Wayne Shorter

Tenor and soprano saxophonist Wayne Shorter came up with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers then joined Miles Davis’ quintet. He stayed with Davis for several years, keeping solo albums in supply for Blue Note along the way, leaving in 1970 to form Weather Report with Joe Zawinul.

It’s hard to pin down Wayne’s soloing methodology, so rich is it in thematic development, toying with chord changes, exploring rhythms, etc. His tenor sound is lively and unmistakable; his soprano (heard a lot in Weather Report) is more stringent but has shining moments.

Shorter was the composer of the 1960s, in my opinion. In fact, I appreciated his writing long before I could really wrap my head around his playing. His melodies are often quite suggestive on their own, and entwined with ingenious chord structures, they’re for sharp players with a little art in their vessels. They’re for seasoned listeners as well, and many of them can catch the casual ear.

Night Dreamer
Apr. 1964 / Blue Note

As opposed to daydreamer? Wayne’s Blue Note debut retains some Jazz Messenger oomph (especially with Lee Morgan in the trumpet seat) and also looks ahead to the colors he would bring to Miles and Weather Report. The title track is the best tune, with McCoy Tyner, Reggie Workman, and Elvin Jones at midtempo underneath a clever harmonic sequence. The drop-off into a suspended 4th chord makes the whole thing happen, and it serves as a Weather forecast, if you like. Next best is either the precious “Virgo” or the brooding “Armageddon”. “Black Nile” is spunky enough to have come from any of the Jazz Messenger records, though Elvin isn’t to be confused with Art Blakey. A couple of other tunes round out the show.

This quintet plays well together, although the recording doesn’t do full justice to piano, bass, or drums. Wayne sounds a bit strained here and there, pinching the high notes and grinding grit he would soon wash away. On this evidence alone, one couldn’t guess his past or future, nor could one rule out him being an avant-garder on an “inside” holiday. Or vice-versa. That’s another way of saying Night Dreamer has depth and variety, and clearly there’s a special mind at work.

Aug. 1964 / Blue Note

Shorter’s individuality gets more specific on this record, although the character of the music has some Coltrane connotations, too. “Mahjong” and “Yes or No” have the feel of Coltrane’s Impulses and Atlantics, respectively. The rhythm section (McCoy Tyner, Reggie Workman, Elvin Jones) obviously has a role in this, although they don’t play exactly as they would with Trane. And Wayne, as always, is his own man.

The title track is a forceful sway with unsettled whole-tone melodies and a certain tension in Wayne’s solo. He’s more patient on “Deluge”, repeating cues and adding data as he goes. “House of Jade” exemplifies Wayne’s approach to ballads, yet there seems to be something complex lurking behind his softer phrases, here and elsewhere. “Yes or No”, as hinted above, has a Giant Step feel with its twisty chord changes, and “Twelve More Bars To Go” takes a last night out in Jazz Messenger clothing. “Mahjong” is mesmerizing in its groove and explorations, and feels like the centerpiece for this striking album.

Speak No Evil
Dec. 1964 / Blue Note

A state of the art record featuring Freddie Hubbard, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Elvin Jones. That’s Blakey, Miles, and Coltrane lineage, yet the result is pure Shorter. His six originals gel into a modern event that sums up his post-bop conceptions. “Witch Hunt” and the title track have keen melodies and imaginative chord progressions, while in the slower tunes like “Dance Cadaverous” and “Infant Eyes”, the meticulous sculpt of Shoter’s lines suggests more than what we hear. He’s an intuitive and intellectual player, as if he’s conversing and keeping a mental chess game going in his head at the same time. “Fee Fi Fo Fum” is another well constructed tune that has swagger and a great payoff. The finale is “Wallflower”, a waltz that in its first three bars creates a mood you won’t find anywhere else.

Hubbard plays some fine trumpet throughout, Hancock and Carter make an elastic pair, and Elvin keeps it rolling. Shorter plays proudly on everything, as he should.

