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Music

The Insular Jazz of Lockdown Rediscovers a Pioneering Sounds of the Past

New COVID-era recordings from saxophonists Chris Potter and Ben Wendel recall pioneering work by the brilliant composer Wayne Shorter.

There Is a Tide
Chris Potter

Edition

4 December 2020

High Heart
Ben Wendel

Edition

13 August 2020

The Creative Crisis of COVID

For musicians, the pandemic and consequent closing of performance venues has been a crisis. In the new century, nearly every musician beyond the largest stars has been largely dependent on income from live performances, with recordings acting mainly as calling cards for gigs. But even beyond the paying of rent, musicians rely on performance to feed their purpose on the planet—so many live for their communion with live audiences.

The lockdowns and precautions didn't just close clubs and concert halls—recordings studios went dark for a long stretch, and record labels pulled back on release schedules, knowing that it was live performance that might help a recording to gain exposure.

Musicians, of course, adapt. There are been live (un-audienced) performances from the stage of Smalls, the storied club in New York's Greenwich Village. Singer/guitarist John Pizzarelli has been performing Thursday "It's Five O'Clock Somewhere" shows from a back porch at a country house—casual affairs involving his voice and guitar alone, with frequent conversations with his wife, just off-camera. Pianist Dan Tepfer has a brilliant set-up that has allowed him to collaborate in real-time but remotely with musicians such as Christian McBride—but most artists don't have equipment that allows the level of true simultaneity that musical communication (particularly improvising) requires. Other musicians are coming to us from their living rooms. Pianist Micah Thomas performs from, I believe, his parents' house in Ohio.

With our isolation likely to continue well into 2021, however, there have been inevitable adjustments. Vocalist Kurt Elling has been performing with a trio on a porch, but he has also mounted his radio-style musical drama "The Big Blind", performed live but distanced from The Green Mill in Chicago—streamed to your computer for $15. Fred Hersch recorded another in his string of strong solo piano records.

Hersch's Songs from Home, recorded from his rural Pennsylvania quarantine space, is a wonderful reading of mostly familiar tunes that the pianist himself calls "comfort food". He mixes Lerner and Lower ("Wouldn't It Be Loverly") with Joni Mitchell ("All I Want"), "Witchita Lineman" with "When I'm Sixty-Four". What might strike you about the record is that it comes off like a program that the just-turned-65 pianist would come up with for himself: some Tin Pan Alley and some rock-era material, as well as the kind of contemplative original material that has made Hersch possibly the most accessibly-great solo pianist in jazz. It's Fred Hersch playing by and for himself.

Even as jazz musicians have reached out to listeners, they have been engaged in something more internal than usual.

Photo: Courtesy of Edition Records

Saxophonist Chris Potter Plays Solo (and Shorter)

The most notable "purely" pandemic album comes from saxophonist Chris Potter: There Is a Tide. It is also a solo album, but a different kind. Potter—who has been a road warrior performer for decades as well as a recording artist using many different bands and concepts—decided to compose and perform an album entirely on his own, building the performances track by track. He plays electric bass, drums, guitars, keyboards, and a wide range of flutes, clarinets, and saxophones.

The result is beautiful and orchestral, even though the number of individual lines on any one tune is not huge. But, with the usual element of jazz performance removed—that in-the-moment sense of musicians speaking to each other in song—Potter has wisely chosen to bring a different kind of animation to the recording.

That sense of life comes from Potter's skill at juxtaposing the colors and textures of his varied instruments in tunes that are lively, positive, and warm. On "Drop Your Anchor Down", he layers the sounds slowly: bass and drums creating a bouncing groove, with bass clarinet playing the first melody sometimes locked into octaves with electric bass. A couple of guitars join and lead the track to a bridge section as the clarinet improvises—which rises up into an increasingly rich arrangement that adds flutes, then eventually four or five horns at once. The track is never less than light and airy, but the rub of it, the life in it comes from hearing two of Potter's contrasting voices improvise above different textures.

The ways that Potter arranges his horn ensembles are varied and distinctive from track to track. "Like a Memory" places three horns (soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone, and bass clarinet) in octaves that rub sensually against each other before they break into harmony with flute coming into the mix. "Oh So Many Stars" combines flute, guitar, and clarinets on a primary line, following that with the pairing of tenor sax and flute. "I Had a Dream" seems to use all the voices at once, with Potter's soprano sax particularly effective as it rides over a jabbing and then swirling ensemble section.

