Music June 2004

A Real Gone Guy

Even though the saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter never went away, his two recent albums are being hailed as a major comeback
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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.

In 1978 Weather Report released an album called Mr. Gone, named for a Zawinul composition with a synthesized bass line that called to mind a shadowy figure entering and leaving a room before anyone knew he was there. Shorter was barely audible, on this number or much of the rest of the album, and many listeners believed that the title referred to his diminished role in the group. Zawinul has always denied this, but "Mr. Gone" became Shorter's (unwanted) nickname. It also fit him in a more flattering way: "gone" was a bebop-era superlative meaning "out of this world," and jive talk of that sort never really goes out of fashion in jazz. ("I have found the gonest little girl in the world," Jack Kerouac wrote in On the Road, and Nellie Lutcher had a hit in 1947 with a song called "He's a Real Gone Guy.")

Shorter's music was out of this world, and by reputation so was he. When I spoke with Shorter, he gave me an example of the sort of behavior that may have encouraged the expression "weird as Wayne" among his boyhood friends in Newark, including the poet Amiri Baraka. He recalled that when he and his late brother, the flugelhornist Alan Shorter, were kids playing bebop tunes by ear, they would sit facing a chair with an opened newspaper propped up on it to fool anyone who came to hear them into thinking they were reading from sheet music. Calling themselves "Mr. Weird" and "Doc Strange," the brothers wore sunglasses in darkened clubs, and galoshes even in the summertime. "And we had wrinkled clothes, because we thought you played bebop better with wrinkled clothes," Shorter told me, laughing at the memory. "You had to be raggedy to be for real."

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Francis Davis

"If I go to a concert and I'm supposed to be reviewing it, and I'm taking notes, I sometimes wind up jotting down as much about the audience as I do about the performers," Francis Davis recently told The Atlantic in an online interview. "I'm interested in what music means to people: what does it signify to them?" A contributing editor to The Atlantic since 1992, Davis's interest in the social and intellectual significance of jazz, musical theater, pop, and blues has brought a unique depth to his career as a music critic and historian.

Davis's writing career began to take form in the scripts he wrote for a Philadelphia public-radio show (which he also produced and hosted) that specialized in playing out-of-print jazz. When his scripts evolved into more sophisticated jazz criticism, he started submitting them for publication and became a staff writer at a small New Jersey newspaper. Since his first article for The Atlantic, "The Loss of Count Basie" (August 1984), he has authored seven books: In the Moment (1986), Outcats (1990), The History of the Blues: The Roots, the Music, the People From Charley Patton to Robert Cray (1995), Bebop and Nothingness: Jazz and Pop at the End of the Century (1996), Like Young (2001), Afterglow: A Last Conversation with Pauline Kael (2002), and Jazz and Its Discontents: A Francis Davis Reader (2004)

Davis writes for a variety of publications, including The Village Voice, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and Stereo Review. A 1994 Pew Fellow in the Arts, he teaches a course in jazz, blues, and folklore at the University of Pennsylvania and is currently working on a biography of John Coltrane and a history of jazz.

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