Wayne Shorter – Mr Gone: 29 March 2023

In this show we play tribute to one of the foremost artists in jazz – saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter – who died recently at the age of 89. Much has been written about him elsewhere but for both Neil and Derek, Shorter has been one of the most singular voices in jazz. A practising Buddhist, science fiction devotee and masterful improviser, the death of Wayne Shorter leaves a huge hole in the jazz world. This show is devoted entirely to his music.

While growing up in Newark, Wayne Shorter was given the nickname Mr Gone – an indication of his otherworldy air and subsequently the title of a Weather Report album that seemed to acknowledge his slow departure from the jazz supergroup that he had co-founded with Joe Zawinul in the early 1970s. As the excellent Guardian newspaper obituary from Richard Williams recognised, Shorter’s aura of cool detachment helped him to create a musical microclimate that was unique and immediately identifiable.

Unusually, Shorter had two unique and very different tones on both his principal instruments, the tenor and soprano saxophones. On tenor, the gruff, dark complexities were contrasted with the clean, piping clarity of his soprano. Both were immediately identifiable – and there are examples of each in our tribute show. But more than this, Shorter became recognised by many as the greatest living composer in jazz with a string of tunes that were to become modern jazz standards – perhaps none more so than Footprints. His music is often characterised by quirkily angled melodies that leaves space around the notes together with an improvising structure that emphasises subtlety rather than complexity. In another wonderfully evocative phrase, Richard Williams describes Shorter’s music as like a wraith of pale smoke through a door left ajar, curling gracefully around the musical furniture before evaporating as mysteriously as it had appeared, leaving an indelible afterimage.

Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers – Ping Pong from Roots and Herbs

All of this is apparent in the music we have selected for this show and we’ve included an iconic compositions from his early days with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers to his later quartet compositions. We begin with Ping Pong which Shorter wrote for Art Blakey. It’s a typical early Shorter tune – memorable, quirky and very stylish. Neil first heard it on an old New Musical Express jazz sampler cassette from the early 1980s and was immediately drawn to this perfect example of hard bop. Familiar with Shorter’s Weather Report compositions, this was the start of Neil’s journey back through the Shorter Blue Note catalogue. Shorter spent four years with the Jazz Messengers and, by the time he came to record his first solo album for Blue Note, he was beginning to become better known as both a composer and unique voice on the tenor saxophone. His run of eleven albums for the label between 1964 and 1970 is one of the most influential series of individual jazz albums from anyone in the jazz world and all titles are highly recommended.

Wayne Shorter – Speak No Evil and Infant Eyes from Speak No Evil

We’ve chosen two tunes – the first is the title track from Speak No Evil, recorded in 1966 and the third of those Blue Note albums. In his excellent tribute show on BBC6 radio, Gilles Peterson referred to it as his favourite jazz record and indeed every tune is a compositional masterpiece. The group Shorter assembled was perfect – Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass and Elvin Jones on drums. There’s a telepathic rapport with Herbie Hancock and, indeed, Richard Cook and Brian Morton in the Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings call this by far, Shorter’s most satisfying record. Second up from those Blue Note years is Infant Eyes from the same album. This is one of Shorter’s most gorgeous tunes and has – again – become something of a contemporary jazz standard. There’s a lovely vocal version by Doug and Jean Carn(e) from those excellent Black Jazz reissues on the Real Gone label.

Wayne Shorter – 12th Century Carol from Alegria

Next is Shorter at his most lyrical – and this one is a soprano sax feature. The album Alegria was released in 2003 and features the quartet that was to form Shorter’s working group for almost the next twenty years. Shorter is on tenor and soprano saxes, Danilo Perez is on piano, and with John Patitucci on bass and Brian Blade on drums this incredibly accomplished quartet released some of the best music of Shorter’s long career. Derek’s choice from this album is as enigmatic as Wayne Shorter himself – a setting of an anonymous 12 century carol that is just beautiful.

Weather Report – Three Clowns from Black Market

We follow this with a first dive into the music of Weather Report, a group Neil was fortunate enough to see twice in two of their very different incarnations. Three Clowns (a typically cryptic Shorter title) comes from 1976’s Black Market, one of the group’s most satisfying records. This tune is rather dismissed by Cook and Morton but it’s actually an atmospheric vehicle for one of Shorter’s excursions with the Lyricon, an electronic wind instrument which had only been developed a few years previously and which allowed him to match the increasingly intriguing sounds being created by Joe Zawinul on his armoury of electronic keyboards. As almost always with Weather Report, the outcome is not bombastic and driven by a desire to impress but rather, the music is subtle, emotive and – above all – creative.

