Wayne Shorter: Beyond the Sound Barrier

Wayne Shorter
Beyond the Sound Barrier

When saxophonist Wayne Shorter formed his current acoustic-only quartet several years ago, the jazz world’s prodigal son had returned home. With Beyond the Sound Barrier, the group’s second live recording and third over all, Wayne shows that — in truth — he had never left home. He was just storing up his incredible powers in plain sight. The prodigal son, my friends, is more than back — he is lit fully afire.

In the 1960s, Wayne Shorter was the brilliant composer and tenor titan in two of jazz’s top groups — Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and the Miles Davis Quintet. Then, seemingly all of a sudden, he walked away from straight-ahead jazz to found the fusion group Weather Report with fellow Miles alum Joe Zawinul. Together, Zawinul and Shorter made a half-dozen fine discs that combined jazz, electronics, and world music into something unique. But as Shorter’s contribution to Weather Report faded (and, consequently, Weather Report went as sour as week-old Chinese food), Wayne seemed lost in the fusion woods. He made a moderately fine but thin Brazilian album (Native Dancer, 1975), then several difficult to pin down fusion collections of his own (Atlantis, Phantom Navigator, Joy Ryder, and High Life), each of which contained brilliant writing that seemed smushed up with cheesy gadgetry and each of which suggested that his artistry was neither flowering nor entirely gone.

For fans, the three decades that followed Wayne’s last Blue Note album were a puzzlement. Though he continued to show flashes of genius (with the jazz super-group VSOP, as a guest soloist on several Joni Mitchell dates, even with his unparalleled tenor solo on Steely Dan’s “Aja”), it seemed that the unadulterated Wayne — the unique combination of brash power and oblique beauty on Speak No Evil and “Dolores” — was never to be seen in full view again. It was as if an artist at the peak of his powers had just decided to take a different tack and, over 30 years, didn’t miss his old ways. Drummer Jack DeJohnette (who played with Wayne in Miles’s group) even wrote a tune of lament — “Where or Wayne?”

Then word came: Wayne had formed a hot new quartet featuring the top guys on their instruments. The Real Wayne, the only Wayne we cared about, was coming to a city near you. And they would be recording too. The concerts — and the document that followed, 2002’s Footprints Live! — propelled most fans into joyous near-disbelief. Wayne returned utterly without compromise, playing his tenor as well as his soprano, fronting a band that made risk-taking into its daily meat and potatoes. The following year, a studio album, Alegria, scored a Grammy. Auntie Em, there’s no place like home. Dreams really do come true. Pinch me.

Beyond the Sound Barrier does more than reinforce the marvel of Wayne Shorter’s return to brilliant, challenging acoustic jazz. This collection of concert recordings makes the argument that Wayne’s long hiatus served an important artistic purpose, and one that the first two comeback discs did not fully acknowledge. On Sound Barrier, Wayne’s quartet (including Danilo Perez on piano, John Patitucci on bass, and Brian Blade on drums) plays in a fully interactive style that eschews individual “solos” almost completely. There is not a single track that follows the usual jazz format of melody-solos-melody. Every one of these performances is a thematic exploration resembling a conversation between four equal partners — but a musical conversation of such exquisite cohesion and explosive discovery that each track seems an impossibility of grace.

When Weather Report was founded, Zawinul was famously quoted as saying, “In this band, no one solos, everyone solos.” Coming from Miles’s famous experiments on Bitches Brew, a record that seemed more collective than most jazz records prior (though hardly one rejecting solos), this sentiment made sense. But the collective ideal of Weather Report faded soon enough, as the band came more and more to resemble a standard fusion group — even scoring a hit in Zawinul’s “Birdland”. However, Wayne Shorter plainly never forgot this intention. Both in his later records for Blue Note (Odyssey of Iska, for example, from 1970) and in his electronic misfires of the ’80s and ’90s, Wayne worked on a band sound that pressed the obvious melody instruments (usually his own saxophone) away from the forefront and created a more democratic flow. The problem, in almost every case other than his partnership with Zawinul, was that he didn’t have conversational partners at his level. Fans would gripe that there wasn’t enough Wayne on these records, but the real problem was that there wasn’t enough of somebody else to make Wayne’s conception fly.

The first two comeback records hinted at the power of Wayne’s new band, but neither clinched the deal. Footprints Live! outlined the concept but felt premature. (Fans were often heard to say, “Great album — but they were better when I saw them in New York.”) The concept, after all, was one of the most ambitious in jazz: to play as equals. While many bands have claimed this agenda, a rare few have ever tried it (much less achieved it). The benchmark, probably, is the Bill Evans Trio of the early ’60s with Scott LaFaro on bass and Paul Motian on drums. Evans allowed LaFaro to play melodic bass lines that functioned as equally weighted counterpoint to the tunes melody, while Motian was given the latitude to play time or accents with a freedom that amounted to a continual (if very subtle) solo. Wayne’s group attempts the same balance — with most tunes developing through dialogue toward the melody rather than plainly stating the melody and then stepping through solos, one by one.

The album’s second track, “As Far as the Eye Can See” (a new Shorter tune), lays it out for you. As things kick off, Shorter’s tenor seems to be accompanying a nervous solo by Perez with a simple four-note figure. Shorter turns the figure over a number of different ways, but he doesn’t take over the tune, instead keeping it in balance, the piano and tenor chatting back and forth as Patitucci and Blade stir the pot and then begin to surge forward together, dropping a hard funk rhythm under the duet. As Perez starts to build his solo upward, rising chromatically in staccato swirl, Shorter stutters upward with him, the tension piling up like it was a Hitchcock film. We’re fully six minutes into the affair when the clouds finally part and Shorter states the melody — which turns out to be the four note figure Shorter had initially used as accompaniment. In its structure and in its collective nature, “As Far as the Eye Can See” is a dynamic new model for the jazz quartet.

The repertoire on this disc also demonstrates what Wayne was up to during his “lost” years. Sound Barrier features a tune from a 1941 film by Arthur Penn (“Smilin’ Through”) as well as a Mendelssohn melody, “On the Wings of Song”. But Wayne does not read these tunes as most jazz musicians do, copping the melodies and adding new chords, then playing them as if they were no different than “Tea for Two”. Shorter gives the soundtrack music a decidedly cinematic treatment, with the track moving through different rhythmic phases rather than through a string of static solos. The Mendelssohn, while played by a jazz quartet, actually sounds like classical music. Both harmonically and rhythmically, Wayne and company play it within its own idiom, even to the point of collectively improvising an interlude with bowed bass that transitions into a Shorter original.

In addition, the quartet interprets two Shorter tunes from his post-Weather Report electric period. In their original versions, the tunes were typically oblique and intriguing but seemed to go nowhere. Here, the group’s unusually collective approach generates interpretations that are each more than 10 minutes long — and each is the jazz equivalent of Shakespeare, with rising and falling tension in the complex dialogue among the players. It almost seems as if Shorter was intent on showing us that his mid-career work (largely ignored by most jazz critics) contained a Hamlet or two.

There is little doubt that Sound Barrier plays with the quality of the Bard. Wayne Shorter, widely considered to be a difficult but unquestioned jazz master, seems finally ready to record and tour as a leader in the music. Though in his seventies, Wayne is playing with the confidence and tone of a young master, if one without ego. That he is unwilling to rest on his laurels is admirable. That he is capable of consciously extending the way mainstream jazz groups play is nothing short of amazing.

Where or Wayne? Right here. Right now. Beyond the Sound Barrier.

RATING 9 / 10
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