Wayne Shorter’s Footprints live! is the sax player’s first live album under his own name, which is difficult to believe given the length of his recording career. Of course, we have heard Shorter on live recordings plenty of times, with the Miles Davis Quintet, with Weather Report, and in various guest spots. One thing that’s nice about this recording is that you hardly know it is live but for the applause between numbers. There is polite applause following solos, but the audience has either been mixed way down or was recorded at a low enough level that it never impinges on your enjoyment of the music.
And there is a lot to enjoy here. For starters, Shorter assembled an incredible quartet here, with Danilo Perez on piano, and a rhythm section composed of bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade, all of whom have successfully led their own groups besides playing with a dizzying array of top jazz musicians. Patitucci and Blade also toured with the tribute to Miles Davis and John Coltrane fronted by Herbie Hancock, Michael Brecker, and Roy Hargrove that resulted in the live album Directions In Music. I guess that gives them the lock on playing Ron Carter and Tony Williams in The Miles Davis Story. Just kidding. Patitucci and Blade are incredible musicians in their own right who bring real inspiration to their roles in any group. Panamanian pianist/composer Perez needs no introduction to jazz fans, having already been highlighted playing with jazz luminaries such as Jack DeJohnette, Charlie Haden, Michael Brecker, Joe Lovano, Tito Puente, and Wynton Marsalis.
Shorter’s last all-acoustic album as a leader was 1967’s Schizophrenia, represented here by the track “Go”. Since then Shorter worked with groundbreaking fusion band Weather Report, where he and keyboardist Joe Zawinul remained the constants in a shifting string of rhythm sections. In addition, he has done a lot of studio work, guesting continuously on Joni Mitchell’s recordings since her 1977 release Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter. There are those that would have you believe that Shorter lost something over his years of electric work, but that’s simply elitist malarkey. Like any musician, Shorter has taken a great deal of time in the second half of his career to refine what he learned during the experimentation of the first half, distilling his playing and composing down to the essential elements.
The performance starts off with performances of “Sanctuary” and “Masquelero”, two tunes originally recorded by the Miles Davis Quintet of which Shorter and Herbie Hancock were members. The Quintet version was recorded in 1968 but not released until 1980. It appeared in a very different version on Bitches Brew. Both Davis versions are fairly languid, though, compared to the version on Footprints live! Here Patitucci gets into a faintly Latin groove while Blade percolates nicely and Perez offers commentary on Shorter’s improvisations. Using a technique the Davis Quintet made famous on their European tour in 1969, the group segues directly into a robust “Masquelero” with Perez providing the landscape through which Shorter travels with complete confidence. It is wonderful to hear. Shorter plays tenor sax a great deal on this recording, playing soprano exclusively on only one number (“Aung San Suu Kyi”) and playing both soprano and tenor on signature numbers “Footprints” and “JuJu”. Perez’s solo on “Masquelero” is a standout-he plays much less impressionistically than Herbie Hancock did back in ‘67, but never gives the impression of playing too many notes.
Shorter next provides a block of two tunes from some of his classic ‘60s acoustic Blue Note recordings. “Valse Triste”, an adaptation of a Jean Sibelius melody, appeared on the classic album The Soothsayer. Here it gets a tempestuous workout thanks again to a flurry-filled Perez solo and the ever-present punctuation of Blade’s drumming. There’s good material here from Shorter’s more recent output. “Aung San Suu Kyi” comes from his 1997 recording with Herbie Hancock, 1+1; as you might expect it provides the opportunity for a very intense conversation between Shorter and Perez. “Atlantis” is the title track from a 1985 electric album given a completely new sound by the quartet. Shorter is in fine form throughout, his robust sound on both tenor and soprano makes it seem like those classic Blue Note albums came out only a few years ago.
For old and new fan alike, Footprints live! is essential Wayne Shorter, demonstrating that simply because a musician spends an extended period of time stretching out in new directions, it doesn’t mean he’s forgotten where he’s been.