The cover of Footprints Live!—a 2002 CD that was the enigmatic saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter's first release since an album of duets with the pianist Herbie Hancock, five years earlier—showed a man holding a compass to the horizon. The pose was in keeping with the popular image of Shorter, going back to the more than five years he spent with Miles Davis, beginning in 1964, when he set a direction for Davis's quintet with his sinuous tenor solos and compositions. The only way we could be certain that the figure in the photograph was Shorter was if we recognized the piercing eye reflected in the open lid of the compass from the moody photographs on the jackets of the classic Blue Note albums he recorded in the 1960s. Though Shorter and Verve, his label, probably intended no such thing, that cover represented his career since leaving Davis. At least two generations of musicians have followed where that band led. Shorter was the most emulated saxophonist in jazz, and arguably the most influential composer, from the early 1970s straight through the 1990s—but you wouldn't know it from his spotty output over those thirty years, during which his early work only loomed larger the further he strayed from it. He was everywhere, but somehow never quite there.
Shorter has done much of his best work as a sideman, first attracting attention during five years as the resident intellectual with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers before joining Davis. His pieces for the Messengers bent the rules of bebop without breaking them, and his solos did much the same thing. Most of that era's younger tenor saxophonists followed either John Coltrane or Sonny Rollins, but Shorter set off alone on a middle path. His solos spiraled with intensity, like John Coltrane's, and Shorter often seemed to be chasing the same ecstasy. But he organized his solos more as Rollins did, bouncing one abstract idea after another off the melody at hand while leaving plenty of room for comic asides.
Jazz was in the throes of a revolution following Ornette Coleman's introduction of free form, in 1959. By inclination Shorter should have sided with the insurrectionists. But perhaps because he had too much respect for the musical conventions under fire (or too much pride in his own virtuosity, which many in the avant-garde lacked), he chose to change the system from within.
The band that ultimately determined which aspects of free jazz could be absorbed into the jazz mainstream and which could not proved to be the Miles Davis Quintet of the 1960s, with Shorter, Hancock, the bassist Ron Carter, and the drummer Tony Williams. Shorter was the last to join, but he made his presence felt immediately, bringing the rhythm section's suspended chords and displaced rhythms into focus.
Membership in Davis's band was a ticket to stardom in the 1960s. But instead of forming his own group after leaving Davis (as Hancock and Williams did, following the example of Coltrane, Bill Evans, Cannonball Adderley, and so many others), Shorter started Weather Report with the keyboard player Joe Zawinul and became a virtual sideman as Zawinul converted the supposedly leaderless jazz-rock fusion ensemble into a vehicle for his electronic gadgetry. Critics were forever accusing Zawinul of handcuffing Shorter, but this hardly seemed fair: Shorter kept himself equally restrained on the infrequent albums of his own that he released during his fifteen years with Weather Report and for more than a decade afterward, which tended to be as awash in synthesizers and trite funk rhythms as anything by Zawinul.
Plenty of musicians from the bebop era—the era before Shorter's—squandered their early promise by becoming enslaved to heroin. For many in Shorter's generation the road to artistic ruin was cult religion or fusion. Miles Davis is usually the one credited with (or blamed for) making it fashionable for jazz musicians to riff over rock or funk rhythms; some critics speak of him as if he were the Great Satan who led everyone else astray. But part of what made Davis a great bandleader was his receptivity to the ideas of his sidemen. Shorter, for one, persisted in surrounding himself with the trappings of fusion long after the genre had proved itself no good for anything but timid mind trips and the occasional novelty hit.
Fusion wasn't really the issue. When I spoke by telephone with Shorter at his home in Florida last year, he was still smarting from a lukewarm Down Beat review of Alegría, a Spanish-tinged orchestral album that he released last spring as a follow-up to Footprints Live! He said that too many jazz critics (and maybe too many jazz listeners, as well) were deaf to musical texture and tone color—elements that he prizes but that they find a hindrance to what they consider the real stuff of jazz: solo blowing. Such listeners were always "waiting for it to happen"—"vroom! ... here comes the damn saxophone solo," he complained. I agree, but hearing Shorter talk, I was reminded of another Down Beat review, one from 1972 that seemed perceptive then and became sadly prophetic as the years went by. Protesting Shorter's growing "devotion to sonic color, virtually at the expense of any other kind of energy and invention," the critic Larry Kart attributed this to his "seeming desire to renounce the notion of the improvising musician as the purveyor of a competitive, flamboyant ego."
A noble impulse at first thought, but one that cannot be achieved, I think, by the amplification of simplicities and restraints that amount to little more than a toning-down of invention. What I hear on this album is a musician trying to disappear. I wish he wouldn't.
Kart was reviewing Shorter's Odyssey of Iska, but he might as well have been discussing "Nefertiti," the title track of a celebrated 1968 Miles Davis album on which Davis and Shorter, who wrote the song, merely repeated the theme ad infinitum without taking solos (and without much variation), while the rhythm section moved around freely—a beautiful, hypnotic performance, but one that forecast a problematic direction for Shorter.