Talking About Jazz (Again) and Appreciating Wayne Shorter

by Sean Murphy

14 June 2010

Wayne Shorter is the authentic item that aficionados savor, but whom virtually anyone with unpolluted ears can immediately appreciate.

There are not many people who have any idea what it’s like to be this cool. Even Wayne Shorter does not know, because he is too cool to stop and consider how cool he is. That’s what people like me are here for. And along with his partner-in-crime Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter has been one of the coolest dudes on the planet for more than five decades.

When I wrote about about the (second) Miles Davis Quintet—i.e., the best working band to ever make music—I had this to say about Wayne Shorter:

Wayne Shorter is, for my money, possibly the most underrated genius in any genre of music. To be sure, he gets plenty of props within jazz circles and the people who know really know. And in his wise, humble way, he is probably cool with that. But his name does not come up quickly or often enough in discussions of the true masters. Aside from his considerable proficiency on the horn(s), he is also among the most distinctive and consistently satisfying composers. And while Davis, who was without peer in assembling talent, had the vision and deservedly gets the lion’s share of the credit (he was the lion, after all), a good chunk of the material on those second quintet sessions was written by Shorter. And here’s where it gets unbelievable: all through the mid-to-late ’60s—at the same time they were in The Quintet—he (as well as Hancock) was dropping epic masterpieces on the Blue Note label (think Maiden Voyage, Speak Like a Child, JuJu, and Speak No Evil for starters).
I have recently had occasion to write about both the heavyweight champion John Coltrane and the man I unashamedly use words like “immortal” and “saint” to describe, Eric Dolphy. But I realized that when it comes to sax players and accessibility, I would be remiss to not put Wayne Shorter at the top of the list. Not that either Coltrane or Dolphy are necessarily intimidating, but they tend to both be acquired tastes (and by acquired taste I mean once you get it, you are on board for life and you won’t be satisfied until you own everything either man ever did—even the stuff like late-period Coltrane that you may never listen to but still must possess, for all the right and obvious reasons).

Wayne Shorter, on the other hand, is like imported dark chocolate. Or fresh Kona coffee beans. Or a 2004 Brunello (or a 1964 Brunello for that matter). Or whatever type of car people who appreciate cars get excited about. You get the picture. Wayne Shorter is, in other words, the authentic item that aficionados savor, but whom virtually anyone with unpolluted ears can immediately appreciate. We odd and admittedly obsessed folks who really love jazz have no agenda. Seriously (I’m not talking about the aesthetic prigs who have nothing good to say about anything other than the music they endorse; that is a certain type of poseur who has always been amongst us, whether the topic is music, literature, movies, wine, food, coffee or, especially these days, beer, et cetera). All we care about is disabusing uninformed folks of the notion that jazz is (insert cliché here, to include “old-fashioned dance music”, “boring”, “musical masturbation”, “shrieking”, “easy listening” (!!!), “overwhelming”, et cetera). It is, we would say, what it is or, put another way, what it is so manifestly not.

Life is too short to try and pick up something you simply can’t appreciate. But if you’re willing to give it a shot, you just might be surprised. So consider this five-song sampler from Wayne Shorter a win/win: if you don’t like this, you’ll know you don’t like jazz; if you do like it, welcome to the rest of your life.

“Deluge”, from JuJu:

“Speak No Evil”, from Speak No Evil:

“502 Blues (Drinkin’ and Drivin’)”, from Adam’s Apple:

“Miyako”, from Schizophrenia:

“De Pois Do Amor, O Vazio”, from Odyssey of Iska:

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