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Eggs Scrambled Differently: A Look at Wayne Shorter

By (September 1, 2010) No Comment

“When I do interviews, they say music, music, music, music…and I say no, no, no, no. Music is second, the human being is first. What is music for? What is anything for?” It’s highly unusual for such a statement to come from a musician. That it comes from saxophonist/composer Wayne Shorter (as reported by Michelle Mercer in her excellent bio Footprints: The Life and Work of Wayne Shorter) offers a succinct insight into a man renowned for being unpredictable in personal encounters.

An oft-recounted story involves Shorter being approached by an individual before a performance by Weather Report, the seminal jazz-rock-world music band co-founded by Shorter and keyboardist Joe Zawinul. The nameless fan asks Shorter what time it is, and his reply is something along the lines of: all time is relative; time is eventually unknowable; time changes depending where you are in the galaxy, etc. Eventually Zawinul interrupts with a quote that jazz fans love to tell each other: “You should know better than to ask Wayne a question like that. The time is 7:08.”

The inference of this story, and the various tales like it, is that Shorter is “out there.” As Shorter himself might say, check out the facts, man: he digs science fiction, has seen the movie The Red Shoes a gazillion times (and now that it’s finally on DVD-look out!), and he’ll tell a musician trying to interpret one of his scores, ‘Play it the way Marlon Brando walks in On the Waterfront.’

These are indeed atypical jazz attributes, but they have been a part of Shorter’s musical personality since his first tunes and performances with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messenger groups of the late fifties, through his imprint on the Miles Davis quintet of the mid-sixties, and through his explorations with Weather Report. Dozens of ‘Shorter Tunes’ fill the fake books of jazz students. As a working saxophonist, I marvel at a composition like “Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum”; the mix of mystery and hope in that melody and chord progression always produces different results when you improvise on it. Many of his songs alternate two moods like a dramatist, and the skill required to produce interesting results when playing them is completely different from the challenges posed in a song like “Giant Steps,” written by Shorter’s old practice buddy John Coltrane.

That Shorter’s tenor sax work has so often been compared to Coltrane’s is not surprising. Both men employed a wide open sound with no vibrato, but even before Coltrane milked tonal progressions dry with tunes like “Giant Steps,” Shorter’s playing was always more song-like than that of his musical brother. Although both practiced from books of harp exercises, the unusual scales and patterns elicited from Shorter a more operatic approach, with wide leaps and other bel canto melodic devices replacing Coltrane’s thrill of the sheer mathematics of sound. Probably the most succinct comparison of Coltrane and Shorter came from Coltrane himself : “Yeah, you’re scramblin’ those eggs,” he once told Shorter. “You’re scrambling them differently from me but you’re doing it, too.”

Wayne Shorter ‘s musical persona stretches across three very different DVDs that offer many stopping points along a thirty-seven year timeline from 1959 to 1996. Wayne Shorter: Footprints, a DVD from ‘Salt Peanuts,’ opens with a churning drum workout by Art Blakey on “A Night in Tunisia.” Shot during a successful Japanese tour in 1961, the hazy but acceptable black-and-white camera work captures Blakey’s volcanic kit with a minimum of distortion while a ‘rhythm choir’ of Shorter, (trumpeter) Lee Morgan, and (pianist) Bobby Timmons fight to keep it all together on claves, maracas, and cowbell, respectively. To see all three men so concentrated on maintaining the groove for their leader is to see the Jazz Messenger gestalt.

In some bands, breaking out the “little instruments” is a cue for clowning. In Blakey’s forty years of Messenger groups, the music was always the star; individual players were expected to build a story with their solos and conclude with something memorable. Musicians coasting on pet licks soon heard a thrashing from the drum set on the stand, followed by a verbal (and potentially physical) thrashing off the stand. On this occasion the adoring Tokyo crowd coaxes nothing but fire from the group. Shorter blasts out of the ‘Tunisia’ interlude with steaming lines plunging to the bottom of the horn. Lee Morgan’s sound is remarkably pliable; thick and warm during the opening melody, wide and rangy during a solo that manages to avoid any overt references to his first boss, Dizzy Gillespie.

