasts You Should Check Out Now: Sam Smith, David Guetta, Norah Jones & More
From Dua Lipa to Joe Budden, some of music's biggest names have added "podcast host" to their impressive resumes. Grab your headphones and take a listen to nine of the most insightful and creative shows led by artists.
As podcasts have become increasingly popular among listeners, they've also become a preferred playground for music makers to express themselves — and in turn, show a new side of their artistry.
Whether it's hours-long interviews courtesy of early adopter Questlove, breezy conversations with a musical accompaniment by Norah Jones, or a vital history lesson from Sam Smith, podcasts are allowing artists to further connect with their fans. And though there's already a disparate array of musician-led shows out there, it's seemingly just the beginning of a new podcast wave.
Below, get to know nine of the most interesting artist-hosted podcasts available.
Norah Jones is Playing Along
A relatively new addition to the podcast sphere, Norah Jones is Playing Along is exactly what it sounds like. Hosted by the "Come Away With Me" crooner, the show features Jones jamming on a piano with a cadre of her musician friends and colleagues. The show's guest list is similarly varied, with recent episodes including memorable conversations with indie folk artist Andrew Bird, country singer-songwriter Lukas Nelson and jazz virtuoso and Robert Glasper all of whom took viewers on a musical journey through their catalogs and beyond.
Broken Record with Rick Rubin and Malcolm Gladwell
Known as music's wise sage, legendary music producer Rick Rubin showcases his zen energy and insatiable passion for music on this informative podcast, which he hosts alongside journalist-author Malcolm Gladwell, New York Times editor Bruce Headlam and producer Justin Richmond. Much like Rubin's list of collaborators — which has ranged from everyone including Johnny Cash, Adele and Rage Against the Machine — the show zig-zags between insightful interviews with a range of music's most accomplished names, including Giles Martin, Feist, Usher, The Edge, Aaron Dessner, and Babyface.
Dua Lipa: At Your Service
Aside from her GRAMMY-winning music career, pop icon Dua Lipa has a bubbling entrepreneurial streak in the form of Service 95, a multi-platform lifestyle brand which includes a newsletter and special events. It also produces the popular podcast At Your Service, on which Lipa interviews a diverse range of personalities including musicians (collaborators Charli XCX and Elton John), cultural luminaries (Dita Von Teese) and activists (Brandon Wolf) for laidback conversations about their respective careers.
Amid his roles as a founding member of the Roots, bandleader on "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon," a prolific filmmaker and a best-selling author, Questlove adds podcast host to his rich cultural tapestry with Questlove Supreme. The show prides itself on loose, intimate and in-depth conversations with a who's who of music's luminaires, whether a multi-hour, emotional chat with Mariah Carey, an insightful conversation with trumpet legend Herb Alpert, or icons ranging from the late Wayne Shorter to Bruce Springsteen and manager Shep Gordon.
Table Manners with Jessie and Lennie Ware
British songstress Jessie Ware teams up with her mother, Lennie, on this effervescent podcast, which showcases the "Free Yourself" singer munching on a delicious home cooked meal while having a conversation that's equally scrumptious. Whether the two are having pink salmon with Pink, eggplant pie with Shania Twain or spinach pie and florentines with Kim Petras, it all makes for an extremely listenable (and hunger-inducing) spin on the medium.
Flea's This Little Light
Earlier this year, Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist Flea launched the interview series This Little Light, which zeroes in on the importance of music education. In short order, the podcast has already boasted heavy-hitter guests, including Cynthia Erivo, Patti Smith and Margo Price. "I wanted to do This Little Light to benefit my music school, the Silverlake Conservatory of Music," he said in a statement upon its release. "The idea behind it being music education, falling in love with music and embarking on a musical journey for your life. Everybody's path is so different, and it's fascinating to learn how every musician came to music and developed their study of it over time."
