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

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."

Shorter's first working band is the quartet he played with on a tour of Europe in 2001, featuring Danilo Pérez on piano, John Patitucci on bass, and Brian Blade on drums. Footprints Live!, which resulted from that tour, was released to delirious reviews, and why not? His first album with an all-acoustic rhythm section since his Blue Note LPs, it was exactly the sort of album he should have been making all along, starting around 1970. Yet there was nothing anachronistic about it. Shorter's work from the 1960s continues to pervade jazz today, and his sidemen, all of whom are in their thirties or forties, are from a generation of musicians who came of age playing his tunes and attempting to penetrate their secrets.

His comeback has been the hottest topic of conversation in jazz these past two years, only it isn't really a comeback—it's more like a stunning return to form at a relatively advanced age (Shorter turned seventy last August). And he was never really gone. Even during the late 1970s, when his productivity as a composer sharply decreased while he helped care for a young daughter with irreparable brain damage, he continued to record and tour with Weather Report, at least going through the motions.

"Something else became Number One in my life ... and all of music took second place," he later told an interviewer for an Eastern European jazz magazine. He wasn't referring only to his daughter, who died from a brain seizure in 1985, at the age of fourteen. Shorter has been visited by more than one man's share of tragedy. His second wife and a niece were among the 230 passengers who lost their lives when TWA Flight 800, bound for Paris, exploded in midair just after takeoff from Kennedy Airport in 1996. But he remarried, and as a longtime practicing Nichiren Buddhist who meditates several times daily and chants, he would be the first to observe that life goes on. When we talked, I asked him if seeing the events of September 11 had reawakened painful memories. "Oh, yeah," he said, "but the eternal life of a person is what you have to embrace."

Shorter is one of very few living jazz composers whose numbers are regularly played by other musicians. A pianist friend of mine who supplements his meager income from jazz by playing weddings and bar mitzvahs once told me that what makes those jobs bearable is that "sooner or later during the cocktail hour someone—usually the father of the bride or groom or of the bar mitzvah boy—will recognize a little bit of jazz in what I'm playing and walk over and ask if I know anything by Wayne Shorter." A dozen or so of Shorter's tunes, including "Footprints," "Speak No Evil," and "Infant Eyes," have taken their place alongside works by Ellington and Monk in the standard jazz repertoire. His compositions don't just serve as springboards for improvisation; they closely resemble it. His phrases often take off from those of other soloists. The trumpeter Wallace Roney, who has played with Shorter and studied his music closely, recently pointed out to me that several Shorter songs come directly from Coltrane's. "They're two parts Coltrane, one part Lee Konitz, and 100 percent Wayne," Roney said, naming an alto saxophonist whose cerebral style might seem the antithesis of Coltrane's rawer, more emotionally exposed approach. "And it's a sign of Wayne's originality that he would even think to combine them."

Footprints Live! was thrilling because it offered a generous display of Shorter's improvisational prowess at a point when hope seemed lost of ever again hearing him at such length. My favorite of the CD's eight performances is "Go," a piece he first recorded in 1967. The title isn't, I think, an exhortation or a reference to the Japanese game but something said in sorrow and exasperation to a lover who's already halfway out the door. It takes a few hearings to figure out that the song is a ballad, not just because the melody snakes so much and Brian Blade's drumming implies a faster tempo: the many abrupt variations in pitch make Shorter sound agitated. It also takes a few hearings to realize that Shorter is doing little more than embellishing the melody, because he packs so much variety and invention into his embellishments.

Shorter guided his quartet through an extended and even moodier version of "Go" at Carnegie Hall last summer, during the JVC Jazz Festival. What he played was compelling, but he often seemed to be holding back—waiting to hear if his rhythm section got into anything exciting, and then deciding if he had anything worth adding. There would be a wave of anticipatory applause whenever the tune moved into a faster tempo. I could almost hear half the audience thinking Vroom! ... here comes the damn saxophone solo, and feel the disappointment when it didn't—at least not the breast-beating solo they were primed for.

