Jazz just lost one of its all-time greats

In a 2014 interview, saxophonist Wayne Shorter was asked how often his working quartet rehearsed. His answer was evasive and enlightening: “How do you rehearse for the future?”

This was classic Shorter—gnomic, cognizant, mischievous, wise. He was also a bit humble. For more than six decades, he has been creating the future of music, with or without the benefit of rehearsal. Shorter, who died yesterday at the age of 89, was a giant of jazz as an improviser, bandleader and thinker, but above all as a composer—arguably the greatest in jazz since Thelonious Monk and arguably one of the greatest of the genre and of United. states, has ever produced.

Consider two of Shorter’s most famous songs. “Footprints,” a hypnotic blues in 3/4 time, is superficially simple enough to be a staple for high school jazz combos and adventurous rock bands alike. “Nefertiti,” from the same era, is so impeccably crafted that when Miles Davis, Shorter’s employer at the time, recorded it on an album of the same name, he simply had the band play the tune over and over for nearly eight minutes. without any solos. The album opens with Shorter’s sax delivering the melody, which launches into a descending riff that gives the impression that the listener is entering a conversation already in progress – which, in a way, is you.

In these and many of his more enduring compositions, Shorter’s music is a kind of abstract expressionism, in the vein of the paintings of his jazz-influenced contemporary Helen Frankenthaler. The work of both artists is saturated in color yet restrained, unpredictable and free yet self-contained and imbued with seductive enigma.

During his career, Shorter was a member of four of the most important jazz bands to ever play, traversing the path from post-bop to the modern cutting edge. At Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, the premier jazz completion school, Shorter was music director. He then moved on to Miles Davis’ “second great quintet,” serving as principal composer as the group defined acoustic jazz in the 1960s and then went electric. In the 1970s and 1980s, Shorter co-led Weather Report, the leading jazz-fusion band, with Joe Zawinul. In the 21st century, Shorter assembled an acoustic quartet that was a fitting heir to Davis’s band of musicality and innovation.

Every top jazz musician must be an excellent team player, but Shorter seemed to find particular inspiration in working closely with other musicians. In Blakey’s band, he was paired up front with hydraulic trumpeter Lee Morgan. Shorter was Morgan’s cool to hot. (As a teenager in Newark, New Jersey, obsessed with science fiction and comic books, Shorter styled himself “Mr. Strange.”) The group was one of the era’s finest examples of blues-inspired jazz. and gospel, known as hard bop.

Shorter also released several excellent albums under his own name in the 1960s, but his best-known work in that decade was with Davis. After the breakup of his famous band with John Coltrane, the trumpeter worked to assemble a new band of similar caliber, eventually landing on a line-up with Tony Williams on drums, Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass and Shorter on the saxophone. Although each member of the band contributed songs, Shorter wrote the most and his influence extended beyond these compositions.

“Wayne was the ideas guy, the creator of a lot of the musical ideas we did,” Davis wrote in his autobiography. “Wayne was always someone who experimented with form instead of someone who did it without form… Wayne is a true composer. He writes scores, he writes the piece for everyone as he wants it to sound.”

As Davis began experimenting with electric keyboards and guitar, Shorter stayed with Davis and played on the pioneering electric records In a quiet way and Brew dogs. In the spring of 1970, however, he left the band, joining Zawinul, an Austrian keyboardist who had also contributed to these records, to form Weather Report. The group became the longest-running and most commercially successful of the jazz fusion majors, staying together until 1986 and creating the infectious crossover hit ‘Birdland’.

Although its performance was sometimes uneven, Weather Report mostly managed to avoid the excesses and cheesiness associated with fusion. Zawinul came to dominate Weather Report compositionally and sonically, but Shorter’s horn and writing were essential to the group’s success. (His “Sightseeing,” an underrated classic, has recently received renewed attention from younger musicians such as Christian McBride and Anthony Fung.) Shorter also contributed a lead solo to Steely Dan’s “Aja” in 1977 and played on several of their records. Joni Mitchell.

His biggest post-Weather Report work didn’t come until 2000, when he formed a quartet with pianist Danilo Pérez, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade. Like Davis’s second major quintet, this band combined a country side with players from a younger generation, and like Davis’ band, it pushed the boundaries of acoustic jazz. The first time I heard them live, in Edinburgh in 2003, it was one of the most dazzling performances I have ever seen. Playing without written music, the four musicians seemed psychically connected, often navigating obscure structures—none of the typical form of a melody, then a series of solos, then another turn in the melody. The band could wander off in any direction or around hairpins without warning, but always functioned as one. A concussive blast from the Blade or surprise montuno by Perez would lead the music somewhere unexpected. (The band released three excellent live recordings.)

Shorter continued to produce music at a high level almost to the end of his life. The 2018 record, Emanonwhich paired the quartet with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and came with a graphic novel written by Shorter, topped many jazz critics’ year-end lists and in 2021 debuted … (Iphigenia)an opera co-written with young bassist Esperanza Spalding.

Although Shorter did not sound as distinctive as his forebears Coltrane and Sonny Rollins on tenor sax, he was still one of the most original and influential players on the instrument. His three-and-a-half-minute solo performance on “Thanks for the Memory” – combining Charlie Parker’s versatility, Rollins’ raw power and Illinois Jacquet’s honking – never ceases to excite, while his sublime ballad on “A Remark You Made” it’s a study in direct expression. And Shorter was the most influential soprano saxophonist since Coltrane.

His serpentine and elliptical improvised lines, often turning in on themselves, echo his melodies. They also matched his koan-like way of speaking in interviews. When you heard Shorter, you knew you were hearing wisdom, even if you couldn’t understand it all at once.

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