To have the whole set of this performance would have been wonderful, but the second track is from a separate Japanese TV broadcast of a big band called “Sharps and Flats” led by one Nobuo Hara. There are no notes in the video package telling us anything about the band, or Mr. Hora. The tune is ‘Moanin’ by pianist Bobby Timmons. The band, a looming phalanx of shadows, is limited to some ‘amen’ responses during the melody and some effective non-intrusive fills and punches behind the soloists. Lee Morgan’s solo uses the sputtering, half-valved beginning of his original recorded solo to take him to some proclamations that are effective over the band’s accents. Shorter, shot interestingly from above the bell of his horn, plays more sparsely, using the ambience of the TV studio to carry his lean, straight sound. Then the folks at ‘Salt Peanuts’ whisk us back to Paris in1959 for two numbers by a Messengers group with pianist Walter Davis Jr. replacing Bobby Timmons.

While the video of a dark Parisian assembly hall is inferior to the Japanese segment, the sound is fuller, with the only distortion popping up in the piano solos, probably a side effect from turning the piano mic up in the mix. The first tune, “Blues March” is a Blakey staple. Interestingly, on most versions of this tune, the march beat gets booted out halfway through each solo for some kick-ass back-beat swing. On this version, the march beat is retained all the way through the solos, setting up some nice building tension, which Art releases between each soloist with a little street parade drum solo. The ’59 Shorter gets very soulful in his outing, and Lee Morgan explores the nuances of French acoustics with a lines decorated with choked half valve cries.

The second tune by this group is “Are You Real ?” by Benny Golson, of the Coltrane rehearsal room, and Shorter’s predecessor as ‘music director’ of the Jazz Messengers. This is a challenging chord progression, one that can trick the ear into trying phrases that don’t fit. It vaguely resembles the folk tune “Greensleeves” in a major key. Shorter treats the tune with respect; visibly focused and concentrating, he outlines the changes carefully before putting together some bolder melodic statements in his second chorus. Lee Morgan carefully brings the volume down when he starts, struts with confidence for a time, then seems to lose patience with the tune in a few spots, smearing some cadences that don’t fit before finding something worth finishing with.

The genuine surprise in this package is the fifth selection, a performance of Wayne’s signature tune “Footprints” from a 1967 performance by the Miles Davis Quintet in Stockholm Sweden. This classic assemblage, with Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass, and Tony Williams on drums, pops in as from some parallel earth, where, hey, the band that was never captured on camera got captured all the time. Whoever shot it knew exactly what they wanted to do visually: Miles’s soloing face gets the right third of the screen; the left side is night. By ’67 this band was having fun with the already anthemic “Footprints.” Similar to the mystical vibe that issues forth from the legendary Plugged Nickel recordings from 1965, (where as Tony Williams proposed, “What if the first thing you’d expect us to play is the last thing we played”), Davis, Shorter, and especially Hancock, strip fragments from the melody and form of this song and let it crawl off the stage. On a recording you can’t see the players smiling. This quick nine minutes is worth the price of the DVD. Oh where is the rest of this concert?

There is no truncation of the second performance on DVD. Eagle Eye Media’s Weather Report: Live at Montreux 1976 contains the complete eighty-four minute set of the seminal fusion band. Weather Report began in 1970, as Shorter and Austrian keyboardist Joe Zawinul, who worked together on Miles’ albums In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew. Bassist Miroslav Vitous, a Czech acoustic bassist working out of New York, was the third original member. Percussionist Airto Moreira and drummer Alphonse Mouzon filled out the initial lineup, the first in a procession of drummers and percussionists covering the fifteen years of the group. After two well-received albums featured what amounted to five-way improvisations rather than compositions, Zawinul and Shorter felt the pull towards more rock and funk and more rhythms from South American cultures. Vitous was the first casualty of the switch in focus, although he continued to draw pay as a co-owner of the band’s name. By 1976, Peruvian Alex Acuna switched from percussion to trap set, and Puerto Rican artist/musician Manolo Badrena brought in what looked like a music store’s inventory of percussion instruments.