Sam Smith Presents A Positive Life: HIV from Terrence Higgins to Today
Five-time GRAMMY winner Sam Smith hosts a touching and informative history of the AIDS crisis from a UK perspective — from the earliest, heart-wrenching days of the disease to modern-day tales, including the death of Terry Higgins (one of the region's earliest deaths) as well as breakthrough treatments. Meticulously researched and told in a documentary-style, the BBC podcast is equal parts inspiring and heartbreaking — but above all, demonstrates that artists can effectively tell stories beyond the realm of music, while raising awareness at the same time.
David Guetta: The Podcast
A departure from every other podcast on this list, dance music king and David Guetta strays from the interview format and lets the music do the talking. Guetta hosts this weekly hour-long podcast doubles as a playlist, which features a selection of songs handpicked by Guetta himself. Typically opening with a remix from Guetta himself (he recently featured his spin on Kim Petras' and Sam Smith's GRAMMY-winning hit "Unholy,") the show then explores a variety of electronic tracks from a disparate list of artists, including tracks from dance music mavens Olivier Giacomotto, Idris Elba and Robin Shulz.
The Joe Budden Podcast
Still going strong eight years after its launch, The Joe Budden Podcast is hosted by the eponymous rapper and his friends as they talk through matters of hip-hop and their own lives, with recent topics focusing on everything from Cher's love life to the Met Gala. Each episode — which regularly hovers around the three-hour mark — is like being a fly on the wall to Budden and friends. Of course, there's celebrity interviews along the way, with headline-making chats with the likes of Akon and N.O.R.E.
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Remembering Harry Belafonte’s Monumental Legacy: A Life In Music, A Passion For Activism
American icon Harry Belafonte passed away on April 25 at age 96. Throughout his legendary musical and acting career, Belafonte broke barriers and demonstrated a commendable commitment to equality.
An American icon whose outsize influence spanned generations and blazed trails, Harry Belafonte’s death at the age of 96 marks the end of a legendary life and career that shone in not only music, but social issues and the culture at large.
A two-time GRAMMY winner and 11-time career nominee, Belafonte's impact on the Recording Academy has lasted as long as the organization itself. The artist earned a nomination at the first-ever GRAMMY Awards in 1959 for Best Rhythm & Blues Performance (for his album Belafonte Sings the Blues). He’d win three years later for Best Performance- Folk for "Swing Dat Hammer." His other win came in the form of a GRAMMY for Best Folk Recording for An Evening With Belafonte/Makeba. He received a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000, and three of his recordings are in the GRAMMY Hall of Fame.
"Harry Belafonte has made an immeasurable impact on the music community, our country and our world,” says Harvey Mason jr., CEO of the Recording Academy. "Through his music and his activism in the civil rights movement, Belafonte has used his voice to break racial barriers in America since the ‘50s. It’s been an honor to celebrate his influence on our society throughout his impactful career."
Over nearly a century of life, Belafonte left a significant impact that has resonated with common audiences and up to the highest echelons of arts and politics. As news of his passing spread across the world, remembrances, praise and thanks appeared on social media.
Quincy Jones, one of many luminaries celebrating Belafonte's legacy today, remembered, "From our time coming up, struggling to make it in New York in the '50s with our brother Sidney Poitier, to our work on 'We Are The World' & everything in between, you were the standard bearer for what it meant to be an artist and activist."
"He inspired me so much personally," said John Legend, recalling Belafonte’s immense impact. "I learned at his feet basically about all of the great work he’s done over the years, and if you think about what it means to be an artist and an activist he was literally the epitome of what that was." Former President Barack Obama heralded Belafonte as a "barrier-breaking legend" who transformed "the arts while also standing up for civil rights. And he did it all with his signature smile and style."
A Trailblazing Artist Who Never Simply Toed The Line
In a 1998 "American Masters" interview for PBS, Belafonte mused about his life and legacy, noting, "One way or another, the essence of life is, in fact, the journey itself."
If that’s the case, Belafonte’s momentous path from his humble Harlem, New York youth to a successful club act, singing star and champion of equality amounts to an astonishing rise that no other Black artist had ever experienced before. His velvety voice and penchant for singing earworm songs along with a relaxed style endeared him to his initial '50s-era audiences.
