You’ve reached a Premium article. To continue reading, please login or start a 3-MONTH TRIAL SUBSCRIPTION for just 99 cents/month. You’ll receive unlimited digital access plus a complimentary issue of our award-winning print magazine.
Join Our Newsletter
Join thousands of other jazz enthusiasts and get new music, artists, album, events and more delivered to your inbox.
Originally published on June 9, 2023.
By Larry Blumenfeld
Celebrated for his small group achievements, Wayne Shorter expanded his reach to larger ensembles and grander ambitions.
When Wayne Shorter was 15 years old, around the time he began performing jazz for audiences in his native Newark, New Jersey, he created a hand-drawn 58-page comic book called Other Worlds about an interstellar traveler out to save the world. When he was 19, he began composing The Singing Lesson, an opera about a Greenwich Village girl whose brother belongs to a motorcycle gang. (He abandoned that idea after Leonard Bernstein created West Side Story, but never lost his desire to compose an opera). From the beginning, he dreamed big.
When Shorter died in March at the age of 89, the jazz world lost a musician of towering significance, one whose presence was impossible to contain. His awards included 13 Grammys, a National Endowment for the Arts designation as a Jazz Master and a Kennedy Center Honor. Yet such mainstream plaudits barely scratched the surface of his impact. His velvety tone on tenor saxophone was among jazz’s alluring pleasures, his piquant sound on soprano saxophone a signal of its searching spirit. A driving force in the foreground of nearly every jazz development during the past half-century, his aesthetic is less defined by stylistic credos than through the philosophy he shared frequently during his final years: “Jazz means ‘I dare you.’” Large as his influence was, it will keep growing.
We can reflect on many episodes in Shorter’s career. He contributed mightily to two of jazz’s most celebrated small ensembles through the 1960s — Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, and the second Miles Davis Quintet. His early Blue Note albums helped codify important moments in jazz while eluding its conventions. His collaborative powers helped popular stars think bigger and go deeper: Joni Mitchell’s 1977 album, Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter; his gorgeous 1974 collaboration with the Brazilian singer Milton Nascimento, Native Dancer; his indelible, snakelike tenor-sax solo on Steely Dan’s 1977 hit “Aja,” and much more. His achievements with Weather Report — from 1971 to 1986 with varying personnel but always him and pianist-keyboardist Joe Zawinul — stood apart from other so-called “fusion” for its complexity, fire and grand ambition. His output through the 1980s and ’90s, Atlantis and High Life among other releases, sounded like pop, moved like jazz and were constructed like chamber or orchestral music.
Rachel Z, the pianist and keyboardist who sequenced a “digital orchestra” and created the sound design on High Life, recalled for me when that music landed in her hands. “It was a thousand-bar pile of paper,” she said, “with stacked chords, eight notes in each of them, and about eight chords per bar. So, technically, there were about 8,000 chords, all of them carefully constructed.” For her, that album, whose influence has grown since its 1995 release, “was a seminal work. It was an event, a movement.”
The quartet Shorter formed in 2000 with pianist Danilo Pérez, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade, which stayed together for some 20 years, was expansive in another way. “There is no such thing as a beginning and no such thing as an end,” Shorter told me in 2005, before a Carnegie Hall concert with that group. Later that night, melodies that had established Shorter as one of jazz’s most widely admired composers popped up but were just as soon gone. The music had stretched into a sea of endless possibilities. As Pérez explained, “There is a musical language we have developed with Wayne to tell his stories, which is very specific but also open-ended. There are no limitations.”
And that quartet was just a starting point. On 2013’s Without a Net, the group was joined by Imani Winds, a chamber-music wind quintet, for the 23-minute piece “Pegasus.” Oboist Toyin Spellman-Diaz, a founding member of Imani Winds, told me that Shorter “brought his unique style of breaking through time signatures and form to our world, giving musicians who aren’t used to freedom a well-thought-out taste of their potential beyond the written notes. His contributions to the classical music world were extremely significant, and are just beginning to bear fruit.”
Shorter then upped his own ante. He paired his quartet with the 34-piece Orpheus Chamber Orchestra on Emanon, a three-CD set released in 2018 with an 84-page graphic novel, about a reluctant hero engaged in a righteous battle, inspired by that comic he drew when he was 15. By then, he was well into the process of composing an opera …(Iphigenia), at last realizing that teenage ambition. The opera, which premiered in 2021, was based on Iphigenia at Aulis by the Greek dramatist Euripides, and it featured esperanza spalding as librettist, principal singer and primary collaborator. It was intended as a parable commenting on, among other things, misogyny and mankind’s propensity toward violence. “But it’s bigger than that, even,” spalding told me. “It forces us to reconsider how and why we tell stories in the first place.”
Phillip Golub, the pianist who was “musical dramaturg” for Shorter’s opera, has since scanned and cataloged charts and scores from throughout Shorter’s career. “I’ve seen ‘Symphony No. 1’ from his student days at NYU,” Golub said. “I’ve seen Miles Quintet-era charts that were never played on the recordings. I’ve seen 12-page fully notated compositions of which Weather Report only played small snippets. What to make of all these never-realized notes on the page? That to me is a huge and fascinating question.” Golub considers Shorter’s influence “so large and so varied that it’s almost hard to see, because it’s everywhere. People will say that his opera score sounds like jazz. If it does, that’s because modern jazz sounds like Wayne.”
Beyond his many staggering musical achievements, maybe the biggest thing Shorter left us was his transcendent, indomitable spirit. After what he called “a near-death experience” during a hospital stay while creating his opera, “I just picked up where I left off,” he told me. At first, unable to write music by hand, he sang the parts at rehearsals.
I asked him what he wanted people to gain from his opera. “I want you to remember when you were a kid and you played outside with a bunch of friends,” he said. “Your parents are gone at work. It’s summertime, and you’ve played outside all day. And when your parents return, they ask you, ‘What have you been doing?’ And you say, ‘Nothing.’ I want people to recall that nothing. Because if you can, then we can begin striking little matches of enlightenment to lead the way.”
Featured photo by Robert Ascroft.