Weather Report – Plaza Real from Procession

The next tune is one that Shorter has revisited a number of times, including with his later quartet. Neil saw the group perform Plaza Real in a shockingly different version on Shorter’s live tour of 2003 but it actually first appeared on the Weather Report album Procession from 1983. Here Shorter is again on soprano saxophone and using that clear, piping lyrical tone that is so immediately distinctive. The whistling (probably by Joe Zawinul) and concertina (from percussionist José Rossy) is a neat touch. This band were all about subtlety. Unfortunately, the later years of Weather Report are characterised by the marginalisation of Shorter’s nuanced approach to composition and improvisation and if you’re a beginner with the group, the early records are the ones to go for.

Wayne Shorter with Milton Nascimento – Lilia from Native Dancer

In the mid-1970s, Shorter began to extend the Brazilian influence that had been apparent on his later Blue Note records and recorded essentially a duet album with singer Milton Nascimento. Gilles Peterson remembers borrowing Native Dancer from his local library and being enchanted by the combination – and Neil recalls very clearly buying the record on release in 1975 from the late lamented Sunshine Records in Oxford. Airto Moreira is on percussion on our choice Lilia and elsewhere on the album Shorter’s Blue Note pal Herbie Hancock is featured. Nascimento’s wordless vocals are featured along with some very fine concluding soprano from Shorter and with a fabulous groove and organ swirls from Wagner Tiso this is a magical tune.

Wayne Shorter Quartet –Joy Ryder from Beyond the Sound Barrier

As we bring this all too short tribute show to an end, we come to another tune that Shorter revisited with his late quartet – the composition Joy Ryder. This take is again very different from the tune’s first incarnation, on Shorter’s 1988 album with the same title. For comparison, check out that earlier version here with, incidentally, the late and great Geri Allen on piano and keys. Neil’s view is that these later Columbia records are really due for a re-evaluation: much dismissed at the time, they now come across as not just typical of the musical zeitgeist of the time (overdriven electronic drums, for example) but actually powerful musical statements by a master composer negotiating a new sound language. Bringing the tune forward to 2005 and Shorter’s version on the live quartet album Beyond the Sound Barrier. This is such a good record and shows Shorter at the height of his later powers, revisiting some of his best compositions. Will Layman of the online review blog Pop Matters, says Beyond the Sound Barrier does more than reinforce the marvel of Wayne Shorter’s return to brilliant, challenging acoustic jazz. This collection of concert recordings makes the argument that Wayne’s long hiatus served an important artistic purpose, On Sound Barrier, Wayne’s quartet plays in a fully interactive style that eschews individual “solos” almost completely. There is not a single track that follows the usual jazz format of melody-solos-melody. Every one of these performances is a thematic exploration resembling a conversation between four equal partners—but a musical conversation of such exquisite cohesion and explosive discovery that each track seems an impossibility of grace. It’s worth giving this quote in full because it really does encapsulate what Shorter was doing with this quartet and which Neil heard in that Barbican, London concert in 2011. Definitely go for this superb record and the next one which signalled Shorter’s return to the Blue Note label after 43 years. Appropriately called Without a Net, this is another very fine album. There’s another take on Plaza Real and an extended cover of Flying Down to Rio, the title song from a 1933 musical!

The Manhattan Project – Nefertiti from The Manhattan Project

We end the show with another return to a classic Shorter composition, Nefertiti. Originally, recorded by the Miles Davis Quintet of which Shorter was a key member in 1968, the composition is noted for its inversion of what usually happens in jazz. Here the horn section repeats the melody numerous times without individual solos while the rhythm section (Ron Carter on bass and Tony Williams on drums) improvises underneath, reversing their traditional role. You can hear that magisterial original take with Miles right here. Our version comes from an intriguing jazz supergroup project that involved Wayne Shorter, pianist Michel Petrucciani, keyboardist and synth player Gil Goldstein, bassist Stanley Clarke and drummer Lenny White. Called the Manhattan Project, they released just one album under this name in 1990 – and there’s a DVD of a live performance too.

And so that’s a dip into the extraordinary body of work created by Wayne Shorter. We’ve not had time to reflect on his last album – a 3 CD set titled Emanon which featured music for a chamber orchestra and live recordings from London in 2013. But that wasn’t all: the discs came with a lavishly produced graphic novel which reflected that lifelong interest in science fiction and satisfyingly brought Shorter’s career to a remarkable conclusion. We’ll always come back to this amazing music in future Cosmic Jazz shows, but for now this is where we end.

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