Yet Belafonte was no mere one-note easy-listening act; he helped popularize calypso, was essential in bringing folk music to the mainstream, and also successfully recorded blues and even novelty songs. Sometimes his music was bombastic ("Jump in the Line (Shake, Señora)"), while on other occasions deftly understated ("A Hole in the Bucket"). Early hit "Matilda" begins with Belafonte happily whistling. "Hey! Ma-Til-Da," he cooly croons.
Influenced by his nightclub act, Belafonte's 1956 album Calypso was the first LP to sell one million copies — a stunning achievement for a genre not widely heard before. (As a result, the Library of Congress later added it to the National Recording Registry of significant American work.) Calypso was marketed as "not just another presentation of island songs," and its liner notes can be read as a reflection of the often complex role race and fame played in Belafonte's life.
Calypso's "songs [are] ranging in mood from brassy gaiety to wistful sadness, from tender love to heroic largeness," its liner notes read at the time, helping sell a fresh genre to a new audience. "And through it all runs the irrepressible rhythms of a people who have not lost the ability to laugh at themselves."
Throughout his career, Belafonte deftly navigated the line between mainstream hits and songs with a deeper meaning. When it came to recording "The Banana Boat Song" — the instantly recognizable sing-along party tune from Calypso, which originated as a traditional Jamaican folk song — Belafonte told "American Masters" that the song was a "conscious choice." Singing its memorable "Day-o!" refrain was "beautiful, powerful" and "a classic work song that spoke about struggles of the people who were underpaid and the victims of colonialism. In the song, it talked about our aspirations for a better way of life."
Aside from his singing career, Belafonte also dominated Broadway. In 1954, he won a Tony Award for his role in "John Murray Anderson’s Almanac," a musical revue. He also dabbled in film, from his 1953 debut to Spike Lee’s 2018 movie BlacKkKlansman.
He remained humble, if not slightly casual, about his success. "I had no problem being thrust into the world of stardom because I never thought about it," Belafonte told ABC News in 1981. "Nowhere in my boyhood dreams was I thinking one day I’d be in Hollywood, one day I’d be on Broadway, one day I’d be making an album that was successful. I was quite content, as most Blacks were in that period, to practice my artform and hopefully find a constituency somewhere in the world because the larger dream eluded all of us."
A Lifetime Of Activism
As his fame grew, Belafonte’s penchant for activism collided with a fast-changing America that was confronting the oppression of the '50s and reacting to the turbulence of the '60s. As a result, Belafonte's impressive musical legacy will forever be intertwined with his passion for activism.
Belafonte rubbed shoulders with the titans of his time: He attended John F. Kennedy’s inaugural gala (an invitation extended by Frank Sinatra), received inspiration from artist and activist Paul Robeson, he became a face of the civil rights movement alongside close friend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
In fact, it was Dr. King who initiated the meeting with Belafonte. "He was coming to New York to speak to the religious community, the ecumenical community at the Abyssinian Baptist Church," Belafonte recalled to "PBS Newshour" in 2018 of their first encounter. "As a young Black artist on the rise [at the time], I began to make a bit of noise on my own terms. I began to violate the codes of racial separation. I understood the evils of racism and rebelled from my youth. He was 24. I was 26."
That confab began a friendship that would help shape the civil rights movement at large. Belafonte participated in the Freedom Rides and March on Washington, and even hosted "The Tonight Show" for a week in 1968 where Dr. King was one of his guests. The singer took King’s assassination as an exhortation, and committed fully to the quest for equity; he remained a passionate activist for decades.
Musically, that passion included an urge to help the plight of people in war-stricken Africa; his idea for a benefit single resulted in "We Are the World." The smash swept the GRAMMYs in 1986, winning Record Of The Year, Song Of The Year, Best Pop Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocal and Best Music Video, Short Form. In recent years he founded the social justice organization Sankofa, released the book My Song: A Memoir and was the subject of the documentary Sing Your Song. Last year he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
"(He was a) shining example of how to use your platform to make change in the world," said Questlove on Instagram. "If there is one lesson we can learn from him it is, ‘What can I do to help mankind?’"