Backlash usually isn't long in coming in jazz, so it was probably inevitable that the praise for Alegría would be less than unanimous. I was fascinated by the album, though, because with it Shorter has finally made good on the promise that he hinted at as an arranger on an LP he recorded with Blakey in 1963 of songs from the Broadway show Golden Boy.

Alegría is one of a growing number of jazz albums that borrow color from Latin music without copying its rhythmic clichés (others include Don Byron's Music for Six Musicians, Charlie Haden's Nocturne, and Carla Bley's recent Looking for America). The complaint against it seems to be that Shorter doesn't play enough, but anyone who thinks this simply isn't listening carefully. Joni Mitchell, many of whose albums Shorter has made cameo appearances on, once said she liked hearing Shorter "crawl" all over her music. This is a good description of what he does on Alegría, especially during those passages in which he uses overdubbing to play duets with himself or to switch without pause from tenor saxophone to soprano. Inspired by Coltrane, saxophonists these days routinely use a technique called multiphonics, which involves trick fingering and overblowing, to create the illusion of playing more than one note at a time. Shorter is one of very few who use the technique for more than shock value. On "Orbits" he overblows softly, and the effect is striking. A dramatic entrance, something he has always specialized in, lets him put his stamp on the one piece he didn't arrange: the conductor Robert Sadin's adaptation of the opening "Aria" movement of Hector Villa-Lobos's Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5. The cellist Charles Curtis renders Villa-Lobos's theme beautifully, with a cello ensemble behind him, but the performance becomes breathtaking when Shorter edges in sideways and begins spinning a series of elegant variations on the theme, itself a series of variations on Bach. The only thing at all comparable to Alegría that I've heard recently is the lilting flamenco dance piece at the end of Pedro Almodóvar's Talk to Her, written and performed by the Cape Verdean singer and guitarist Bau. Almodóvar's movie is about death, but that closing dance has the twitch of life. So does Alegría.

Listening to—and talking with—Shorter is an adventure. He surprised me by asking if I'd ever written a novel. A science-fiction buff, he named Michael Crichton and Frank Herbert, the author of Dune, as examples of writers who had exposed themselves to the same risk musicians like him face in making recordings—the risk of having their work scrutinized and found wanting. "This other stuff—journalism, critiquing—is kind of skip-to-my-lou," he said. "There's a little bit of a vampire thing going on there. Wait for the stagecoach to come, then ambush it." Switching metaphors as he went, he urged me, "Put on the astronaut suit and come on out there with us." Or maybe he was switching genres, because we'd talked as much about movies as about music to that point. This was a deliberate strategy on my part. I'd read numerous articles on Shorter in which he complained that interviewers always wanted to question him about music, never about life, which for him means "the incomprehensible mystery of it all." Asking him about movies seemed a good compromise, since, as Shorter put it, "they attempt to reflect life." He spoke about meeting David Raksin, the composer of the score for Laura. "He told me how he wrote that. That music leading up to the actual song that everyone remembers, that starts 'Laura is a face in the misty night'? It has cello going down low and a bubbling clarinet going kind of through labyrinths—man, the song is nice, but I'm telling ya, that music leading up to it is something else." He cautioned that Footprints Live! and Alegría didn't necessarily mean that all of his music would be acoustic from here on in. "That's what some people want to believe," he said. "But you can't live without electricity, and you can't afford to be judgmental. When I was younger, I didn't like Charles Boyer, probably because the girls all liked him and I was jealous. Then I saw him in a movie with Alan Ladd and Deborah Kerr, where he plays a priest who gets his hand cut off by rebels." (Shorter couldn't remember the name of the movie; it was Thunder in the East, from 1952.) "Charles Boyer makes a speech and—man, I realized then and there that Charles Boyer was baaad. I think that's when I grew up."