Two months before Montreux, Zawinul was approached after a concert by a young man who said “My name is John Francis Pastorious III and I’m the greatest bass player in the world.” During his several years in the group, as he rewrote (literally) the technique for electric bass, quite a few listeners came to believe him This is the group of musicians that take the stage at Montreux. In months they will go into the studio and record their breakthrough album entitled Heavy Weather, containing a track called “Birdland” that became a hit single and established Weather Report as a trend-setting force. On this performance, the new rhythm team of Acuna and Badrena set up a seething percussive base. Indeed, their piping-hot duet from this concert was included on Heavy Weather. Their interplay is intense, visually stimulating and yet somehow transparent, allowing the precise bass lines of former drummer Pastorious their full weight. While Zawinul’s collection of keyboards and synthesizers look like museum pieces today, the sounds and grooves define what would become known as “world music.”

Aside from the hippie-hip wardrobes, only Zawinul’s chirping synth lines brand this music with a 70’s pedigree. Shorter, swapping his Blakey business suit for an off-white jump suit, stands up to the onslaught of electronics and percussion without so much as a reverb unit. It’s not apparent that he can even hear himself, yet he performs as a one man horn section, leading ensemble passages on tenor and soprano, a horn which at times became Shorter’s primary color.

With a stagehand holding a handlettered sign reading ‘Weather Report’ (underlined twice), the band launches the set with Shorter’s “Elegant People,” a true fusion composition with multiple sections layered over a bubbling drum kit – conga foundation with a triumphant Shorter solo that builds to shouts and shrieks. The rest of the set moves through the electric space and street cries of Zawinul’s “Scarlet Woman,” takes a funky stroll along the “Barbary Coast,” then pops Jaco Pastorious loose for a solo feature on his “Portrait of Tracy,” a master collection of harmonic techniques still challenging for bass players twenty three years A.P. (After Pastorious, who died in a nightclub fight in 1987).

The centerpiece of the set is a passionate performance of Zawinul’s “Cannon Ball,” conceived in memory of Joe’s former boss, the great alto player Julian ‘Cannonball’ Adderley, who had passed away the previous August. Shorter’s rich soprano conjures the spirit of the altoist, and Zawinul restrains the vibrato on his Arp solo. Manolo Badrena begins a ten year Weather Report infatuation with vocal percussion with his intro to what was their hit tune at the time, the title track to the album Black Market. Shorter’s brave soprano sails and strains over churning waves of percussion, with Pastorious running fresh bass lines up the steps like fresh bread from the kitchen. Great stuff, with Shorter using his Blakey training to set up a definite ending to his solo that sets up the rhythmic stew that lead into the aforementioned duet with Acuna and Badrena.

Counter-programming against that, Zawinul and Shorter convene next in a duet section that became a regular part of the Weather Report experience. These segments, with Zawinul usually switching to acoustic piano, were always concentrations of very personal playing from both musicians (and must exist in sufficient quantities to be re-issued as a set). This seminal meeting, with Shorter’s soprano emerging from the distance like a returning warrior, allows the band to build the tension anew, starting with the “Birdland” fragment and taking a more relaxed approach “Badia,” with its speechlike synth ‘text,’ before bringing the proceedings to a rocking close with “Gibraltar.” Though Weather Report still had nine years to go in its run – and a whole union listing of bassists and drummers to cycle through – this performance captures the essence of the approach and serves as a reminder to those who watched the banks of keyboards increase as Shorter’s contributions diminished through the ensuing years. Though a video of the band with their most versatile drummer, Peter Erskine, would be wonderful, this long set is a terrific experience.

For our third DVD, Wayne Shorter: Live at Montreaux 1996, we are plopped down at Montreux, apparently on the same stage, a mere twenty years later. In 1996 Shorter was in the middle of his second attempt to put music from his magnificent High Life CD on the road. With its layers of melodies, the music resisted the efforts of one band, who literally spread charts on the stage trying to assemble the passages into a coherent whole. For his second attempt, Shorter trimmed the band to five players. Only guitarist David Gilmore was retained from the earlier group. Keyboards were manned by James Beard, who met Shorter in the mid-eighties. The bassist was Alphonso Johnson, who grew comfortable with Shorter as Jaco’s predecessor in Weather Report. A key element was drummer Rodney Holmes, a veteran of Zawinul’s self-named group. One previous Shorter group had floundered because of an excessively loud drummer: “At the end of the night, it looked like a sawmill around Kenwood (Dennard)’s kit, like a beaver had been there,” Beard recalled. With Rodney Holmes on board, Shorter had a drummer who could make all the precise hits required by the complex charts, as well as sweep the other soloists along on waves of counter rhythms pulled from the drums, instead of pounded out of them.