He added, "Thank you Harry Belafonte!"
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10 Record Store Day Releases You Need This Year: Taylor Swift, Nas, Dolly Parton & More
Celebrate Record Store Day this April 22 by stocking up on new, exclusive LPs from Taylor Swift, Björk, The Rolling Stones and more at your local participating record store.
From Post Malone to Peppa Pig vinyls, record stores around the world are stocking up on limited exclusive releases for Record Store Day 2023.
Held annually every April since 2007, the event honors independently owned record stores and the unity of fans and artists. This year, many stores will globally welcome more than 300 limited, exclusive records ranging from rock to jazz to rap on April 22.
With former official ambassadors including Taylor Swift, Metallica, Ozzy Osbourne, Jack White, Chuck D, and St. Vincent, Record Store Day celebrates music of all genres. And that's exactly the case with this year's lineup of special releases, spanning from Miles Davis to Beach House.
In honor of Record Store Day 2023, get excited about these 10 limited, exclusive releases dropping in your local participating store.
The 1975 — I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it: Live With The BBC Philharmonic Orchestra
Serving as the official Record Store Day UK Ambassadors this year, the 1975 take us back to 2016 with their second LP, I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it — this time, along with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra. Available for the first time on double clear vinyl, this orchestral version of the British rock band's second studio album also features a version of their breakout hit, "Chocolate."
Miles Davis — TURNAROUND: Unreleased Rare Vinyl from On the Corner
Miles Davis' album On the Corner celebrated its 50th birthday last October, and its innovation takes yet another turn on Record Store Day. Titled Turnaround, this sky-blue vinyl features four cuts from the expanded 2007 album The Complete On The Corner Sessions, also offering appearances from Herbie Hancock, Dave Liebman and Bennie Maupin.
Björk — the fossora remixes
Fill your record collection with some flora and fauna — natural, eccentric scarlet and green patterns adorn each vinyl sleeve of Björk's exclusive the fossora remixes. The release features two dynamic songs: A1 Ovule featuring Shygirl (Sega Bodega remix) and A2 Atopos (sideproject remix).
Beach House — Become
Fourteen months after psychedelic pop duo Beach House unveiled their eighth studio album, Once Twice Melody, they continue the story with a new EP. Titled Become, the five-song project — which is available on crystal-clear vinyl on Record Store Day — features five formerly unreleased songs from their 2022 LP.
Nas — Made You Look: God's Son Live 2002
Just over 20 years ago, Nas gave a spectacular performance at Webster Hall in New York City, further solidifying his status as a legend of East Coast hip-hop. The spirited 20-song concert now appears on vinyl for the first time, with familiar artwork calling back to its original DVD release in 2003.
Dolly Parton — The Monument Singles Collection 1964-1968
More than six decades into her career, Dolly Parton joins the Record Store Day fun with a celebration of her early years. The country legend's remastered singles from the 1960s are hitting record store shelves, and the special first-time collection also features liner notes from two-time GRAMMY nominee Holly George-Warren.
The Rolling Stones — Beggars Banquet
As the Rolling Stones sang of "a swirling mass of grey, blue, black, and white" on "Salt Of The Earth," the rock band's upcoming limited vinyl for Beggars Banquet will be pressed with a swirl pattern of the same four colors in tribute. The group merges classic rock with their blues roots on Beggars Banquet, and the vinyl of their 1968 critically-acclaimed album features the original artwork and window display poster.
Taylor Swift — folklore: the long pond studio sessions
In September 2020, Taylor Swift's GRAMMY-winning album folklore was reimagined at New York's Long Pond Studio with a pair of the singer's closest collaborators, Aaron Dessner (The National) and Jack Antonoff (fun./Bleachers). And in November that year, fans got to witness those sessions in a Disney+ documentary. Now, more than two years later, the serene album's acoustic studio sessions are available on vinyl for the first time, including four sides and bonus track "the lakes."
