Wayne Shorter: Mysterious Traveler

A look at Wayne Shorter’s solo work in the seventies and beyond reveals them to be more interesting than many thought at the time.

One of the least rewarding things that we can do as music listeners, fans, writers, historians, and musicians is to judge an artist’s changing musical output against his or her earlier creation when the prevailing style of that music has changed in the interim. Wayne Shorter is routinely lionized as one of the greatest jazz musicians and composers, which is true, but that same narrative often suggests that he began a steady downward slide once he left the employ of Miles Davis and began to negotiate the rapidly developing jazz fusion landscape. According to this narrative, his work with Weather Report, popular recording artists such as Joni Mitchell, and his own post-60s recorded output as a leader, are all lesser Shorter. But as so frequently happens when we actually listen to the Wayne Shorter music of this period, we find that the received narrative appears more and more flawed.

It is said that a man is judged in part by the company he keeps. and by that standard Wayne Shorter was always a superstar. He was all about making his collaborators look good. By most accounts he was enigmatic in a gentle and warm way, like a spiritual teacher. He gave of himself whenever he showed up for a session or a performance, with the result that those he worked with tended to give their best as well. Milton Nascimento, Joni Mitchell, Carlos Santana, Nora Jones, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, The Rolling Stones, and Don Henley, all artists with whom Shorter has recorded, are some of the brightest firmaments in popular and world music. His list of jazz collaborators is too long to list, but includes musicians as renowned as Miles Davis, Lee Morgan, McCoy Tyner, Freddie Hubbard, and, of course, his close friend Herbie Hancock.

Wayne Shorter’s solo output in the seventies mirrors the development of Weather Report, signaling both that the group’s musical direction was not without his input, and that he benefitted from laying back within the group, using his solo recordings to further explore ideas he helped introduce into the group. The session which produced Odyssey of Iska and Moto Grosso Felo bears a fair resemblance to the first two Weather Report records, which are base on a collective sound and improvisation, creating a spacious, less raucous free jazz. 

By the time that Shorter recorded his 1974 release, Native Dancer, Weather Report had already become more structured and groove-oriented. They experimented with (wordless) vocals, meandering space jams, and outright funk. But Shorter’s contributions to the band’s Mysterious Traveler, the title track and “Blackthorn Rose,” sound very much like they could have come from Native Dancer. On the tracks with Milton Nascimento vocals, both wordless and with lyrics, the band reaches a pan-universal groove that has influenced performers such as Maurice White and Esperanza Spaulding. 

Native Dancer is an absolute fusion classic, but it is a lot more than that. Almost no one else, including Weather Report, managed to blend all of the jazz, rock, and Latin elements into one album as seamless as this one. The 1975 Downbeat Readers Award for best album went to Weather Report’s Tale Spinnin’, while Native Dancer earned second place. 

Wayne didn’t record another album until 1984’s Atlantis, but that doesn’t mean that he wasn’t busy.  In 1977 he was asked to record a solo on Walter Becker and Donald Fagan’s forthcoming record. The record turned out to be Aja, and Wayne’s solo on the title track, energized by Steve Gadd’s drumming, became an iconic piece of recorded pop music history. Shorter hadn’t done a lot of pop music overdub work, but he arrived at the studio and recorded a couple of takes on the solo, leaving around 35 minutes after he arrived. Becker and Fagan edited two takes together, and the record was done.

That same year Shorter played on two tracks from Joni Mitchell’s double album Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, lending his soprano sax to the side long, orchestrated epic “Paprika Plains” and the romantic ballad “Jericho.” He and Mitchell seemed to share a special musical relationship based as much on a sense of the visual representation of a piece of music as the aural. “She had a sense of feeling that I was joining her as a painter,” the saxophonist said. “She likes to paint and I majored in fine arts before music. And she said, ‘You’re playing like you have a paint brush, you know’ … she would choose from different takes to edit in as if using a paint brush.”  Shorter went on to contribute to ten of Mitchell’s records, including Mingus and the retrospective Both Sides Now, both with Shorter’s friend and former Miles Davis band mate Herbie Hancock. 

