Listening to Wayne Shorter’s jazz compositions is like being swept away by a classic sci-fi flick. He seduces you into otherworldly realms with deceptively simple melodies that soon reveal themselves to be pregnant with far-out ideas and emotional punch. A master at juggling the earthly and the ethereal, the solid ground with the unpredictable outer reaches, he creates sonic pictures that unfold with cinematic splendor and a heavenly grace.
Early in his career, Shorter said that he wanted to write the music that people hear in their dreams. His myriad fans would say he succeeded, of course; but his compositional genius long overshadowed his brilliance as saxophonist, bandleader, and live performer. That is, until last year, when he toured with an all-acoustic ensemble for the first time ever, providing an eye-opening experience beautifully captured on the new Footprints Live!, recorded in France, Spain, and Italy.
Shorter’s discography, spanning more than 40 years, is absent the kind of heroic live-at-the-Village-Vanguard marathons that vaulted John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins to the status of demigods. Nor has Shorter bothered to take up a career-defining club residency, as Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and Ornette Coleman did at New York’s infamous Five Spot. Instead, Shorter has forever been a man unconcerned with the spotlight and the stage. He mostly wanted to work his magic behind the scenes: His grainy tone and distinctive way of squeezing out notes as if emulating an accordion informed legions of tenor saxophonists, and he was just as adept and groundbreaking on the soprano sax. He is one of the few sax men to emerge from the hard-bop tradition whose greatness isn’t attributable to sonic brawn or blistering virtuosity.
When Shorter was a member of Miles’ legendary mid-’60s quintet, the trumpeter referred to him as an “idea man” and frequently depended on him for compositions and arrangements. Before that, Shorter had established himself as a noteworthy composer while playing with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. Unlike Miles and Blakey, though, Shorter didn’t gain a reputation as a great bandleader. Sure, he co-led Weather Report, arguably the best jazz fusion group of all time. But during the height of its popularity, when electric bass phenom Jaco Pastorius came aboard, Shorter was relegated to the sidelines and Pastorius dominated the band’s sound and direction.
Now approaching 70, the eternally youthful Shorter has done something that few forward-thinking composers do—look back and silence those who ever questioned his bandleading skills. His 2001 shows could have easily been nothing more than strolls down Memory Lane, wish fulfillment for the many who longed for him to return to playing in a more straight-ahead setting. But Shorter didn’t stick to Vegas-like revues of greatest hits. Though Footprints Live! does find him revisiting past compositions, mostly associated with his ’60s Blue Note years and his tenure with Miles, on it Shorter explores and reconstructs classics such as “Footprints” and “JuJu” with a devil-may-care vigor that bewilders as much as beguiles.
With pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Patitucci, and drummer Brian Blade, Shorter has a nimble, supportive ensemble with which he can create stirring plots, arcing narratives, and suspenseful crescendos. There’s not one moment on autopilot on Footprints Live!. On the tumbling “Masquelero,” Perez embroiders a fanciful improvisation out of a fetching melody with Shorter adding short spurts of commentary. Patitucci and Blade are no less proactive, steering the song with shifting rhythms and counterpoint melodies. Through deft use of cross dialogues, the foursome develops voluptuous soundscapes that have
the fullness of an orchestra but retain the rhythmic spark and risk-taking of modern bop.
Each composition sounds like a reassembled jigsaw puzzle compared with its original. On “Footprints,” Shorter’s soprano breaks up the once-languid melody with quirky turnaround and pecking phrasing. The song retains its waltzlike feel, but Blade and Perez pick and pull at the groove, making it twist and stretch. On “Sanctuary,” Shorter states the pithy theme on tenor, then reiterates it with a slight variation, as if clarifying a misunderstood thought. As he gains rhythmic momentum, he elaborates with sputtering notes and corkscrew asides, punctuating the song with music question marks, ellipses, and italicized clauses.
The majestic “Atlantis” is perhaps the most quietly enchanting and evocative narrative here. Shorter’s wistful melody exudes an air of mystery as Perez alternates between twinkling notes and dark rumbles. Patitucci’s resonating bass and descending ostinato figure give the song weight as Shorter’s probing tenor travels deep into the subterranean ambiance. The most emotionally charged song, however, is the scintillating “Aung San Suu Kyi.” Dedicated to the 1991 Nobel Prize-winning human-rights activist, the tune’s singsong melody turns urgent as Shorter’s stinging soprano cries passionately against Blade’s lacerating rhythms and Perez’s jabbing notes.
Collectively, the eight songs are an arresting suite, brilliantly sequenced like scenes from a movie. All of Shorter’s talents as a composer, saxophonist, and bandleader coalesce magnificently on Footprints Live!. Shorter and his ensemble—hands down, the best in his solo career—rock your world by transporting you to his: a vast and glorious cinematic universe. CP