The Soothsayer
Mar. 1965 / Blue Note

The Soothsayer was belatedly released in 1979, though most of the music is of the same quality as Wayne’s other 1960s recordings. This session includes Freddie Hubbard, James Spaulding, McCoy Tyner, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams, all of whom (along with Shorter) play vigorously on six tunes. The title track, matter of fact, is a smoking cut; the group pours it on, one solo after another. “Angola” is just as intense, as is its alternate take. No doubt all of the band members could rise to the occasion on their own, but Tony Williams’ drumming is partly responsible for the strong forward motion of these tracks.

The lighter moments shine as well, like the waltz “Lost” and the bittersweet “Lady Day”. The Sibelius adaptation “Valse Triste” has its own flavor but isn’t too far removed from Wayne’s original pieces. “The Big Push” is a rather strange, lurching piece, and like “Angola” and “The Soothsayer”, it gives the soloists plenty of room. That’s really what this album is about, in my view – the improvisations. A little of Spaulding’s wailing alto sax goes a long way for me, but he has his moments, as does Hubbard. I love Shorter’s tenor sax from the first track to the last (listen to “The Soothsayer” - wow), and McCoy Tyner is sharp, too (“Valse Triste”). My only complaint about this RVG disc is that there’s a slight rasp to some of the notes, but it’s otherwise a decent recording.

June 1965 / Blue Note

Not released until 1980, and like The Soothsayer, I’m not sure why it was held back so long. I first got this in 1995 as a Blue Note Connoisseur CD and still rate it pretty high. The title piece and “Toy Tune” have lean melodies that find Wayne, Herbie Hancock, Cecil McBee, and Joe Chambers exploring their suggestions in thoughtful ways. The softly-spoken “Penelope” has her own allure, the theme of which partly resembles the later “El Gaucho”. Three good tracks to start, and the next two are even more interesting.

“Barracudas (General Assembly)” was written by Gil Evans and recorded with Miles Davis as part of “Time of the Barracudas” in 1963, then by Evans in 1964 with Wayne Shorter. It’s one of those modal pieces like “So What” or “Maiden Voyage” that has a cinematic shift from one tonal center to another. I think the Miles recording is definitive, and Wayne’s guest solo with Gil is impressive, so it says a lot that Shorter wanted to revisit this composition, and the quartet does a great job with it. The album ends with the venturesome “Indian Song”, built upon a 5/4 bass groove and a sax melody that’s part riff/chant, part Mission: Impossible theme. I like the journey it takes, and it showcases Joe Chambers’ brilliant drumming yet again, playing on or against the rhythm with plenty of dynamics and varying sound choices. Listen to him during Herbie’s solo, who by the way also has fun dicing up the meter.

So, all good stuff, and if you like Wayne in the '60s, Etcetera is worth seeking out. The BN Connoisseur disc I mentioned is out of print, but one can still find the album in a multi-title reissue package or two.

The All Seeing Eye
Oct. 1965 / Blue Note

The problem with programmatic music is that it sabotages the pure listening experience. It’s enough to tell me that Debussy’s La Mer is “about” the sea; you don’t need to then specify which sections are the breaking waves, swirling eddies, etc. Similarly, Wayne’s liner note explanations for this Genesis myth music distract from the improvised proceedings, which don’t exactly form a representational ballet. Music can evoke all kinds of images if you ignore the instruction manual.

None of that matters once the album starts playing. The expanded band includes a front line of Shorter, Freddie Hubbard, James Spaulding, Alan Shorter, and Grachan Moncur, backed by Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Joe Chambers. The writing is not as memorable as Wayne’s compositions for smaller dates, but then, this music sits on the edge of free jazz, and the themes exist to get the group up and running. There is mad swing (“Chaos”) and a pensive ballad (“Face of the Deep”), while the other three tracks have looser structures yet don’t lose control or get too abrasive. The solos in “Genesis” aren’t really solos at all, more like conversations with the rhythm section. Wayne’s chapter of “Genesis” is terrific, and then Freddie trumpets all kinds of timbres before blowing a “bugle” call that ruins the drama he had set up. On all of the tracks, Herbie and Ron are resourceful in their piano and bass roles, Spaulding and Moncur bring their voices to various points, and Joe Chambers demonstrates the sensitivity and power that marks him the underrated champion of ‘60s drumming.

