As a member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and on three fledgling efforts as a leader for Vee-Jay, tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter made his early mark—very clearly as a John Coltrane disciple, but one with his own melodic logic, expressive tone, and compositional gift. Moving to Blue Note in 1964 for Night Dreamer, and joining Miles Davis’ revolutionary second quintet the same year, Shorter began a burst of creative activity that took many routes over many decades, all the way up to Kennedy Center Honoree at the age of 84. JuJu, his second on Blue Note, was arguably his first stone-cold knockout, the one that put the world on notice: A genius had arrived.
It’s quite a coup when a Coltrane devotee gets to record with Coltrane’s rhythm section. Shorter did it on Night Dreamer (adding Lee Morgan on trumpet) and also on JuJu. Omitting Morgan, Shorter pared down to quartet on JuJu and once again hired pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Reggie Workman, and drummer Elvin Jones—essentially Coltrane’s band. (Jimmy Garrison was Coltrane’s main bassist at the time, but Workman also did significant work with Trane during his groundbreaking Impulse! period.) Jones’ roiling, elastic, and explosive swing feel, Tyner’s fresh voicings and surging solos, Workman’s unpredictable shapes and lines and timbres—somehow Shorter had the strength of will to make this historic Coltrane lineup sound like a Shorter lineup. Coltrane recorded A Love Supreme (with Garrison on bass) just four months later.
On JuJu Side 1, with the jaggedly dissonant yet infectious title track, the crushing slow swing of “Deluge,” and the flowing, mystical melodicism of “House of Jade,” and through to Side 2 with the elusive “Mahjong,” the beautiful uptempo burner “Yes or No,” and the patiently grooving “Twelve More Bars to Go,” Shorter reveals a dual brilliance as composer and improviser, the two working together inextricably. The deeply bluesy but subtly classical shadings of his harmonies, the uncommon lilt and contour of his melodies were exactly the springboard he needed for the emotive and exquisitely crafted solos he imagined in his head and put so gloriously onto his horn.