The Language of Wayne Shorter

Notes from the Wayne Shorter Listening Session

Wayne Shorter
Born: August 25, 1933, Newark, NJ

A 2018 New York Times article, written by Giovanni Russonello and titled “Wayne Shorter, Jazz’s Abstruse Elder, Isn’t Done Innovating Yet,” refers to the iconic saxophonist and composer Shorter as “not only one of jazz’s greatest composers but its angel of esotericism, an enlightened and arcane elder.” The article tells of Shorter’s latest 3-CD set release, complete with a comic book about a rogue philosopher named Emanon. 

Known for his tunes written while on the front lines with both Art Blakey and Miles Davis, Shorter widened the harmonic possibilities in composition and arrangement beyond bebop. A dark, deep, spacious, and searching quality to his improvisations grace many recorded masterpieces since 1960 on modern jazz record labels Vee-Jay, Blue Note, Columbia and Verve. Shorter has received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Polar Music Prize, and will be honored by the Kennedy Center this December 26, 2018.

Wayne Shorter Selected Works:

 Introducing Wayne Shorter (1959)

Recorded just months after Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue in 1959, Shorter’s introduction to the jazz world as a leader features a few rhythm section players from that quintessential recording. Kelly, Chambers and Cobb support Shorter and trumpeter/fellow Messenger Lee Morgan. Shorter offers up five originals on his debut, including “Black Diamond” (featured below) and the odd inclusion of the standard “Mack the Knife” closing the recording.


Free For All (1964)  Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers 

Recorded in February, 1964, while Shorter was transitioning from his critical stint with Blakey's school of Jazz Messengers to the Miles Davis Quintet, Free for All captures a dedicated band, together for three years before this recording, and ready to explode. Shorter wrote the piece to showcase Blakey's masterful and thunderous outbursts, complete with drum breaks in the hard driving head and a raucous solo from master Blakey. Shorter is the first horn out of the gate though, and powers through one of his most intense and building, climactic solos captured on a studio recording.

Musicians: Art Blakey, drums; Freddie Hubbard, trumpet; Curtis Fuller, trombone; Wayne Shorter, tenor saxophone; Cedar Walton, piano; Reggie Workman, bass


Deluge (1964) 

If the rhythm section featured on Wayne Shorter's 1964 release Juju looks familiar, it's because they all had another saxophonist in common. John Coltrane built a house, and eventually an empire of sound in modern jazz with Tyner, Workman and Jones as essential support. Now with Shorter as leader, the trio doesn't settle but instead revels in the opportunity to soak themselves in the liquid flow of Shorter's unique chord structures. In theory, "Deluge" isn't a blues, but a deep, heavy swing conjured by the quartet throughout the tune implies a sense of both tension and acceptance of new, lyrical directions in hard bop led by Shorter's harmonic conception. Juju is among 11 recordings led by Shorter for Blue Note Records from 1964-1970.

Musicians: Wayne Shorter, tenor saxophone; McCoy Tyner, piano; Reggie Workman, bass; Elvin Jones, drums


Nefertiti (1967) Miles Davis Quintet

Written initially as a single note melody with no dedicated chord structure, Nefertiti was designed by Shorter for the 1967 Miles Davis Quintet recording of the same name. It was pianist Hancock's suggestion to cycle the melody with no actual solos, allowing for the rhythm instruments to churn and develop the piece as Shorter and Davis build and connect their chordal relationships every 16 bars.

Musicians: Miles Davis, trumpet; Wayne Shorter, tenor saxophone; Herbie Hancock, piano; Ron Carter, bass; Tony Williams, drums


Aja (1977) Steely Dand

Recorded by jazz rock band Steely Dan, Aja is the title track from the 1977 album and the group’s longest track on record, complete with jazz changes and multiple parts. The album features an array of guests including Joe Sample, Chuck Rainey and Steve Gadd, with the instrumental break showcasing Wayne Shorter on tenor saxophone and Gadd powering through the changes. Shorter initially declined the invite, but promoter Dick LaPalm eventually convinced him to make the studio date. Songwriters Walter Becker and Donald Fagen wanted drummer Tony Williams to join Shorter, but Gadd agreed and proved to be more than sufficient for the track. Becker said Shorter was intent on not looking at the tune through chromatic passages and a bebop lens, but instead forging a novel approach to the piece.


Wayne Shorter Selected Performances: 

The Miles Davis Quintet performing “Footprints” 1967

Recorded live in Stockholm, Sweden in 1967, this live version of Shorter’s most well-known and often played composition “Footprints” shows the difference in how Davis and Shorter drive and maneuver the band through a piece during their improvised solos.


Weather Report performing “Elegant People” 1976

Recorded Live at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland, 1976, this video segment captures Weather Report with Shorter taking up the majority of solo time on his own tune “Elegant People,” written for the 1976 album Heavy Weather. Accompanied by Joe Zawinul, Jaco Pastorius, Manolo Badrena and sometime-Weather Report drummer Alex Acuna, Shorter lights a fire to the hard, Latin-funk groove laid down by the band.


The Wayne Shorter Quartet from the documentary film ‘The Language of the Unknown” 2013

One of the remarkable aspects of director Guido Lukoscheck’s film on the Wayne Shorter Quartet is how he captures each member of the group’s point of view and individual reactions to concert footage of their music. This 2013 film features segments from a concert performed in the Salle Pleyel, Paris, France on November 3, 2012. The quartet of Shorter as leader on soprano and tenor saxophones, Danilo Perez on piano, John Patitucci on bass and Brian Blade on drums is one of the most inspiring and admired groups in the new century of jazz and improvised music.

Monday, December 17, 2018