There’s so much spark and imagination here, like the title track’s potent takeoff, the stillness of “Face of the Deep”, and the closing “Mephistopholes”, a bizarre theme over a hypnotic drum pattern. You could call the music avant-garde, except it seems more thoughtful than that. Wayne’s solos are as inventive as those he would dispense with Miles at the Plugged Nickel a few months later. It takes a few listens to assimilate All Seeing Eye but the rewards are plenty.

Adam’s Apple
Feb. 1966 / Blue Note

A personal favorite. The quartet (with Hancock, Workman, and Chambers) is great and the tunes intoxicate. In fact, the album has a very ?tuney’ feel, and while the playing doesn’t always carry the impact of the earlier records, the casual gestures and grooves have their merits. “Adam’s Apple” starts with a pedestrian boogie beat, but Shorter’s theme and changes have deeper implications than the average jukebox jazz jam, although it works on that level as well. “El Gaucho” also adopts another popular beat, this time a bossa, and takes it to a special place with a sunlit melody and uplifting modulations. “Chief Crazy Horse” is more in the dark Juju vein, with strong bass motifs and modal solos. The ballads are “Teru” and Jimmy Rowles’ “502 Blues”, both soft at heart and sophisticated in mind. And then there’s the moody blues “Footprints”, which was made famous in a rendition by the Miles Davis quintet. This homegrown rendition is a bit slower but no less cool.

Shorter’s solos occasionally contain phrases as memorable as the composed melodies. For example, he peters out in the middle of “El Gaucho” but rescues himself with one of those indelible statements. Herbie is quite inspired; check out his escalation on “El Gaucho” and the polyrhythmic detour in “Chief Crazy Horse”. Maybe the best representation of the group’s imagination is the bonus track “The Collector”, which leads to freer interplay than anything on the original program. Adam’s Apple may not have as much bravura as, say, Speak No Evil but it’s equally marvelous.

Footprints Live
July 2001 / Verve

What looks like a nostalgia trip – legendary icon returns to the old songbook with next-generation sidemen in tow – is quite a vital recording. The tunes (recorded live) hail mostly from the ‘60s heyday, yet the kinetic interplay of Danilo Perez (piano), John Patitucci (bass), and Brian Blade (drums) makes them sound as if they were written yesterday. It’s not quite a paradox to add that these performances sometimes recall the classic Miles quintet of which Shorter was a part.

“Sanctuary” raises the curtain with a prowling pulse and insistent tenor cues, and “Masqualero” builds recombinant rhythms into a winding solo from Wayne. The band invents structures on the spot, adjusting form and harmony to their liking. In the imaginative reconstruction of “Masqualero”, I especially like the climax of Wayne’s solo and Perez’s dynamic piano work. In “Footprints”, The familiar foundation is gradually abstracted until it lands on a tropical lilt and a fragile coda. “Juju” begins and ends freely, its body a twisted fossil of the 1965 original. Only the delicate “Go”, led by Shorter’s breathy tones, refrains from trapdoor surprises.

The leader’s solos relay some of his old agility and fire, and when he lays out, his presence remains, due to the personality of his compositions. Also credit the sidemen, who test the music’s malleability but stay within the bounds of mood.

2003 / Verve

Roughly speaking, this is Wayne’s Sketches of Spain, where a distinctive soloist fronts formal orchestrations of Old and New World classicism. It’s not a literal analogy, though, as this music is smaller and more flexible than the Gil/Miles work. With the exception of Heitor Villa-Lobos’ “Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5”, arranged by producer Robert Sadin, all arrangements are by Shorter for various ensembles (up to 14 players). Classical adaptations sit alongside revamped originals, and though highbrow efforts like this risk turgidity, it’s full of life.

