For much of the 1990s it seemed that saxophonist Wayne Shorter, arguably the most influential jazz composer of the past four decades, had decided to fade away from the world of jazz. After the breakup of Weather Report, the seminal fusion band he founded with keyboardist Joe Zawinul, he didn’t seem interested in creating his own group, and his passion for Brazilian music, which had led to a singular collaboration with Milton Nascimento, was no longer bearing fruit. Even before the death of his wife Ana Maria on TWA flight 800 in 1997, Shorter’s recordings slowed to a trickle. He released but two albums in a dozen years, the highly underrated High Life and the Grammy winning duo session with pianist Herbie Hancock 1+1.
But instead of disappearing, Shorter has roared back to life, having assembled one of the most thrilling bands in jazz—an acoustic quartet featuring Panamanian-born pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade. The group performs Thursday night at the Sunset Cultural Center as part of the Monterey Jazz Festival’s spring concert series.
“Wayne’s music is so incredibly deep,” says Blade, who often uses his bare hands on his trap set when playing with Shorter’s band. “He always makes you feel like you’re taking a journey, and he have no idea where you’re going to end up.”
At 70, Shorter is playing some of his most compelling music, writing new material and reinterpreting his classic compositions so that they’re practically unrecognizable. His beautiful, densely orchestrated session Alegria, which features a title track that was commissioned by and premiered at the 2000 Monterey Jazz Festival, won a Grammy earlier this year. Many felt his previous album, 2002’s extraordinary Footprints Live, featuring his quartet in full flight, should have also won a statue.
The quartet has developed a group approach in which the players don’t so much solo as ease to the foreground. Shorter has returned to the tenor after years of concentrating on the soprano, and his lines seem to unfurl at an unhurried pace, pausing and then stutter-stepping ahead, only to twist in an unexpected direction. It’s as if this most elusive of jazz giants has decided to delve even more deeply into the mysterious places that produced his greatest work.
Born in Newark, New Jersey in 1933, Shorter had become an inventive tenor player by his late teens. Raised in a musically conscious family, he had been exposed to a wide variety of styles and creative situations.
“My parents were by no means wealthy or well off,” Shorter told me in an interview several years ago. “But the radio was always on. My father listened to cowboy music every Sunday and then the next program was a whole classical thing. And then at night he listened to the Make Believe Ballroom and they had Louis Armstrong and all that. My mother would bring in clay on Saturday afternoon and we would make things with our hands. I had maybe two thousand comic books. Our kitchen table became the world.”
By the time Shorter joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in 1959, some had pegged him as one of the most important voices in the emerging avant garde. Instead of getting involved with the “New Thing,” though, he took a route considered more conservative at the time, honing his composing skills and integrating John Coltrane’s innovations into his style during his five-year stay with Blakey.
Shorter confounded many observers with his unwillingness to leave the Messengers to lead his own band (as Blakey always encouraged his sidemen to do), and further confused people by resisting Miles Davis’s call for two years. When he finally joined Davis in 1964, Shorter provided the musical vehicles (in tunes such as “E.S.P.,” “Orbits” “Nefertiti” and “Dolores”) with which the band established its new identity. At the same time, Shorter recorded a series of classic albums, including JuJu, Speak No Evil, Adam’s Apple and Super Nova.
Upon leaving Davis in 1970, Shorter teamed up with keyboardist Joe Zawinul to form the seminal fusion band Weather Report. Over the decade his playing grew more succinct and he relied more on the soprano, developing a style marked by luminous lyricism. He recorded only one solo project during that time, 1974’s Brazilian inflected album Native Dancer.
With his recent creative outburst, it’s clear that Shorter remains dedicated to finding new sounds.
“I tell musicians when they’re going into new music, don’t try to break all the rules,” Shorter said. “Take the best of what the old rules had and use them as flashlights to go into the dark.”
WAYNE SHORTER PERFORMS THURSDAY, APRIL 15, AT 8PM, AT THE SUNSET CENTER. CALL 373-3366 FOR DETAILS. FOR TICKETS CALL (925) 275-9255.