Saxophonist Wayne Shorter has long been heralded as the greatest living composer in jazz. I confess that I’ve always felt that Shorter stumbled upon this reputation because 1) he’s not dead and 2) he wrote some songs that eventually became beloved standards. Look at most every other beloved standard in the genre and you’ll notice that, with a few exceptions, their author is most likely dead. Hence, Wayne Shorter wears the crown for now.
Pianist Denny Zeitlin has reached back in time to Shorter’s golden egg period when mapping out a setlist for his live album Early Wayne. With the exception of one tune, all selections come from the ’60s when Shorter was jockeying back and forth between his solo career and a stint in the Miles Davis Quintet. “Speak No Evil”, “Ju Ju”, and “E.S.P.” represent the creamy top of Shorter’s output before he abandoned contemporary bop in favor of fusion with his Miles Davis associate Joe Zawinul in Weather Report (“Ana Maria”, the lone selection here from the ’70s, comes from his 1974 Brazilian/fusion crossover Native Dancer). Recorded in concert at the Piedmont Piano Company in Oakland, California in late 2014, Early Wayne is Zeitlin holding court by way of solo piano for over an hour. And when it comes to solo keyboard works, the sky tends to be the limit.
Denny Zeitlin may be a psychiatrist and pianist by trade, but he is foremost a Wayne Shorter fan on Early Wayne (he’s certainly covered him before on other albums). Zeitlin certainly possesses the skills as well as the license to mangle these tunes in any way he pleases, but his reverence for the material remains the defining factor for the performance. There are no Keith Jarrett flights of fancy, no erudite attitudes on display, and no academic pretensions keeping the listener behind a barrier. Even when he plays “Infant Eyes” with seven beats to the bar, you won’t find your toes trying to decipher the math. You’ll just hear lovely harmony, tastily-tamed scale runs, a few notes that plummet the bass clef, and tune to feed the mind.
Early Wayne starts off with three of Shorter’s best-known songs — “Speak No Evil”, “Nefertiti”, and “Ju Ju”. Zeitlin is careful to give himself room to explore the range of his interpretive skills while not stripping each tune of its identity. The bossa nova feel that drives the previously mentioned “Ana Maria” has been sanded down though not entirely absent. After all, you probably need a full band behind you to effectively pull off the bossa nova sound on piano. He saves the peppy beats for “Toy Tune” and the deceptively-dense reading of “Paraphernalia”.
Zeitlin closes the set out with one of the more somber tunes, the rubato-inclined “Miyako”. As the final notes give way to applause, the listener would do well to remember that this is not one of those solo piano albums meant to recalibrate our cultural understanding of jazz and one of its most versatile instruments. As I stated before, this is an album made by a Wayne Shorter fan. If a living jazz legend has managed to snag informally the title of greatest composer, there’s no downside in hearing another jazz legend pay tribute.