March 2, 2020. Wayne Shorter’s music has long deserved big band treatment, and in 2015 it finally got it—from the world’s most prestigious big band, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (JLCO). Then 81, Shorter joined the Wynton Marsalis-led JLCO on stage for three consecutive nights, producing unforgettable live shows and a new album: The Music of Wayne Shorter.
Shorter’s sound as a saxophonist—as a tenor man for Art Blakey and Miles Davis and then playing both tenor and soprano as co-founder of the trailblazing fusionists, Weather Report—has always been muscular, exploratory, distinctive.
But where he was most valued by all of those legendary ensembles was as a composer. He brought charts to Miles Davis that went on to be played and recorded with few to no changes—and it’s not as though Davis wasn’t a tinkerer; Shorter was just that good.
The Music of Wayne Shorter celebrates the instrumentalist, sure—Shorter solos on nine of the 10 tracks, and on two of them, “Contemplation” and “The Three Marias," he’s the only instrumentalist to take a solo. But it really celebrates Shorter as one of the most prolific jazz composers ever. While the arrangements here focus mainly on Shorter’s early career, it does shine a light into each discrete era of Shorter’s 60-plus year career, which by turns has reinforced and also redefined what jazz is.
The opener “Yes or No,” originally written for 1965’s JuJu, opens as though heralding serious smoke, and, indeed, JLCO makes good on a musical promise. Shorter’s tenor sax solo is filled with verve and attitude and ideas. 81 years old. Simply incredible. The arrangement by Victor Goines, who plays both tenor saxophone and clarinet on the album, gives everyone a chance to shine, and every section does, though none more so than the reeds. At about 9 minutes in, just listen. That’s what a section of saxophones ought to sound like. The precision is clinical. Bottle that sound.
“Diana,” the second cut here, is sourced from Shorter’s fusion days, 1974. Weather Report’s influence was peaking, but Shorter still found time to release acclaimed side-projects, like Native Dancer, where “Diana” originally appeared. Shorter’s on soprano here and at least a couple of the reeds have picked up flutes. There’s a tender, narrative quality to Ted Nash’s arrangement, a story being told. It’s a nice one to fall asleep and dream to on a rainy weekend afternoon.
“Hammer Head,” will jar you quickly from that nap. Originally written for 1964’s Free for All, the arrangement here from the great altoist Sherman Irby is Art Blakey-style hard bop at its best. Drummer and JLCO veteran Ali Jackson, always so versatile, plays the role of Blakey to perfection and the saxophone playing here, indeed the entire tune itself, smacks delightfully of Benny Golson’s influence.
The noirish “Armageddon,” announces something sinister afoot; Shorter’s tenor solo here is rich and smoky and burns all the way down, like a glass of good scotch.
Two tunes originally written for 1985’s Atlantis also stand out: “Endangered Species” and “The Three Marias.” Both Latin-influenced, the first builds up tension that’s released by way of a soaring soprano solo from Shorter. The second, arranged by bassist Carlos Henriquez, also features Shorter on Soprano and is bottomed-out beautifully by Paul Nedzala’s bass clarinet.
Rounding out the album are the lone Marsalis arrangement, the lush and dreamy “Teru,” and the closer, “Mama G.” The horn section’s harmonies in the former mirror the stellar life cycle—repeated expansion and contraction; the latter is over 14 minutes of high-energy swinging bebop capped by a raucous Ali drum solo that triumphantly brings the tune and album home.