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Wayne Shorter: Alegria

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Wayne Shorter illustration

First, an admission: I have always been ambivalent about Wayne Shorter. This is heresy, I realize. Shorter, after all, is a composer of jazz standards, such as “Footprints” and “Sanctuary,” that will last as long as the art form is practiced somewhere on the planet. He is a saxophonist of undeniable skill and originality and seriousness, and he has been a guiding force in groundbreaking ensembles like Miles Davis’ “second great quintet” and Weather Report. He makes records that only Wayne Shorter could have made.

Yet from his earliest Blue Note recordings, he never fully worked for me. His tone on tenor saxophone had a slightly dry asceticism, and I could never fully buy in to his oddities, his jittery scattering of thematic fragments, his crowded harmonies, his intellectualized asymmetrical phrasing. I preferred the 1964 Miles Davis band with George Coleman on tenor to the post-1965 quintet featuring Shorter. True, as a musical thinker, Coleman was not in Shorter’s class. Yet the Davis band with Shorter never made a masterpiece like the one it made in 1964 with Coleman, My Funny Valentine.

There is also a genuine question whether all the ground that Shorter broke for Miles Davis turned out to be fertile. Albums strongly influenced by Shorter, like E.S.P., from 1965, still sound amazingly modern in their melodic and harmonic ambiguities. But they also sent Davis down a path that led to his abandonment of acoustic jazz and the opportunity to build upon his enormous early achievements.

As for Shorter’s 15 years with Weather Report, and his switch to soprano saxophone as his primary instrument, and all the electric projects that came after-I listened more from obligation than from enthusiasm. Weather Report was the greatest ensemble that ever played the self-limiting genre of fusion. But it was still fusion.

Then came Footprints-Live! It appeared last year without warning: Shorter’s first all-acoustic recording since 1967, a volatile joining of forces between a reborn 68-year-old master and one of the hottest young rhythm sections in jazz. It was recorded live in the summer of 2001 at several lesser-known European jazz festivals, and, while the audio quality was undistinguished, the music was not. Shorter, mostly on tenor, played with the fearlessness of a creative artist who has nothing to lose and nothing to prove, and he just aired it out. Incited by his rhythm section, he took sublime liberties with his own vintage tunes, like the title track. Footprints-Live! won polls and prizes all over the world in 2002, and it was voted JazzTimes’ album of the year. On a personal level, it was the Shorter recording that replaced my ambivalence with undiluted admiration, if not quite passion.

Because of the high profile of Footprints-Live!, its successor, Alegria, has been much anticipated. The personnel includes the same provocative rhythm section: pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade. Yet in many respects Alegria could hardly be a more different album from its predecessor. It is a studio recording rather than live (with much better sound). It presents an expanded ensemble with percussion, brass, woodwinds and strings, rather than a quartet. It is about composition and orchestration and the painting of complex, impressionistic designs on a broad canvas, rather than blowing. Its concept comes from highly conscious, detailed processes, rather than in-the-moment visceral inspiration.

And it works.

This hour of music contains rare richness and range. Wayne Shorter’s musical literacy is so sophisticated that he sounds entirely at home as he moves from 1930’s flamenco tunes (“Vendiendo Alegria”) to a medieval Christmas carol (“12th Century Carol”) to Celtic folk songs (“She Moves Through the Fair”) to pieces from his own 1960’s portfolio (“Orbits,” “Capricorn II”) that he blows up and reassembles. He utilizes an ensemble at times as large as 20 pieces to create dramatically variegated, through-composed contexts for his own adventurous forays on both tenor and soprano. There are lilting, suave meters, and contrapuntal intricacies, and pieces that drive hard with dense African energies.

It is striking that, given all the meticulous arrangements, and given also the cameo appearances of powerful guests like Brad Mehldau and Chris Potter, there remains so much space for (and so much focus on) Shorter’s own individual improvisations. He plays brilliantly: his pure, luminous soprano wheeling and soaring with or against the full ensemble; his tenor lines more like broken brush strokes and suggestive spare gestures. The pieces on which he plays both horns, like “She Moves Through the Fair,” are especially interesting in the way they juxtapose Shorter’s two distinct instrumental personalities.

The piece that will get the most attention is Shorter’s adaptation of “Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5” by Heitor Villa-Lobos. Its marriage of classical and jazz idioms sounds unforced, even inevitable. Afro-Brazilian percussion sets up Shorter’s out-of-time, floating tenor sketches, which transition seamlessly to an instrument in the same tonal register, the cello of Charles Curtis, whose evocative sonorities linger on Villa-Lobos’ poignant theme. It seems unlikely that the arch formalities of Curtis’ cello could melt into the sound of Shorter’s horn, but it happens. Shorter spins corollaries of the melody before passing it back to Curtis, and then they play it together in pancultural counterpoint.

Alegria, in the scope of its ambition and the virtuosity of its execution, is a genuine advance upon the widely praised Footprints-Live! So where does that leave things, ambivalence-wise? As impressive as it undeniably is, Alegria does not feel like one unified arc of aesthetic impulse driven by inner necessity, but like a series of examples of Wayne Shorter’s extraordinary facility and cleverness.

It would be a fair question to ask, “If you stop just short of according Alegria the status of a major work, what recent album by a saxophonist-plus-large-ensemble do you think is more important?” To cite one example, I believe that the Joe Lovano Nonet’s 52nd Street Themes (Blue Note) is a stronger recording.

But I also believe that Alegr¡a will win as many awards as Footprints-Live!, and it will deserve them.