In serving as his own rhythm section, Potter is cool and competent. He tends to lead with strong bass lines, then applying percussion as support rather than part of the interaction. A few guitar licks and fills emerge, but his keyboards, piano, and guitars are there to spell out the harmony and create beauty. The rhythmic interplay is less a matter of his playing on these instruments and more in how the written parts intertwine. "Rising Over You" sets up a syncopated bass/guitar lick, with jabbering piano and steady drums, and then a bopping horn line enters to generate plenty of contrapuntal rhythmic drive.

The highlight of every track, however, is still what Potter can do when improvising on his horns over these atmospheres of his own devising. He is a brilliant player, always, and whether he is writhing in joy on soprano or generating tonal variation on tenor, whether he is playing bass or standard clarinet or even when he is soloing on flute—he creates his own sense of organic compulsion. Things are kicking.

The emergence of this voice out of a carefully orchestrated frame brings to mind the jazz musician who, more and more, emerges as the bridge between the post-bop heights of the 1960s and the 21st century: Wayne Shorter. Particularly, it recalls the ingenious music he made from 1975 onward, with the band Weather Report and then in a series of solo recordings for Columbia and Verve that, when they came out, were largely dismissed by jazz critics.

Shorter's iconic Blue Note recordings of the 1960s and early 1970s built a reputation for him that is one of the sturdiest in the music. Made while he also was playing with the Miles Davis Quintet, these records were both exemplars of the hard-bop modern jazz he had perfected during his time with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers and an imaginative leap forward—featuring harmonically advanced writing that used new structures and hooked the ear, some of which were also recorded with the Davis band.

But Shorter was hardly interested in standing still, and he started experimenting with electronic textures and atmospheric free playing as early as 1969's Super Nova and 1971's The Odyssey of Iska (a date which also produced the wild Moto Grosso Fio, released in 1974). Then, with Weather Report and on his 1980s recordings, Shorter started writing more explicitly for bands that used synthesizers, funk rhythms, and ensemble sections on which he layered his own saxophone sounds.

Intentionally or otherwise. Potter's new record recalls later Shorter in the ingenious voicings Potter uses for his stacks of horn harmonies and in how Potter blends funk rhythms and a more contemporary rhythm section with these layered horns. The last 25 years have proven that Shorter's engagement with this kind of music was not solely a function of trying to sell records. Even if some of Weather Report's synthesizers sound a bit dated today, and even if the Shorter music of the '80s and '90s contained some production that sounds a bit dated, the quality of the compositions—particularly the sparkling originality of the melodies and the way that Shorter used the textures of a groove-oriented band to generate orchestral and harmonic interest as well to generate slick, somewhat danceable polyrhythms. Potter, with his electric bass/drum grooves and layers of horns, as well as keys and guitars played for atmosphere rather than as independent soloists, has clearly studied Wayne Shorter's later music. And he gives it a slight update that helps us to hear it anew.

Photo: Courtesy of Edition Records

​Saxophonist Ben Wendel Also Channels Shorter on High Heart

Ben Wendel also plays the tenor saxophone with a brilliant, expressive, and modern sound. Wendel is best known as a founding member of the band Kneebody, which plays jazz in a hopped-up contemporary style, but (like Potter) he has toured with pop acts, played as a sideman or collaborator with his most talented contemporaries, and released his own—widely varied music. (His coolest credit? Writing the soundtrack for the Jon Krasinki film adaptation David Foster Wallace's Interviews with Hideous Men.)

Wendel's latest recording is High Heart, a title related to "the human desire to connect and express through new mediums at the risk of feeling isolated and cut off", according to the record label's website. So, while it was recorded before the pandemic locked us all down, it is a record that was already based on a yearning to find a connection in a world that was pulling us apart. The closing track "Traveler", as just one example, is a simple repetition of two long-held notes one step apart with small variations, played over a beautiful descending arpeggio. It sounds like the sad wonder one feels at the end of a long separation.

Wendel's previous recordings contained a variety of connections to the art of Wayne Shorter. Just as Shorter's music has often evoked nature and natural phenomenon, Wendel did a project based on the Four Seasons. Wendel—who also plays the bassoon—loves to layer saxophone sounds in a manner reminiscent of Shorter's later electronic recordings such as 1995's High Life. He has played duets with pianist Dan Tepfer and Aaron Parks that evoke the mind-meld duets that Shorter has recorded with his close friend Herbie Hancock. And, of course, Kneebody can't help but suggest Weather Report just a bit, with its fanfare melodies and punching grooves that strut on electronics, inviting Wendel's tenor sax to get lost in the harmonic fray.