'Ol Dirty Bastard — Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version
ODB's memory lives on in the vinyl rerelease of his iconic 1995 debut album, Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version. Featuring the 2020 remasters of 15 tracks, this drop is the first posthumous release from ODB since 2011, but not the first time fans have heard his voice since then: SZA's SOS track "Forgiveless" concludes with a previously unreleased verse from the late rapper.
Donna Summer — A Hot Summer Night (40th Anniversary Edition)
This year marks the 40th anniversary of Donna Summer's momentous Hard For The Money Tour. This exclusive vinyl celebrates the Queen of Disco in all her glory, capturing her live concert at Costa Mesa's Pacific Amphitheatre from August 1983. The vinyl offers performances by special guests Musical Youth, her sisters Dara and Mary Ellen, and her eldest daughter Mimi.
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Photo: Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Remembering Wayne Shorter: 7 Gateway Tracks From The Jazz Titan's 1960s Run
The pioneering composer and tenor and soprano saxophonist passed away on March 2. His influence and legacy spans decades and permutations of jazz, but for the uninitiated, here are seven highlights from his 1960s leader albums.
When the world learned of the pioneering saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter's death on March 2, it did so partly through a quote from the maestro itself: "It's time to go get a new body and come back to continue the mission."
This evocation of reincarnation not only speaks to Shorter's elaborate psychospiritual universe — he followed Nichiren Buddhism for half a century — but his multitudes as an artistic behemoth. In his 89-year life, Shorter irrevocably altered so many sectors of jazz and related forms that he seemed to inhabit many bodies at once.
To trace the 12-time GRAMMY winner's artistic evolution is to tell the story of the music as it evolved and propagated through the latter half of the 20th century. He was a member of two of the most crucial groups in jazz history: the brilliant, hotheaded drummer Art Blakey's unofficial jazz academy the Jazz Messengers and Miles Davis' so-called Second Great Quintet.
But even that's just the tip of the iceberg. After an astonishing run of leader albums on Blue Note — including all-timers like JuJu, Speak No Evil and The All Seeing Eye — Shorter formed Weather Report, a fundamental group in '70s and '80s jazz fusion. Along the way, he also collaborated with AOR legends — Joni Mitchell on a slew of mid-period records, and on the title track to Aja, Steely Dan.
In the 21st century, he continued hurtling forward as a composer, and work only seemed to grow more eclectic and multifarious, arguably culminating with (Iphigenia), an expansive opera co-created with bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding. At the 2023 GRAMMYs, he won Best Improvised Jazz Solo alongside pianist Leo Genovese for "Endangered Species," a cut on Live at the Detroit Jazz Festival, which also features Spalding and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington.
In 2015, the Recording Academy bestowed upon him a Lifetime Achievement Award. "Wayne Shorter's influence on the jazz community has left an indelible mark on the music industry," Harvey Mason jr., CEO of the Recording Academy, said in part. "It's been a privilege to celebrate his contributions to our culture throughout his incredible career."
As bandleader Darcy James Argue put it, "There isn't a jazz composer today who does not owe an absolutely immeasurable debt to Wayne Shorter. Whether you assimilated his harmonic language, or consciously rejected it, or tried to thread a path somewhere in between, his influence is as unavoidable as the elements."
But with this vast cosmology established, how can Shorter neophytes find their own way in? To traverse the universe of the self-dubbed Mr. Weird — from a line about person or thing X being “as weird as Wayne” — one need not enter it at random.
Arguably, the gateway is Shorter's aforementioned '60s run as a leader; from there, one can venture out in a dozen directions and be rewarded with a lifetime of cerebrality and majesty.
So, for those looking for a way in, here are seven essential tracks from that specific period and component of Shorter's culture-quaking legacy.
"Night Dreamer" (Night Dreamer, 1964)
Shorter was terrific as a leader from the jump, but he arguably came into his own with his fourth album under his own name, Night Dreamer. Much of this had to do with paring down his compositions to their haunting essence. "I used to see a lot of chord changes, for instance, but now I can separate the wheat from the chaff," Shorter said at the time.
