In Memoriam: Wayne Shorter, 1933-2023

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Shorter performing at the 2015 Earshot Jazz Festival in Seattle.

(Photo: Daniel Sheehan)

One of the most prodigious composers and singular, harmonically sophisticated improvisers in jazz history, tenor and soprano saxophonist Wayne Shorter died March 2 in Los Angeles. He was 89.

A member of the 1950s edition of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and Miles Davis’ classic quintet of the 1960s, both of which he wrote for prolifically, Shorter was also co-founder (with keyboardist Joe Zawinul) of the trailblazing fusion band Weather Report during the 1970s and 1980s.

A tirelessly creative spirit, he continued composing and reinventing his musical personality through the 1990s and well into the 21st century. He enjoyed an extremely fertile period during his last two decades, touring extensively and recording with his adventurous quartet featuring pianist Danilo Pérez, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade and creating majestic large-scale works, including his collaboration with the 34-piece Orpheus Chamber Orchestra on his 2018 opus Emanon (a three-CD set with accompanying 48-page graphic novel penned by Shorter with Monica Sly and illustrated by Randy DuBurke) and his opera Iphigenia (with libretto by Esperanza Spalding).

An NEA Jazz Master, 12-time Grammy Award winner and DownBeat Hall of Famer, Shorter received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz in 2013 and the following year was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in honor of his “prolific contributions to our culture and history.” Shorter was awarded Sweden’s Polar Music Prize in 2017 and was a Kennedy Center Honoree in 2018.

Born on Aug. 25, 1933, in Newark, New Jersey, Shorter studied at New York University, graduating with a bachelor of music education degree in 1956. He played in local bands and had a brief stint in Horace Silver’s quintet in 1956 before being drafted into the U.S. Army, where he served from 1956 to 1958. Following his discharge in October 1958, he joined the Maynard Ferguson big band (where he met Zawinul) in early 1959 before joining Art Blakey’s hard-bop Jazz Messengers in late July of that year.

During his five-year run as a Messenger, Shorter emerged as principal composer and musical director for the group, penning such classics as “Lester Left Town,” “Ping Pong,” “Mr. Jin,” “Children Of The Night” and “Free For All.” As he told Conrad Silvert in a July 14, 1977, DownBeat interview: “Art used my tunes right from the beginning. I wrote ‘Sakeena’s Vision’ about his daughter, and ‘Sincerely Diana’ was about Art’s wife. I was getting away from the old 12-bar structure, where the melody can go somewhere else or come back to itself, but in another way.” Shorter’s recorded output with the Jazz Messengers included The Big Beat, Like Someone In Love, A Night In Tunisia, Mosaic, Buhaina’s Delight, Caravan, Free For All and Indestructible.

Shorter joined Miles Davis’ modal jazz quintet in September 1964, recording such landmark albums as E.S.P., Miles Smiles, Sorcerer, Nefertiti, Miles In The Sky and Filles de Kilimanjaro alongside bandmates Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams. His final studio recording with Davis was 1969’s pivotal In A Silent Way, which pointed the way to a fusion movement that was galvanized by the 1970 Davis album Bitches Brew. During his run with Davis, Shorter also recorded a string of classic jazz albums made under his own name for the Blue Note label, including Night Dreamer, Juju, Speak No Evil, Adam’s Apple and Super Nova.

In 1971, Shorter formed the pioneering fusion band Weather Report with Zawinul and bassist Miroslav Vitous and remained a potent force with the group as composer and player for 14 years, recording such classics as 1972’s I Sing The Body Electric, 1973’s Sweetnighter, 1974’s Mysterious Traveler, 1975’s Tale Spinnin’, 1976’s Black Market, 1977’s Heavy Weather, 1978’s Mr. Gone and 1979’s Grammy-winning live album 8:30. On 1974’s Native Dancer, Shorter collaborated with Milton Nascimento, creating a fresh-sounding fusion of Brazilian music and jazz. In the late 1970s, he formed the group VSOP, a reformation of Miles Davis’ 1960s quintet featuring the original group with Freddie Hubbard and later Wynton Marsalis subbing for the great trumpeter in that lineup. In 1977, Shorter appeared as a guest soloist on Joni Mitchell’s Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter and Steely Dan’s Aja, gaining him a wider audience.

After Weather Report disbanded in 1984, Shorter began fronting his own band on tour and recorded three forward-thinking solo albums for Columbia — Atlantis, Phantom Navigator and Joy Ryder — that showcased his through-composing style and heavy use of synthesizers. His 1995 Verve debut, High Life, produced by bassist Marcus Miller and with sound design by synth specialist Rachel Z, received a Grammy Award in 1997 for best Contemporary Jazz Album. Shorter worked with Hancock once again in 1997 on the acclaimed album 1+1. The song “Aung San Suu Kyi” (named for the Burmese pro-democracy activist) won both Hancock and Shorter a Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Composition in 1998.

In 2000, with his gestalt quartet of pianist Perez, bassist Patitucci and drummer Blade, Shorter began reimagining his own classic compositions like “Footprints,” “Go,” “Sanctuary,” “Juju” and “Masquelero,” all of which were documented on the 2002 Verve album Footprints Live! They revisited other Shorter compositions like “Orbits,” “Capricorn 2” and “Angola” on 2003’s Algeria, which won a Grammy for Best Instrumental Jazz Album, and continued to collectively push the envelope on 2005’s Beyond The Sound Barrier, which received the 2006 Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Jazz Album.

Shorter returned to the Blue Note label after 42 years with 2013’s Without A Net, which featured the Imani Winds woodwind ensemble on the 23-minute “Pegasus.” His 2018 three-CD set for Blue Note, Emanon, featured expansive versions of “Pegasus,” “Prometheus Unbound,” “Lotus” and “The Three Marias,” with the quartet augmented by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra on disc 1; the other two CDs document quartet performances at at The Barbican in London.

Following performances of his symphonic works by The Chicago Symphony, Lyon Symphony, Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, Prague Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic, National Symphony Orchestra and Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, The New York Times wrote: “Mr. Shorter’s mastery is in knocking down the wall between jazz and classical.”

His final recording, Live at the Detroit Festival (Candid, 2022) came from a live set recorded at the Detroit Jazz Festival in 2017 with Terri Lyne Carrington, Leo Genovese and Esperanza Spalding. Shorter served as the festival’s artist-in-residence that year before health issues forced his retirement from playing.

In describing his compositional practice, Shorter said in an interview from the 1960s: “The creative process is the courage to take leaps into the unknown. To take chances. Deal with the unfamiliar and the unexpected. Risk removing yourself from your comfort zone.”

A bona fide genius, Shorter forever operated outside his own comfort zone, creating a remarkably rich musical legacy in the process. DB



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