Hancock and Shorter (along with Ron Carter and Tony Williams) reconvened the Davis quintet of the sixties with Freddie Hubbard on trumpet. Performing under the banner VSOP, the group recorded a studio record and two live recordings, Live Under the Sky and Tempest in the Colosseum, resulting in a highly successful tour for the band and raising Shorter’s profile in the absence of solo recordings.

Atlantis finds Shorter in a different space than Native Dancer, but again the music here seems like what Shorter was writing on the final Weather Report albums: more spacious, more delicate, as though his work with other artists had focused him on confining his utterances to the essential thought. His melodies are more intervallic and the use of suspended chords creates adds to the open, airy feeling of many of these compositions. 

These are highly structured charts, and there isn’t a lot of open improvisational ground in them. In that regard Atlantis only served to further frustrate Shorter’s fans who had grown tired of his mellow approach in Weather Report as well as the group’s move toward more heavily arranged musical settings. I think it’s fair to say that Atlantis sounds like the Weather Report album that Wayne might like to have made if he were completely in charge. I’d agree with NYT’s Robert Palmer in his appraisal: “it’s not an album one should listen to a few times and then knowledgeably evaluate.  It is an album to learn from and live with.’

Not so Shorter’s next album, Phantom Navigator, which is really puzzling considering that it was released just a year after Atlantis. It’s heavily awash in synthesizers and programming, none of which fits Shorter’s music at all. Yet his soprano sax playing on the record is still beautiful, and on a couple of tracks, like “Mahogany Bird” and the closer “Flagships” the overall effect is one of placid beauty. But the sound of the band is frequently tinny and jarring in many places and Wayne’s work with the lyricon is not particularly fruitful. 

1988’s Joy Ryder, Shorter’s last album for Columbia, is a much better record in a similar vein, largely because the saxophonist’s collaborators are more sympathetic. Patrice Rushen holds down the keyboards chair, with Geri Allen (a Shorter favorite) on piano and synthesizer, Nathan East on bass and Terri Lynne Carrington on drums. Herbie Hancock is also along for a couple of songs, and the final track features vocals by Dianne Reeves. 

Shorter signed with Verve Records and spent a full year composing and working with keyboardist Rachel Z on orchestrations for his first Verve release, High Life. Released in 1994, it marked a return to more complex compositions and the use of more acoustic instrumentation, with electronic instruments presented in a more subtle manner than on his last couple of records. High Life is as unique in its own way as Native Dancer, and it presents some really great Shorter compositions. It won the 1996 Grammy award for Best Contemporary Jazz Performance. 

It might seem odd to concentrate on a portion of Wayne Shorter’s career that is not generally seen as his best, but there is a lot of really great music to be heard here, and lately I’ve been discovering that many artists’ ‘horrible, bad, terrible’ records are either not so bad, or hold the seeds of some more fruitful development that the artist later made. I’m not being contrarian here. Every piece of work, every performance an artist creates, cannot be his or her best work, but sometimes there is work that has to be done to move to the next phase, and not all of it need be relegated to the dustbin.

It’s also true that as Shorter became more involved in his family and his Buddhist practice, his musical career became less important to him. Not music, really, but the career part, the part that became a grind with Weather Report, was simply not the highest priority for him. And yet he was always there, arriving at session after session, playing at his highest level and then off on his way, into the night and the infinite hum of life. 

Reading Wayne Shorter

I picked up Michelle Mercer’s biography of Wayne, Footprints: The Life and Work of Wayne Shorter a couple of years ago and read it through quickly. I’ve picked it up since for research purposes and I recently re-read part of it, and I would recommend it for anyone interested in Shorter’s life as well as his art. I came away with a deeper understanding of Shorter as a deeply spiritual man and a true creator who was deeply engaged with music and with life.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.