Immerse yourself into the fittingly crepuscular title track, which Shorter crafted for a nighttime brood. "The minor keys often connotes evening or night to me," he wrote in the liner notes. "Although the beat does float, it also is set in a heavy groove. It's a paradox, in a way — like you'd have in a dream, something that's both light and heavy."
"Juju" (Juju, 1965)
Night Dreamer and Juju feature a rhythm section closely associated with John Coltrane — the classic Olé Coltrane one, composed of pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Reggie Workman and drummer Elvin Jones.
As a tenorist influenced by Coltrane, Shorter invited comparisons to his inspiration. But alongside Trane's accompanists, he had developed his own style — with the raw, unvarnished quality of said legend, but a barer tone and more elliptical sense of articulation. Juxtaposed against his accompanists' dazzling, shattered-glass approach, the side-eyeing Shorter is enchanting.
"House of Jade" (Juju, 1965)
After the rainshower of piano notes that initiates "House of Jade," Shorter demonstrates his inimitable way with a ballad, hung on Jones' weighty swing and sway. As jazz author and columnist Mark Stryker put it in an edifying Twitter thread compiling the best of Shorter at a gentler pace: "The ballads are everything. It's all there, now and forever."
"Indian Song" (Etcetera, rec. 1965 rel. 1980)
Featuring bassist Cecil McBee, drummer Joe Chambers, and harmonic mastermind Herbie Hancock — Shorter's lifelong ride-or-die — on piano, Etcetera was recorded the same year as Juju but remained on the shelf for a decade. Better late than never: it stands tall among Shorter's Blue Notes of its time.
All five tracks are fantastic — four Shorters, one Gil Evans, in "Barracudas (General Assembly)." But regarding its final track, "Indian Song," one reviewer might have hit the nail on the head: "At times the rest of the album seems like a warm-up for that amazing tune."
Across more than 11 minutes, "Indian Song" expands and retracts, inhales and exhales, on a spectral path into the unknown. Want an immediate example of how Shorter and Hancock twinned and intertwined their musical spirits to intoxicating effect? Look no further.
"Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum" (Speak No Evil, 1966)
As per compositional mastery, evocative interplay and plain old vibe, Speak No Evil represents something of an apogee for Shorter — and many in the know regard it as the crown jewel.
The majestic, mid-tempo "Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum" is just one highlight of this quintessential, classic-stuffed Blue Note. Hear how Hancock's elusive harmonic shades and Shorter's simple yet impassioned approach just gel — with support from trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Elvin Jones.
"Wayne isn't playing the changes, but plays around the composition—he's creative within the composition," saxophonist David Sanchez once explicated. "[It's] distinct from a lot of other Blue Note recordings of the period on which, generally speaking, people would improvise on the changes once the head or theme was over."
But you don't need to know what's under the hood to hear how this classic thrillingly pushes and pulls.
"Infant Eyes" (Speak No Evil, 1966)
"Infant Eyes" is a Shorter ballad of almost surreal atmosphere and beauty: on a compositional and emotional level, it's difficult to compare it to much else. It's "doom jazz" decades before that was ever a thing.
Down to Shorter's sheer note choices and the grain of his tone, "Infant Eyes" will make your heart leap into your throat. As per Stryker's Twitter litany of enchanting Shorter ballads, the combination is stiff — but if one is supreme, it's difficult to not pick this one.
"Footprints" (Adam's Apple, 1967)
This loping waltz-not-waltz from 1967's Adam's Apple is one of Shorter's most well-known tunes; even without close analysis of its sneaky rhythms, it's downright irresistible. And talk about gateways: it's a launchpad for any young musician who wants to give his tunes a shot.
"Footprints" continues to be a standard; it titled his biography; the Facebook post announcing Shorter's death bore footprint emojis. Shorter may have transitioned from this body, but his impressions are everywhere — and we'll never see the likes of Mr. Weird again.
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