I really can’t imagine what my own music would be if not for the influence of Wayne Shorter. I have many influences, of course, but many of them reinforce similar things. With all due respect, if you take Lee Morgan away from me I still have Clifford Brown and Freddie Hubbard and Nat Adderley. Take Freddie King away and I still have B.B. and Albert. But taking Wayne Shorter away is kind of like taking the color blue away from a painter.
I first became aware of the name Wayne Shorter as a freshman in high school when, in perusing of Musician magazine there was a long interview with him and Carlos Santana (who I already loved) about their then-current collaboration. “Interesting,” I thought, but I did not pursue his music any further, and I don’t know if at that time I had a point of reference for it anyway. But not long after, George Raccio (my jazz teacher throughout high school) loaned me Speak No Evil and my ears began to open up. To say it blew my mind would be largely missing the point, because it immediately made sense to me on an intuitive level.
Apparently there has been some internet controversy of late surrounding Wayne Shorter and his recent work. I have, for whatever reasons, missed this pretty much entirely and do not intend to catch up on it. I see no point – my time is better spent digging into all the things that make me love his music.
Note that these are just tunes from Wayne’s records as a bandleader (which spares me from also having to accommodate his contributions to the Miles Davis Quintet, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Weather Report and so on).
1 ) “Deluge” from Juju (1964)
When I discovered the Juju album in high school (thanks to Jimmy Greene, who lent me a cassette with that on one side and Art Blakey’s 3 Blind Mice on the other) it was one of those rare moments when I heard the sonic manifestation of a color palette that existed in my consciousness but that I’d never actually heard. That is, it was entirely new and entirely familiar at the same time. This track in particular showed me, through the writing, Wayne’s incredibly soulful and melodic solo and Elvin Jones’ hard-swinging drums, how such harmonically advanced music could actually evoke the blues as powerfully as anything by Robert Johnson.
2 ) “Infant Eyes” from Speak No Evil (1964)
Whether intentional or not, George Raccio’s assigning me to transcribe Wayne’s solo on “Infant Eyes” was a life-changer. It taught me a ton about rhythmic elasticity and harmonic coloration, but more than anything the sheer lyricism and vulnerability provided the template for tender ballad playing that I have used as my own template ever since.
3 ) “Lilia” from Native Dancer (1974)
This collaboration with Milton Nascimento is super-catchy, which belies its harmonic darkness and the fact that the propulsive groove is in 5/4. Milton’s gorgeous singing gets a lot of the focus (as it always does), but Wayne’s soprano gets a lot of the spotlight as well, and he also provides a moody intro on electric piano.
4 ) “502 Blues (Drinkin’ and Drivin’)” from Adam’s Apple (1966)
This is where I steer students first when I want them to understand how to play in 3/4 time in a manner that is neither boxy nor amorphous, thanks in large part to Joe Chambers’ drumming. Wayne and Herbie Hancock both play with immense soul here, particularly inspiring given the quirks of the chords they are navigating. It was years before I heard Jimmy Rowles’ original version of the song (from Jive For Five by the Bill Holman/Mel Lewis Quintet) and while I enjoy that too, it served more to help me fully appreciate just how much of a stamp Wayne put on his arrangement of the tune.
5 ) “Dindi” from Super Nova (1969)
Okay, yes, I just cited two non-Wayne compositions in a row, I know that’s weird. This track is kind of wacky, yet I find it quite emotionally resonant. A tender Portuguese reading of the Jobim classic by Walter Booker (usually a bassist, here on nylon-stringed guitar) and his wife Maria on vocals is sandwiched between segments of passionate dissonance with Wayne on soprano and a large and energetic rhythm section featuring Sonny Sharrock’s guitar and the percussion of Airto, Jack DeJohnette and, on drums, Chick Corea.
6 ) “Tom Thumb” from Schizophrenia (1967)
This one gets the slight nod over “Adam’s Apple” in the Wayne-goes-boogaloo department. During the era when a groove tune was expected to open many Blue Note records, Wayne figured out how to do that without any compromise to the depth of his vision (which one could cite as foreshadowing his successful work in fusion, though I ain’t goin’ there). Joe Chambers and Ron Carter totally rock out, there are great solos by Wayne, Herbie and the perennially underrated James Spaulding, and we get to hear some nice section work by Wayne’s former Art Blakey band-mate Curtis Fuller, who appeared with Wayne on the first recording of this tune, by Bobby Timmons.
7 ) “Montezuma” from Moto Grosso Feio (1970)
I’ve never quite understood how this moody album could remain out of print, as it’s truly gorgeous throughout. This soulful but edgy track features powerful Shorter soprano work over a rich, dense rhythm section augmented by Ron Carter’s cello and Chick Corea’s marimba.
8 ) “Lost” from The Soothsayer (1965)
The Soothsayer is to me kind of like Stevie Wonder’s Hotter Than July or Coltrane’s Plays the Blues in that it’s not one of my top 5 records for that artists, but I’d probably listen to it constantly if it was the only one I had. The frontline here (with Freddie Hubbard and James Spaulding) is extremely powerful, as is the too-rare rhythm section pairing of the Ron Carter/Tony Williams duo with McCoy Tyner on piano.
9 ) “Sacajawea” from Alegria (2002)
I would be remiss if I completely neglected Wayne’s work with his current ensemble. This track shows the sensitivity and rapport of Danilo Perez, John Pattitucci and Brian Blade and features some extremely powerful work by Wayne on both tenor and soprano (at times, thanks to overdubbing, simultaneously).
10 ) “Charcoal Blues” from Night Dreamer (1964)
This is the least compositionally developed song on the great Night Dreamer album, one could say, but I’m choosing it here (getting the nod, for diversity’s sake, over “Twelve More Bars to Go” from the Juju album with the same group) to represent Wayne playing the blues. It is difficult to put into words the manner in which he balances the tradition with his own unique phrasing and harmonic sense, so I’ll give the cop-out of simply urging you to listen for yourselves!