This becomes apparent minutes into the group’s opening tune, “On the Milky Way Express,” a melody and concept that could only come from science fiction fanatic Shorter. Confident in the groove-keeping abilities of his guitarist and drummer, Shorter lets Bassist Johnson take the first solo out of the leaping, warp-drive head, and the momentum doesn’t flag for a second. Beard’s acoustic piano solo adroitly stirs in some Hancock octave tremolos before quickly leading to a melody recap that flows into one of the trademarks of this particular ensemble: trading solo breaks over a chord progression coda. Shorter works kid-tune ‘Teddy Bears’ Picnic’ into his first break, while Beard somehow resists a smile. Shorter, Gilmore and Beard trade flourishes, Shorter ripping off blankets of notes while Gilmore explores nooks and crannies and Beard spanks out some very Latin-band piano. “At the Fair,” also from High Life, with Johnson’s popping bass lines and Gilmore’s post James Brown scratch guitar, leads to a lengthy tenor-guitar unison which marks another trademark of this group.

Indeed, Shorter and Gilmore get into some intricate unison and harmonized passages as the program continues, each leading to a solo outburst. On “At the Fair,” it’s Gilmore who gets launched into his own wailing rock orbit, with an even trickier section with Shorter’s tenor waiting for him when he returns. Holmes’ kit sound balances a firm bass drum sound with some thick cymbal sounds at the top and his whip-quick reactions boot Shorter through an intense soprano outing that ends with another heavily chorded coda, making Shorter’s ‘Fair’ sound like it ended with a fireworks display.

“Over Shadow Hill Way” uses a fiendish guitar-bass vamp to set up Gilmore’s John Scofield-like explosion rendered apocalyptic by Holmes’ matching post -Dennis Chambers drum thunder. The following drum solo has Holmes utilizing his entire many-voiced kit to pull out sweeping cyclones underlined by precise bass drum figures, which return as the band drives away under Shorter’s triumphant soprano.

You should be applauding along with the crowd at the close. “Children of the Night,” the third tune from High Life, follows with its ever-climbing intro until it reaches the plateau containing the multi-layered melody . The underlying whole note-based line was the entire tune as conceived by Shorter during his Jazz Messenger days. As the opening composition on High Life, it returns sporting a whole rasher of equally hummable lines. On the live performance, James Beard’s single note lines evolve to dense chords leading to a Shorter outing that pushes him to the very top of the soprano’s range, like a climber perched on a remote peak waving down at the passersby. A segment of the closing melody gets altered into an extended vamp where Shorter and Gilmore get to play, with Shorter typically turning operatic and Gilmore breaking off short chunks of melody. The encore is a full length “Endangered Species,” with more intricate bass and guitar figures separating soaring Shorter soprano. Most encores are usually tunes the band can play with its eyes closed. There are no closed eyes on this one.

This set would be plenty, but the folks at Eagle Eye add two other performances. From 1991, pianist and friend Herbie Hancock, Stanley Clarke on acoustic bass, and Weather Report alum Omar Hakim on drums accompany Shorter on a mini-set consisting of another performance of “Footprints,” this one with an little cycle-type intro that seems to have become an official part of the song. The second tune is a slower take of “On the Milky Way Express,” more emphatic in its tempo. Hancock’s shoulder-slung keyboard makes some telling comments, both accompanying and in solo. This seems to be a joyous encounter for all, with Clarke looking as comfortable on acoustic as he usually appears on electric, and the lanky Hakim making maximum sound with minimum movement.

The second added set is from 1992, featuring Shorter as part of a Miles Davis Tribute band. One of Davis’s last public appearances was at the 1991 Montreux festival, fronting a large band assembled by arranger/producer Quincy Jones, who introduces this set performed by Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams manning piano, bass and drums respectively. Trumpeter Wallace Roney has the unenviable task of taking Davis’s chair in this band. The tunes, Shorter’s “Pinocchio” and Carter’s “Pee Wee,” conjure up the spirit of that group, but all you have to do is watch the 1967 version of “Footprints” from the first DVD mentioned to isolate the mystique that is missing.

