Wayne Shorter




Tenor and soprano sax. Came up with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, then joined Miles’ quintet. He stayed with Davis for several years, leaving in 1970 to form Weather Report with Joe Zawinul. Throughout the 1960s, he kept solo albums in supply for Blue Note, even as he toured and recorded with the Miles band.

Wayne’s tenor sound is brusque and lively, topped with a crying lilt (or a lilting cry). His soprano tones are more stringent. It’s hard to pin down his soloing methodology, as he equally favors harmonic adherence, thematic development, tonal exploration and/or rhythmic effects, often within the space of a chorus.

Shorter was the writer of the 60s, in my opinion. In fact, I appreciated him as a composer long before I could really wrap my head around his playing. Wayne’s genius was to say there’s nothing wrong with being “constrained” within a 16 or 32 or however many bar structure, as long as it’s interesting and inspiring and creative in itself. He had a few experimental and/or loose song structures to his credit, but in general, Shorter’s tunes were not scripts for the average charlatan. They were for smart, seasoned players who had an advanced harmonic sense and a little art in their vessels. They’re for advanced listeners as well, despite the fact that many of them can catch the casual ear.



Night Dreamer
Apr. 1964 / Blue Note

As opposed to daydreamer? Wayne’s BN 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 sans-a-belting a midtempo groove underneath a clever harmonic sequence. The dropoff into a suspended 4th chord makes the whole thing happen, and it serves as a Weather forecast, if you like. Next best is the yearning “Virgo”, a little more precious than Wayne’s upcoming ballads for Miles. For the greatest hits, one might also consider 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. A couple of other tunes round out the show, not as special as the listed four.

This quintet (they’re all named above) is a good lineup, although the recording doesn’t do much justice to piano, bass, or drums. Maybe Rudy had an off-day. 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 the tenor as being an avant-garder on an “inside” holiday. Or vice-versa. That’s another way of saying Night Dreamer has variety.


Juju
Aug. 1964 / Blue Note

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

The standout track is “Juju”, a forceful 6/8 piece with a whole-tone homebase. It’s a tense ride, not least for the wiry way Shorter plays it. He’s more patient on “Deluge”, repeating cues and gradually filling his lines with more data as he goes. “House of Jade” is a frilled, exotic ballad. Wayne doesn’t completely subdue his playing in the softer pieces; there always seems to be something complex lurking behind his ballad lines, here and elsewhere. “Yes or No”, as hinted above, has a Giant Step feel - twisty uptempo chord changes - and “Twelve More Bars To Go” takes a last night out in Jazz Messenger clothing. The unforgettable “Mahjong” capitalizes on a mesmerizing groove and provides an emotional centerpiece for this striking album. A must-own, along with the next title.


Speak No Evil
Dec. 1964 / Blue Note

A state of the art quintet 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 ingenious 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 holding a lucid conversation 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 a great payoff and a little swagger, too. The finale is “Wallflower”, a waltz that in its first three bars creates a complex mood you won’t find anywhere else.

Hubbard plays some fine trumpet throughout, although he’s maybe a little too bluesy for the material at times (“Fee Fi Fo Fum”), and Elvin drums evenly. Hancock and Carter make an elastic pair, and the pianist in particular moves like a sine wave throughout the album. 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 style and 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 just about the most smoking cut in Wayne’s Blue Note catalog; the whole group pours it on, one hot 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 especially 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 inspired 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 his lengthy solo in “The Soothsayer” - wow), and McCoy Tyner is pretty sharp, too (“Valse Triste”). As mentioned, Carter and Williams keep everything moving. 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.


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 original liner note explanations for this Genesis myth music are nothing but silly distractions, as the proceedings are much more immediate (because it’s improvised!), and it’s not a representational ballet. The music can evoke all kinds of images if you ignore the instruction manual.

None of that really matters once the album starts playing. The midsized 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 only 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 they don’t lose control or get too abrasive. The solos in “Genesis” aren’t really solos at all, more like free conversations with the rhythm section. Wayne’s chapter of “Genesis” is terrific, and then Freddie tweaks all kinds of timbres from his instrument before blowing a ridiculous “bugle” call that ruins the drama he had set up. On all of the tracks, Herbie and Ron are endlessly resourceful in their piano and bass roles, while Joe Chambers demonstrates the sensitivity and power that marks him the underrated champion of ‘60s drumming. Spaulding and Moncur bring their identifiable voices to various points, too.

There’s so much spark and imagination in this album, like the title track’s potent takeoff, the stillness of “Face of the Deep”, and the closing “Mephistopholes”, a bizarre, dissonant 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 creative 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

My personal favorite. The quartet is perfect - with Hancock, Workman, and Chambers - and the tunes intoxicate. In fact, the album has a very “tuney” feel, while the playing in general doesn’t carry the heavyweight impact of the earlier records. Nonetheless, the casual gestures and light grooves have their merits. “Adam’s Apple” starts with a pedestrian boogie beat, but Shorter’s theme and changes, simple as they are, 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 inspiring chord modulations and a sunlit melody. “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 much freer interplay than anything on the original program. Adam’s Apple doesn’t hit as hard as, say, Speak No Evil, but what it lacks in bravura, it makes up for in sensitivity and clarity.


Footprints Live
July 2001 / Verve

What looks like a nostalgia trip - legendary icon returns to the old book with next-generation sidemen in tow - is actually 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”, theme and pulse gradually fall away, replaced by 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.


Alegria
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 really is a gorgeous suite.

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. That would have been a great pairing of age-gapped tenors. 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 sultry sax-bass-percussion section with an elegant 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 postmodern 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 Milesian maturity, where it’s not the number of notes that matters, but the quality they carry. Wayne can really “sing” with his horn, and his role in Alegria is to be the recurring voice that comments on successive stages of the journey. I was going to add that Alegria is the “expanded setting” that all legends get sooner or later, but that’s a trite summary. This album isn’t some excuse to explore horn arrangements or juxtapose festive island percussion with European scores. It’s just a successful attempt at pan-cultural beauty.


Beyond the Sound Barrier
Nov 2002-Apr 2004 / Verve

A brilliant yet flawed live album from Shorter’s ongoing quartet. The brilliance comes from the rhythm section of Perez, Patitucci, and Blade, who have devised a new sublanguage of improvisation. Their impromptu arrangements rarely have an identifiable center and are continually subject to chameleon-like change. The piano runs from bop to baroque, the drums roam virtually free, and the basslines twist 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 tracks that could be found - spotty playing from the leader and few beginnings or ends?

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 the motivic jam “Adventures Aboard the Golden Mean” and the group-improv title track, which unfortunately fades out just as it’s developing a new idea. (Why?) These tracks all display interesting qualities of the quartet.

On the other hand, “Joy Ryder”, despite a hip groove and an 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 good 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 off the bass and drums and leaving Shorter behind. Again, with all the live tapes to select from, why admit subpar, disconnected performances from the leader? At times, as in “Golden Mean”, Shorter finds useful things to say with the soprano, but he’s very uneven, and his tenor strength is fading, if these examples are to be taken to heart.

So there’s the frustration. This is an important group, and their first live effort was magnificent, but Sound Barrier is disappointingly erratic.


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