*Part of my surprisingly extensive jazz series!*
The great sax player and composer Wayne Shorter (1933–2023) (wiki; YouTube topic) died recently at the age of 89, having been at the heart of a succession of outstanding bands (tributes e.g. NYT; Guardian here and here).
From 1959 he was a core member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, recording albums such as A night in Tunisia—here’s live footage from Paris that year:
Indestructible (recorded in 1964, issued in 1966) (as playlist):
and Free for all (1965) (as playlist):
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Eventually in 1964, Wayne was lured away by Miles Davis (cf. here and here) to join his second great quintet, recommended by John Coltrane himself as his replacement. As Miles reflected in his Autobiography, evocative and candid:
I knew that Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams were great musicians, and that they would work as a group, as a musical unit. To have a great band requires sacrifice and compromise from everyone; without it, nothing happens. I thought they could do it and they did. You get the right guys to play the right things at the right time and you got a motherfucker; you got everything you need.
If I was the inspiration and wisdom and the link for this band, Tony was the fire, the creative spark; Wayne was the idea person, the conceptualiser of a whole lot of musical ideas we did; and Ron and Herbie were the anchors. I was just the leader who put us all together. Those were all young guys and although they were learning from me, I was learning from them, too, about the new thing, the free thing. Because to be and stay a great musician you’ve got to always be open to what’s new, what’s happening at the moment. You have to be able to absorb it if you’re going to continue to grow and communicate your music. […] I knew that I was playing with some great young musicians that had their fingers on a different pulse.
Both Miles and Herbie deeply admired Wayne’s writing—Miles again:
Wayne was the only person that I knew then who wrote something like the way Bird wrote, the only one. It was the way he notated on the beat. Lucky Thompson used to hear us and say, “Goddamn, that boy can write music!” When he came into the band it started to grow a lot more and a whole lot faster, because Wayne is a real composer.
The passage that follows refines our image of “free” jazz:
He writes scores, writes the parts for everybody just as he wants them to sound. It worked exactly like that except when I changed some things. He doesn’t trust many people’s interpretations of his music; so he would bring out the whole score and people would just copy their parts from that, rather than go through the melody and changes and pick our way through the music like that.
Wayne also brought in a kind of curiosity about working with musical rules. If they didn’t work, then he broke them, but with a musical sense; he understood that freedom in music was the ability to know the rules in order to bend them to your satisfaction and taste. Wayne was always out there on his own plane, orbiting around his own planet. Everybody else in the band was walking down here on earth. He couldn’t do in Art Blakey’s band what he did in mine; he just seemed to bloom as a composer when he was in my band. That’s why I say he was the intellectual musical catalyst for the band in his arrangement of his musical compositions that we recorded.
Classic albums from this heady period include E.S.P. (1965):
Miles smiles (1967):
Nefertiti (1968) (Miles: “it was with this album that people really began to notice what a great composer Wayne Shorter was”):
and Miles in the sky (1968):
For all the variety of these albums, I find it remarkable how often Miles favoured the idiom of the busy earlier bebop style that he had sidelined with Kind of blue (1959).
Meanwhile Wayne was also making albums independently of Miles—such as Night dreamer (1964), with Lee Morgan, McCoy Tyner, Reggie Workman, and Elvin Jones (as playlist):
Speak no evil:
and Juju (as playlist):
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Much as I admire the 1960s’ pop scene, it’s taken me a while (Hello?) to appreciate the extraordinary creativity in jazz that followed on the heels of the classic bebop era.
Moving on, Miles disbanded the quintet in 1969 after Wayne left, but they kept working together, with exploratory albums with Joe Zawinul such as the exquisite, contemplative In a silent way (1969)—with Chick Corea as well as Herbie and Joe on keys, and John McLaughlin on guitar:
They delighted further in new keyboard timbres with the extraordinary double album Bitches’ brew (1970):
Again, Miles’s account of this period (Chapter 14) is fascinating. I’m always impressed that early bebop found such an audience, but these later albums, even less grounded in the reassuring signposts of traditional melody and harmony, were joyfully received too—even amidst the wealth of more digestible popular songs that were thriving at the time, such as soul (here and here) and the British scene (of which the Beatles were just the apex), not to mention the niche WAM avant-garde like Boulez.
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I may be stuck in the 60s, but Miles, Wayne, and Herbie weren’t. Through the 1970s, they were avidly exploring the new sounds of funk, rock, and fusion. By now Wayne had largely switched from tenor to soprano sax; and like Herbie, he was absorbed in Nichiren Buddhism.
If you ask Wayne the time, he’ll start talking about the cosmos and how time is relative.
From 1971 until 1986 he was a core member of Weather report with Joe Zawinul, making albums such as I sing the body electric (1972) (these are all playlists):
Mysterious traveller (1974):
Heavy weather (1977):
Here they are with their final line-up, live in Cologne in 1983:
From the late 1970s Wayne was also part of VSOP, with Herbie, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams (from Miles’s 60s’ quintet), and Freddie Hubbard on trumpet:
Ever adaptable, Wayne also worked with Joni Mitchell (from 1977 to 2002), Carlos Santana, and Steely Dan. But he never neglected jazz; from 2000 he played in a quartet with Danilo Perez (piano), John Patitucci (bass), and Brian Blade (drums)—here they are live in Paris, 2012:
Now you can read my companion post on Herbie Hancock! And it’s always worth going back to What is serious music?!.