Wayne Shorter, a Jazz Hero Whose Goal Was ‘to Fear Nothing’
In the last decade or so of his life, it had become a commonplace to call Wayne Shorter jazz’s greatest living composer. There was simply no ambiguity about it, he was the one.
Now that the saxophonist has left the earthly realm, at the age of 89, does that distinction become eternal? It’s hard to think of another musician whose writing style worked its way so indelibly into the DNA of jazz: how the music is composed, how it’s played, how we think about it.
Shorter wrote melodies at a slant, doing a lot with a little. He packed harmonies with so much tension, they relieved a lot of the pressure that had been put on the rhythm section in the bebop era — allowing it to loosen its grip on the groove without sacrificing suspense. When he joined the Miles Davis Quintet in 1964, after a lengthy stint as Art Blakey’s musical director, Shorter’s impact was succinct and immediate: The group stayed cool and steady, even as Shorter’s compositions lured its five members into a state of constant combustion.
Like John Coltrane, his mentor and predecessor in Davis’s previous quintet, Shorter wasn’t flashy or spotlight-hungry. But his presence was commanding. Davis sometimes started concerts without him onstage; when Shorter came on, playing his way up to the microphone, it was an event.
In the early ’70s, partly responding to the direction Davis’s music was taking, jazz steered toward a marriage with rock and funk. Shorter and the pianist Joe Zawinul teamed up to start Weather Report, arguably the quintessential band of the fusion era, and kept it going for 15 solid years. In that time, Shorter also made it into the studio with rock and Brazilian popular musicians, like Joni Mitchell, Santana and Milton Nascimento. Maybe Shorter’s mind took to fusion not just out of aesthetic affinity, but because he was always a high-tech thinker and an alchemist; electronics never scared him, and authenticity felt relative. Synths? Amp stacks? Jaco Pastorius’s flanged-up electric bass taking the melody out of your hands? What was the harm?
Growing up in downtown Newark, Shorter read and wrote comics about superheroes confronting threats from the cosmos, and he and his brother Alan, also a musician, caught every movie they could at the local theater. He listened on the radio to the newest sounds in bebop, Western classical and popular music. “As weird as Wayne” became a saying in the neighborhood, as the poet and critic Amiri Baraka famously remembered, and Shorter turned it into an honorific, dubbing himself “Mr. Weird.”
Throughout his life, Shorter was a fierce and articulate defender of the right to stand alone — or better yet, to take risks in reliable company. Speaking in 2018 about his approach to playing with his quartet, Shorter was (as usual) both metaphorical and direct. “It’s a little thing we call trust and faith,” he said. “To me, the definition of faith is to fear nothing.”
If there is one immortal distinction Shorter can certainly claim, it’s that of being jazz’s all-time greatest aphorist. That’s not an easily earned title, in a music community full of philosophers. Blakey, for one, famously said that jazz “washes away the dust of everyday life.” Davis reminded us that it’s about “the notes you don’t play.”
But as he grew older, Shorter was a seemingly bottomless font of mystic wisdom. One of his favorite lines was: “Jazz means, I dare you.” The title of his longtime quartet’s 2013 album, “Without a Net,” was a reference to his description of how the band improvised. That band operated for close to 20 years without, he said, ever holding a rehearsal. “How do you rehearse the unknown?” he asked.
Late in his career, Shorter developed a creative partnership with one of his biggest admirers, Esperanza Spalding. They performed often together, and over a period of years they took on his last herculean goal: composing a full-length opera, “Iphigenia,” which turned Euripides’s classic Greek tragedy upside-down and adorned it with a wildly expansive score. Frank Gehry, a longtime friend of Shorter’s, designed the set, with a looming, shimmery backdrop that seemed to harmonize with the saxophonist’s vaulted arrangements.
“Iphigenia” premiered in late 2021, to a mix of rapturous raves and quizzical responses — both of which must have delighted Shorter. But the enormity of his achievements as a composer were just as apparent at a completely different opera, Terence Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” which had its debut at the Metropolitan Opera around the same time. With Shorter’s passing, Blanchard becomes a candidate to assume that mantle of “greatest living jazz composer.” But at “Fire,” it was clearer than ever that he wouldn’t have gotten there without the influence of Shorter; it was in the way his harmonies spread their wings out wide, hang gliding from beginning to end, asking you to ride along — daring you.
Here are nine tracks that showcase the sly invention and dark poetics of Shorter’s compositions and saxophone sound.
Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, “Sakeena’s Vision” (1960)
“Sakeena’s Vision” is one of many tunes that Shorter wrote for Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, the group from which he launched his career. His later work was never as straightforwardly propulsive and blues-driven as the charts he gave to Blakey, but on “Sakeena’s Vision” you’ll hear some of his soon-to-be signatures. At the end of the melody, Shorter introduces a catchy fillip of a phrase, repeats it, then turns it over in a few different harmonic contexts. It’ll get stuck in your head — the melody, the rhythm of it, the bounce of it — but then it’ll slip away from you.
Wayne Shorter, “House of Jade” (1965)
For “Juju,” arguably the most indispensable album from Shorter’s golden period with Blue Note Records in the 1960s, he was joined by a rhythm section of Coltrane quartet veterans: McCoy Tyner on piano, Reggie Workman on bass and Elvin Jones on drums. “House of Jade” is the gentlest of the LP’s six Shorter originals, but Jones’s ever-propulsive beat and Workman’s staunch bass playing vest Shorter’s slow, elliptical melody with heavy, grinding force.
Miles Davis Quintet, “Fall” (1968)
Miles Davis’s so-called second great quintet — for which Shorter was the primary composer — quite distinctly falls into this composition, with the trumpeter acting as if he’s just remembered the melody as he goes along. The emotion of this piece, as in so many of Shorter’s tunes, is both stark and shrouded: Is it mournful? Longing? Simply dazed? Whatever that feeling is — nameable or not — you’ll find it exerts a pull.
Wayne Shorter, “Beauty and the Beast” (1975)
Somewhere between funk, jazz, MPB and a slow jam, “Beauty and the Beast” comes from “Native Dancer,” Shorter’s first album-length collaboration with the star Brazilian vocalist Milton Nascimento, and an undisputed classic in both musicians’ catalogs.
Weather Report, “Palladium” (1977)
In Weather Report, Shorter was actually the group’s secondary composer, after Joe Zawinul, but he still got in some good licks. “Palladium” is one of the group’s most fun tunes; just when you think it’s resolving, it keeps flying on, transposing up a key and ultimately finishing on a cliffhanger.
Steely Dan, “Aja” (1977)
Steely Dan was a rock band with jazzy aspirations — until the group made “Aja,” a milestone of the fusion years and their first encounter with Shorter’s slippery saxophone playing. After an impressive guitar solo by Denny Dias, Shorter’s unmistakable tenor sound comes barreling out of the darkness, like a black car emerging from a tunnel at night with its lights turned off; less than a minute later he’s finished, and the track is in a new ZIP code.
Joni Mitchell, “Paprika Plains” (1977)
Shorter joined up with Joni Mitchell for the first time in the late 1970s, and they remained lifelong friends and collaborators. On many tracks, he offers color and complement, but on “Paprika Plains” — Mitchell’s epic tribute to the Indigenous community near her Saskatchewan hometown — he doesn’t appear till almost 14 minutes in, ready to carry the song skyward to its close.
Wayne Shorter Quartet, “Adventures Aboard the Golden Mean (live)” (2005)
The quartet that Shorter assembled around the turn of the new millennium was his first attempt as a bandleader to revisit and expand upon the all-things-must-explode m.o. of Davis’s 1960s quintet. Alongside the drummer Brian Blade, the bassist John Patitucci and the pianist Danilo Pérez, Shorter leans heavily on the soprano saxophone (another nod to Coltrane’s influence), and on “Adventures Aboard the Golden Mean” he uses the band at once like a meditative space and a wild loom, spinning small, motif-like themes until they are frayed and stretched and fully unspooled.
Wayne Shorter, Terri Lyne Carrington, Leo Genovese and Esperanza Spalding, “Endangered Species (live)” (2022)
Esperanza Spalding and Terri Lyne Carrington have been among the most prominent advocates for Shorter’s legacy, and in 2017 they teamed up with him — and the pianist Leo Genovese — for a major performance at the Detroit Jazz Festival. “Endangered Species” is an ’80s-era gem from Shorter’s fusion catalog, written at the tail end of his time with Weather Report, built on the tonal toggling and crooked-angle grooves that he’d often worked out with Weather Report, but released on his 1985 solo album, “Atlantis.” In 2012 Spalding set it to words and did her own version. Their performance together in Detroit was released last year, and Shorter’s gusty, restrained solo on “Endangered Species” won him the 12th — and final — Grammy in an immortal career.
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