High Heart makes the comparison to Shorter impossible to avoid. The new recording adds the young singer Michael Mayo to the band, along with twin keyboards (piano and Fender Rhodes electric piano) from Shai Maestro and Gerald Clayton), bass, and drums from Kneebody's Nate Wood. The blend of Mayo's wordless and airy tenor with Wendel's reeds sounds as much like the 1975 Native Dancer by Shorter as just about anything in the last 30 years. That classic melded Shorter and Brazilian singer-songwriter Milton Nascimento, lifted up by a buoyant rhythm section anchored by Hancock, percussionist Airto Moreira, and drummer Robertinho Silva. Native Dancer was dismissed in its day as too slight or too pleasant, but musicians have treasured it through the years. Shorter was, as ever, always ahead of the curve.

Wendel channels that positivity and affirmation. The combination of Mayo and the saxophone is the superficial connection, of course, but the resemblance is deeper. "Drawn Away", for example, orchestrates voice, tenor sax, and Rhodes in a thrilling set of repeated punches and lines played over a funky rhythmic groove with a Latin feel. Bass and piano play a unison line that locks into Wood's drums to create a kind of band montuno, and the melody arcs upward with aspiration. The title track puts Mayo in octave harmony with piano, then has the saxophone blend with keyboard in repeating initial melody—only then letting the voice and horn play close harmony in a melancholy minor.

The pastoral qualities of Native Dancer, particularly the settings for voice that underplayed the role of Shorter's saxophone, seemed to irk the jazz purists of 1975. On High Heart, the same inclination simply looks like Wendel (as with Shorter) making his album more than an ego trip. "Kindly" centers the keyboard textures, allowing the voice/tenor melodic voice to feel like a beautiful stack of joy that leads into a thoughtful wordless "solo" for Mayo. "Less" places Mayo fully at the center, backed only by rising/falling piano chords, electronics, and a bare hint of reed sounds in the distance. And the closing track, "Traveler", gives Mayo and Wendel the simplest of melodies—two notes sung/played a whole step descending with small variation, played over a downward arpeggio. It's beautiful—but thanks to some hip production by Wendel and Wood, also crackling with some lo-fi edges—and also comforting too, fulfilling the album's notion of bringing us together in our weird present of TikTok and Twitter and everyone constantly at each other's throats about mask-wearing.

Wendel also includes some arrangements that have a fleet, boppish quality. "Burning Bright" sets up a thumping groove for bass and acoustic piano, then saxophone and voice fly in precise unison through a written melody that plays call-and-response with Maestro's acoustic piano. Both pianos, Mayo, and Wendel trade eight-bar statements like otters playing on a beach. "Fearsome" uses a similar kind of melody statement for voice/tenor over a hypnotic 10/8 groove that ultimately holds up a Wendel solo that flies over a furious drumming pattern a bit like Wayne Shorter's solo did on the Steely Dan track "Aja".

2020 Sounds a Bit Like an Earlier Time of Crisis

Was Wayne Shorter's music of the 1970s and onward something like a retreat from the daring and boundary-breaking that had characterized cutting edge jazz in the 1960s? If you want to correlate what is going on in the culture with what is happening in the creative arts—and we certainly like to do that when pointing out how Coltrane's "Alabama" or Mingus's "Fables of Faubus" reflected the civil rights struggle—then it may be no surprise that Wayne Shorter looked to create more soothing or accessible music in an America that was looking to heal from earlier cultural divisions. Listened to from a distance, his music didn't become simplistic, but it did move his compositional sophistication to a different sound palette.

Today, after four years of disruptive U.S. politics and many more years of mass shootings, terrorism, and now a health emergency that has created a massive economic crisis for the nation (including its creative musicians), is it any surprise that saxophonists would rediscover this later-era Shorter?

Wayne Shorter himself returned to an acoustic quartet in more recent years, though his style continues to evolve rather than move backward. No doubt Ben Wendel and Chris Potter will also return to their other/earlier styles. Today's musicians learned a good deal of their restlessness from predecessors like Shorter. But High Heart and There Is a Tide affirm that in this year of isolation and difficulty, music can be both a balm and an inspiration.

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