The boogaloo “Sacajawea” starts the program with the Perez/Patitucci/Blade quartet; the same team also handles “She Moves Through the Fair” (a weightless wisp) and “Capricorn II”, the lovely finale. Shorter overdubs soprano on “Sacajawea”, and I wonder why he didn’t just use Chris Potter (who appears elsewhere on this album) on second sax in real time. Shorter overdubs on other tracks as well, which I suspect was decoration done as second-guessing late in the sessions. (Not dated in the liners, by the way.)

We first heard “Orbits” with Miles, and this new take is nearly unrecognizable, transformed by a halting horn chart, while the middle section slips into a soulful groove as Wayne emits overblown growls. “Angola” builds to a monolithic piano vamp (Brad Mehldau) and has a lot of percussive color from Shorter’s old Weather Report mate Alex Acuna, a key contributor to other tracks as well.

The classical pieces further enrich Alegria’s travelogue, especially “Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5”. The arrangement alternates a sax-bass-percussion section with a cello-ensemble portrait of the Bach-ish theme. “Serenata” and “Vendiendo Alegria” work towards melodic and textural epiphanies, especially the velvety closing curtain of the latter. My favorite track is the “12th Century Carol”, draped in evocative brass harmonies and sensual percussion. Rather than being a forced marriage of genres, it sews elements from distant times and places into a new quilt without any cut and paste feel, much like the rest of the album does.

All of the arrangements call attention to themselves (in a good way), so what exactly does Wayne get across in his own playing? For one thing, there’s a maturity where it’s not the number of notes that matters, more the quality they carry. Wayne can really sing with his sax, and in Alegria he’s the recurring voice that comments on successive stages of the journey. I was going to add that Alegria is his ?expanded setting’ that most legends receive sooner or later, but that’s a trite summary. This album isn’t an excuse to explore horn arrangements or juxtapose island percussion with European scores. It’s just a successful attempt at pan-cultural beauty.

Beyond the Sound Barrier
Nov 2002-Apr 2004 / Verve

Another live album from Shorter’s ongoing quartet. It’s largely brilliant thanks to the rhythm section of Perez, Patitucci, and Blade, who have devised a new sub-language of improvisation, making for impromptu arrangements that are continually subject to change. The piano runs from bop to baroque, the drums roam virtually free, and the bass twists in multiple directions. Every track captures their high-caliber interplay. The flaws involve Wayne’s low-ebb saxophone work and the patchy tracklist. Why are there so many fades (both out and in) on this CD, which is not stuffed to capacity? With two years’ worth of gigs to cull from, are these the best bits that could be found?

First, the good: “Smilin’ Through” and “Over Shadow Hill Way” are both multi-sectional pieces that equal the best of the Footprints Live album. Not far behind is “Adventures Aboard the Golden Mean” and the free-improv title track, which unfortunately fades out just as it’s developing a new idea. These tracks all display interesting qualities of the quartet.

On the other hand, “Joy Ryder”, despite the good groove and exciting ending, exemplifies some of Shorter’s problematic playing. His soprano has always been a little odd, and on much of the album, he’s reduced to squalling high notes. (The same thing happens on tenor in “As Far as the Eye Can See”. Given Wayne’s work on the last two albums, it’s strange that his main tactic for this one is just the piercing high-note business, which gets old before the album is even half over.) “Joy Ryder” meanders around for eleven minutes, feeding on bass and drums and leaving Shorter behind. Again, with all the live tapes to select from, why admit disconnected performances from the leader? At times, as in “Golden Mean”, Shorter finds useful things to say with the soprano, but his playing is uneven, including some moments on tenor.

So there’s the frustration. This group’s first live effort was amazing, but Sound Barrier is erratic enough for me not to recommend as much.

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