I don’t think Wayne Shorter is the type to subscribe to that “he’s one of the greatest” sort of rhetoric, though it’s hard to refrain from speaking in such glowing terms when discussing his great career and the influence he has had on all of us. He laid the foundation for so much of what it is to be a jazz musician today, as a composer and an improviser, that it’s impossible not to address at least some part of his vast legacy. It’s required reading, as it were.
Nefertiti (Columbia, 1968)
There have been many innovations in jazz, of course, but many of them, when listened to 20 or 30 years later, don’t sound as startling as they did when they were introduced. This seemingly simple idea of stating the melody over and over and letting the rhythm section shape the tune with no solos still sounds as innovative today as it did in 1968.
Speak No Evil (Blue Note, 1965)
I think Speak No Evil is probably my favorite small-group jazz recording of all time (or at least it’s tied with Miles Davis’ My Funny Valentine). I certainly think it’s one of, if not the, most important small-group jazz recordings of the ’60s. Each tune is beautiful and taken at a medium tempo or slower-no uptempo tunes here. It features the finest musicians of the era, at the top of their game, digging into some of the most gorgeous music ever composed for quintet. All the tunes are great, but I’ll give the nod to “Dance Cadaverous” for being just a little more moody and mysterious, though “Infant Eyes” is one of the most beautiful ballads ever written. This is also one of the very few records with Herbie Hancock and Elvin Jones playing together-only this and a Tony Bennett record, I believe-and it’s an amazing combination.
The All Seeing Eye (Blue Note, 1965)
Another one of those seminal ’60s records and one of the first jazz “concept” records. Like any successful concept record, you don’t need to know the story line to be blown away by the music on this record (but the liner notes are an interesting read). This was a breakthrough record of sorts for Wayne as he uses a slightly expanded lineup and the music ventures into much freer territory. This was one of the first records that got me in touch with my desire to write for expanded horn sections in a small group setting. I transcribed all the tunes on this record while in college and put on a concert of the material in Ft. Worth, Tex. Lots of head scratching from the audience that night.
Miles in the Sky (Columbia, 1968)
Miles in the Sky is the album that marked the beginning of a new direction for the trumpeter’s second great quintet, a direction that led Miles to In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew. This tune was a revelation for musicians at the time, because it introduced a cuing system into the solo sections: The soloist would cue going to the next section by playing a particular phrase. There were two different sections for the soloist to play over and a third section that was a rhythm section interlude of sorts in a different time signature. It really opened up the possibilities for the soloist, including a little chaos, because as great as these guys were-some of the greatest ever, in fact-they missed a cue or two. I liked the possibilities of this system so much that this tune became part of my new band’s repertoire; it’s on my latest CD, Snuck Out (Sunnyside).
“On the Eve of Departure”
Atlantis (Columbia, 1985)
To me, Atlantis is an almost through-composed masterpiece. It was Wayne’s first solo album in 11 years at the time and well worth the wait. Some might scoff at this notion because of the use of electric bass and the lack of any extended soloing, but compositionally this album is a major achievement. I could have picked almost any of the tunes on this record, but this one is my favorite by a small margin. I love the way it unfolds, slowly building to its climax. When it reaches its peak it seems to be not only the climax of this particular tune, but, given that it’s the last tune on the album, it seems to be the climax of the whole record.
I was still in college in Texas when the record came out, and when Wayne did his first gig in support of it at the Blue Note in New York, I called the club while the band was playing. I talked the person who answered the phone into holding up the receiver for a few minutes so I could hear the music, and they obliged.
Night Dreamer (Blue Note, 1964)
This is from Wayne’s first Blue Note album. His first two records for Blue Note cast him in more of a John Coltrane mode, with McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones from Coltrane’s band appearing on both albums, along with Art Blakey bandmate (and sometime Coltrane sideman) Reggie Workman. It’s a very soulful melody over a simple repetitive rhythmic figure that is a perfect vehicle for Jones, who just kills it. I recorded this tune on my first CD. I originally used it as a stopgap measure until I wrote enough tunes for the band but we liked this tune so much we recorded it anyway and it wound up being the first tune on the CD.
The Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel 1965 (Legacy, 1995)
Sometimes when going on and on about Wayne the composer, one can lose sight of what an amazing saxophonist he is. Here he is stretching way out on the uptempo “So What.” His solo clocks in at almost five minutes as he introduces and develops theme after theme (including his own tune “Chaos” from The All Seeing Eye). This is pure melodic improvising at its finest. Live at the Plugged Nickel is a document of one of this music’s greatest bands at its best. I think just about every possibility of rhythm section playing is in here somewhere on these sides. A must listen for any bassist, pianist or drummer; it’s all here.
Native Dancer (Columbia, 1974)
Another masterpiece produced after a long hiatus from recording as a leader (four years this time). This record realizes Wayne’s love of Brazilian music as only Wayne can do it and for the most part is a wonderful collaboration with the great Milton Nascimento. “Diana” is a lovely tune that I always assumed was essentially a duet between Wayne on soprano sax and Herbie Hancock on piano, but according to the album credits, it’s Wayne on piano!
Alegría (Verve, 2003)
This is a nice version of one of Wayne’s most recent compositions. However, this tune really came to life when it was reworked and reborn as “Prometheus Unbound,” which became the rousing show closer for Wayne’s tour with Herbie Hancock, Dave Holland and Brian Blade in 2004. The date I caught was one of the best concerts I’ve seen in years, and “Prometheus Unbound” capped off an incredible evening. It’s an episodic tune with many sections, quite the long-form small-group composition and completely captivating. Unfortunately there has not been an officially released version of this tune on CD, though it does appear on a DVD titled In Tokyo: Live at the Tokyo Big Sight.
Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers
“Free For All”
Free For All (Blue Note, 1964)
It was hard to choose just one tune from the Blakey era. I was tempted to go with one of the earlier compositions he wrote for the group when Lee Morgan was still in the band and Wayne was trying to write more in the Messenger style of that time. The tunes do sound like those from that era but the harmonic progressions are just a little trickier and more compelling. My favorites from that period are “Sakeena’s Vision,” “Those Who Sit and Wait” and “Look at the Birdie” (featuring the Woody Woodpecker theme slightly inverted). I’m going to go with “Free For All” here, though, as this is a burning, intense modal number that just blows me away. Freddie Hubbard told me this was one of the most intense sessions he was ever involved with. He said the walls were literally shaking at Rudy’s for this recording.
Wayne on Standards
As Wayne’s playing got more outside/in or inside/out or, as he has put it, began scrambling those eggs more, his playing over standards became much more interesting to me. He never took it so far out that he lost sight of the tunes but his snaky, darting lines certainly stretched it about as far as one could without completely losing sight of the material at hand. My favorite example of this is what he would do to “Green Dolphin Street.” There are two live recordings of his performing this with Miles Davis that got my attention. One is from the aforementioned Live at the Plugged Nickel and the other is on an obscure live recording from Belgium in 1967 called Masqualero. My other favorite deconstruction/destruction of a standard (“Just In Time”) is on another live audience tape from the Village Vanguard featuring Wayne’s quartet with Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams and probably Gary Peacock (there has been some question about this) in 1965. Simply unbelievable improvising.
David Weiss is a trumpeter, composer, arranger and producer whose latest release is Snuck Out (Sunnyside).