Ways To Wayne

Lately I’ve had Wayne Shorter on the brain.

The jazz saxophonist and composer, architect of some of the most challenging and influential tunes in the jazz canon, premiered a new piece (an extended meditation called “Lotus”) with his quartet recently at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Since then, I’ve been thinking back on Shorter’s long career, in search of five recordings (beyond those discussed in the book) that chart at least a bit of his trajectory. These are by no means the only titles to own; as with everything 1000 Recordings, they’re merely starting points for further exploration.

Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers: Africaine (Blue Note, 1959). The first recording from Blakey’s group to feature Shorter and trumpeter Lee Morgan, Africaine is a supercharged slice of hard bop. Shorter wrote the title track and the spry “Lester Left Town;” his saxophone solos are bursting with ideas, and Morgan is positively brilliant throughout.

Wayne Shorter: Speak No Evil (Blue Note, 1964). In the early phases of his career, Shorter dwelled in the shadows of his friend John Coltrane – though he lacked Trane’s fluid technique, he borrowed some of the great saxophonist’s harmonic devices for his own solos. By this, his third Blue Note date as a leader, Shorter has found not just his compositional voice – see the majestic “Witch Hunt” and “Infant Eyes,” marvels of beauty and invention – but a distinct identity as an improvisor. Check out the way he claws at and gently opens up the title track’s recurring motif.

Miles Davis: Nefertiti (Columbia, 1967). It is impossible to fully appreciate Miles Davis’ ‘60s quintet from just one studio document – each time the group recorded, it was in a strikingly different musical place. Shorter’s impact is felt first on E.S.P. from 1965, in effortlessly spiralling themes that veer gently toward free jazz. Recorded two years later, Nefertiti is looser and at the same time more introspective, a series of yearning melodies that grow more poignant as they evolve.

Weather Report: Mr. Gone (Columbia, 1978). This album, which followed the fusion group’s massive hit Heavy Weather, is often dismissed for its meandering crossover tries (“River People,” written by the late bass dynamo Jaco Pastorius). But it contains one of Shorter’s most haunting themes, “The Elders,” and a stunning reworking of a tune the saxophonist wrote during his tenure with Davis, “Pinocchio.”

Wayne Shorter: Alegria (Verve, 2003). This ambitious project marks a rebirth of sorts for Shorter, showcasing a variety of musical styles and approaches, from old British folk songs to composer Hector Villa-Lobos’ “Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5.” Shorter works in a variety of settings here, and while all of them are interesting, the material featuring his regular trio – pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Pattitucci, drummer Brian Blade, now together for ten years – positively sparkles.

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#1 from Justin M. Smith, Nashville, TN - 05/28/2010 12:18

How about the 1964 Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers date Free For All? This, for me, is the ultimate hard bop date. It sounds like hard bop just pushing at the seams. Shorter’s title composition “Free For All” just burns like a flame. His solo on the track is definitive. The intensity on this date is mind-blowing.

I prefer the very first Weather Report album, that was partially recorded live. (Combine it with I Sing the Body Electric and Live in Tokyo for the full story.) I like the strangeness and newness you can hear on what I perceive as Shorter and Zawinul’s variation on the Bitches Brew / In A Silent Way’s tones and themes. The Fender Rhodes has scarcely every sounded more mysterious, and Shorter’s interjections always sound fresh and unexpected to these ears.

And I would go with Wayne’s Footprints Live and / or Beyond The Sound Barrier for recent work, personally.

Mr. Moon, I absolutely love your book, but it makes me want to write another book in response to it!!

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