Wayne Shorter: Footprints: The Life and Music of Wayne Shorter

Wayne Shorter
Footprints: the Life and Music of Wayne Shorter

The career retrospective is a particularly fraught commercial exercise when it comes to jazz. Musicians that recorded as sidemen on one label released LPs under their own names on another. Some musicians — Wayne Shorter among them — have had a greater influence as writers than as instrumentalists; their compositions appear on releases by an untold number of artists, some of them currently languishing in critical and popular obscurity. The consolidation of labels under multinational umbrellas has made licensing prohibitively expensive, and the fact that jazz labels are now subject to the same global commercial concerns as their parents is not a situation likely to rescue forgotten gems from obscurity — or produce the compilers likely to know about them.

As a result, artist-specific jazz compilations fall into one of two types. There are the cut-down mid-price label samples, often presenting a misleadingly partial view of an artist’s career. Then there are the sprawling multiple-disc box sets, programming alternative takes and dusty studio material into strictly chronological order, usually at the cost of the thematic or musical concerns that made the original LPs coherent individual works.

Columbia/Legacy have attempted something more gutsy here: a two-CD compilation spanning the entire length of Wayne Shorter’s career, taking in the work under his own name and recorded as a sideman for popular acts (including Steely Dan and Joni Mitchell). There are some of his strongest compositions for Miles Davis and Weather Report, and even some tracks licensed from labels that are not, as is Columbia, currently under the Sony BMG umbrella. The release is timed to coincide with the release of Michelle Mercer’s forthcoming biography of Shorter; if the quality of her liner notes is anything to go by, it will be a worthy read.

Shorter is best known today as a member of Weather Report, whose “Birdland” — composed by Joe Zawinul — remains a mainstay of jazz-fusion collections, even if its currency as a perennially-available television theme seems to have been mercifully devalued of late. His contribution to the most popular fusion group notwithstanding, Shorter’s key role in the history of jazz was to steward the music through the transitional period of the mid-’60s. In the mid- and late ’50s, hard-bop had tempered the runaway velocity and theoretical exhaustion of bebop, slowing tempos and emphasizing a funky elasticity of pace. It had countered cool jazz’s emotional detachment with a return to bluesy warmth. But by 1964 it was beginning to look increasingly reactionary and directionless in the face of free jazz and the avant-garde — not to mention the growing political turmoil of the times.

The two groups that led the way out of this impasse were Miles Davis’s second great quintet — Davis, Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Tony Williams — and John Coltrane’s trio. Shorter’s compositions for Davis took the raw ingredients of hard bop and stretched them out, exploring the modal space that Davis had outlined a few years earlier in Kind of Blue. Shorter’s surprising, angular melodies had a singular and unpredictable beauty. Floating above chords arranged into glistening, half-seen shapes, they sketched out logical figures that tailed off into fluid emotional whimsy. At other times they cut deep into the logical bedding of the music, bringing light to unseen corners. Coltrane proceeded via exhaustion and explosion, never letting any musical or emotional wall remain standing; Shorter and Davis preferred the scalpel.

This compositional genius was well evident by the time Shorter joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, the very backbone of the hard bop movement, in 1959. He soon became the musical director of that band; “Lester Left Town”, one of his earlier compositions for the group, is featured here. It has the tidy briskness typical of hard bop, but the almost mathematical shapes of the melody are quite distinctive. Shorter’s improvisation — still showing the influence of Coltrane — retains the richness of the full bebop vocabulary. By the time Shorter was enticed to join Miles Davis’ quintet, he had recorded a few solo albums on Vee Jay records. From 1964 until the end of the decade, he was engaged on an astonishing run of creativity, writing most of the Davis ensemble’s best material, and recording an unequalled run of albums under his own name on Blue Note.

I image that there were some heated discussions at Columbia about whether it would be appropriate if half of this compilation was comprised of tracks released under Miles Davis’s name. “E.S.P.”, “Footprints” and “Nefertiti” are — inescapably — included here; their influence over modern jazz (and their serene beauty) remain unquestionable. There are also the two finest tracks from Shorter’s finest Blue Note album, Speak No Evil, which was presumably punishingly expensive to arrange. Both “Speak No Evil” and “Infant Eyes” epitomize the balance of beauty, logic and rhythm at the center of Shorter’s genius. At the same time, his tone was by now highly distinctive, with a softly lingering balance of beauty and despair at the edge of his tone.

It is too bad that there is nothing here from the Vee Jay sessions, though in fairness Richard Seidel’s liner notes point to the licensing restrictions that presumably blocked the inclusion of “Black Orpheus” or any other tracks that would have shown the surprisingly full-bodied warmth of Shorter’s late ’50s sound. While his tenor sax was less immediately identifiable than immediate elders — Coltrane, Rollins — it was every bit as thoroughgoing and individual a style as contemporaries like Joe Henderson.

There are four pieces here from Weather Report, and they are well-chosen, eschewing the now dated period mannerisms of the band for arrangements that do not seem too dated — perhaps assisted by the influence and sampling favors done by mid-’90s acid-jazz, trip-hop and abstract hip-hop producers. The band’s creative depth and restless intelligence meant that they rarely settled into bland groove. These pieces reflect some of Shorter’s compositional themes, though the sudden presence of his soprano sax is jarring after the resounding depth of the recordings that precede.

But the balance struck by the second disc is peculiar, given the depth and import of Shorter’s mid-’60s work. There is one track apiece from each of Shorter’s three mid-’80s albums, where the production values of the time increasingly smother the sensitivities in his tone, and lock the implicit languor of his compositional lines in metronomic percussion. The Steely Dan and Joni Mitchell pieces are predictably lightweight, presumably there to placehold the late ’70s, when Shorter spent more time on Buddhism than on music. The disc closes with three tracks outlining the hard bop revival that began in the late ’90s. While the material is interesting, and Shorter’s return to both the tenor sax and collaboration with Herbie Hancock is a relief, the material doesn’t quite match his earlier work. That said, the live version of “Masquelero” should provide all the encouragement necessary for listeners to see Shorter’s current touring group, one of the finest currently working in jazz.

The producers of this compilation stress that their intentions were to respect the broad chronology of Shorter’s career, choosing as many tracks the late ’50s as from the last few years, and not imposing too many critical judgments about the relative importance and quality of the material. But the disproportionate quantity of work from the latter half of Shorter’s career makes it hard to escape the conclusion that this decision was forced. Most of Shorter’s greatest work under his own name — the work from which the substantial influence of his towering compositional talent stems — is not on Columbia or any of the other labels owned by Sony BMG. It is to be found on the seven or eight staggering albums he recorded for Blue Note between 1964 and 1969.

Certainly, there is enough here to point new listeners in the direction of Miles Davis’s Columbia catalogue, Shorter’s releases on Blue Note, the Weather Report material, and Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. That, in itself, is a considerable achievement of musical discretion and licensing arrangements. It will be a fine introductory companion to the biography.