In reading Michelle Mercer’s bio of Shorter, I was shocked to learn that only days after the 1996 Montreux performance, the plane carrying Shorter’s wife to join him on tour crashed, with no survivors. Shorter’s devotion to the Nichiren Buddhist discipline helped him redirect his battered spirits toward becoming, as he puts it, “he happiest man on earth.” Judging from the snippets of laughter and amusement on his live quartet recordings, this effort has borne some fruit.

It was my original intention in this column to focus on Shorter’s CDs at equal length, but that massive body of work is well served by the Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings as well as other sources. Everyone should know the series of Blue Note albums Shorter led in the mid sixties. I call them “Wayne’s Elite Eight,” and each features a type of ballad penned only by Shorter that I refer to as “Pulse Stoppers” because that’s just what they do.

The individual albums are:

1. Night Dreamer, 4/64
Shorter’s Blue Note debut features a Jazz Messenger front line, with trumpeter Lee Morgan, and Coltrane’s rhythm section. The Pulse Stopper is a tune called “Virgo.” Yes, Shorter does sound very Coltrane-like here.

2. Juju, 8/64
Just the Coltrane rhythm section here. “Juju” is still performed by Shorter today. No Pulse Stoppers on this one, but measured tunes like “Deluge” and “House of Jade” give the album weight and beauty.

3. Speak No Evil, 12/64
Freddie Hubbard’s trumpet and Herbie Hancock’s piano are the new additions. Best sampled after dark, the Pulse Stopper here is “Infant Eyes,” consisting of a somber progression followed by an uplifting one.

4. The Soothsayer, 4/65
A neglected album in this sequence, partly because the music was not released until 1980, partly because even that release was marred by a vinyl pressing that put a buzz in Freddie Hubbard’s gorgeous sound. The front line of Hubbard, Shorter and altoist James Spaulding blend with a compelling grainy sound. Shorter is in full operatic mode as a soloist, and Hubbard takes startling risks on some complex progressions. The Pulse Stopper is “Lady Day,” beautifully voiced for the horns.

5. Etcetera, 6/65
Shorter’s second 1965 outing also had to wait until 1980 to appear on one of Blue Notes’ “rainbow” cornered LPs. Bassist Cecil McBee and drummer Joe Chambers were Shorter’s most transparent rhythm team. “Toy Tune “ deserves more performances, and Herbie Hancock makes one of the all-time beautiful piano choruses on the Pulse Stopper “Penelope.” Another fascinating take on Gil Evans’ line “Barracuda” can be found on the excellent Columbia compilation called (what else) Footprints.

6. The All Seeing Eye, 10/65
Shorter’s third date in ’65 takes the textures and some of the band from The Soothsayer (Hubbard, Spaulding, Hancock) but leaves Pulse Stoppers behind to probe sounds in a way that must have pleased his brother Alan, who plays flugelhorn on the final track.

7. Adam’s Apple, 2/66
The opening “Adam’s Apple” is Shorter’s one attempt to give the Blue Note producers a hit single like Lee Morgan’s Sidewinder. Unfortunately Shorter’s reed sounds like it’s carved from a tree. A second session finds Shorter with a gorgeous sounding reed, one he uses on the original version of “Footprints” to utter some very flexible ideas. The Pulse Stopper is “Teru,” which begins pensive before getting almost giddily hopeful in the middle. Reggie Workman and Joe Chambers are together for the only time in this series.

8. Schizophrenia, 10/67
Curtis Fuller’s trombone coupled with Spaulding’s alto and flute lends nice colors to the final session in this amazing sequence of recordings. Pulse Stopper “Miyako” inspires pianist Hancock to contribute a tranquil interlude between Shorter’s statements.

Shorter’s next outing, 1969’s Super Nova, mixes in guitarist John McLaughlin from Miles Davis’s In a Silent Way sessions, strong doses of samba, a haunting vocal on Jobim’s “Dindi,” and the view to Weather Report is clear.

It’s been my pleasure to take you on this very extended starship ride through three video constellations in the Shorter Galaxy, with a side excursion through a major Shorter audio cluster.

Next, the saxophone conquers the stars.

Brad Jones uses his retail job to fund his career as an obscure jazz saxophonist. He’s performed over 1,000 improv shows as a member of the Proposition Theatre in Inman Square and was a founding member of Boston’s Next Move Theatre.