- Sunday, Apr 23, 2023
- Read time: 4-5 min
On March 2nd 2023, the jazz world faced a shockwave of grief and sorrow as it was announced that the great jazz saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter was no longer among us. I am starting a new blog series (Jazz Composer Profiles) where I present different jazz composers and their compositions and figured what better way to segue into that topic than to honor the memory of one of the great composers of the jazz era. Shorter has helped shape the jazz landscape from the early 1950s all the way to day he passed away, giving brith to compositional movements within the modal, hard bop, post-bop and fusion jazz genres.
In this literary synopsis I will try to focus on Shorter’s compositions, compositional styles and the events surrounding certain compositions. I have divided this work into different segments (eras) encompassing major shifts during his life and his compositional styles.
PRE-BLUE NOTE ERA
LATE 1950s – EARLY 1960s
Shorter was born in 1933. He graduated with a degree in music education in 1956 and later spend two years in the U.S. Army where he briefly played with Horace Silver. Silver influenced Shorter quite a lot both as an instrumentalist and as a composer. Shorter’s other major influences at the time included Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Coleman Hawkins and Art Blakey among others. He joined Blakey’s The Jazz Messengers in 1959.
A lot of his early compositions were harmonically dense but still possessed a groovy charm not unlike the ones that Silver composed. His compositional style had more movement than what was common at the time. Compositions from this period include the likes of Pug Nose, Backstage Sally and This Is For Albert.
BLUE NOTE ERA
MID 1960s – EARLY 1970s
During the 1960s he joined Miles Davis and got signed to Blue Note Records. He left Blakey and joined the newly formed the Miles Davis Quintet in 1964. His compositional style geared slowly towards hard-bop and cool jazz. Some of the compositions that Shorter composed for the Miles Quintet were E.S.P, Prince Of Darkness, Fall, Iris and Pinocchio.
Shorter was considered, both by jazz connoisseurs and by the general public, to be at his very peak as a composer between the years 1964-1966. A total of 7 award-winning albums were published during that relatively short period of time that include most compositions that Sorter is know for today. His albums from that period (Night Dreamer, Juju, Speak No Evil and Adam’s Apple, to name a few) had become iconic staples in jazz discography today. Compositions from that time include the now-famous jazz standards Footprints, Witch Hunt, Speak No Evil, Infant Eyes, Night Dreamer, Black Nile, Juju and Yes Or No.
During the latter phase of the Blue Note era (1967-1970) Shorter had a stylistic movement into deeper avant-garde and free jazz territory and incorporating world music elements in his compositions. Albums such as Schizophrenia, Super Nova and Odyssey of Iska reflect this new style. The last album of this era was most probably Native Dancer – a collaboration with brazilian singer Milton Nascimento. One can clearly hear a gravitational force towards fusion-jazz in the compositional style on that album. Compositions include the likes of Wind and Beauty And The Beast.
PERSONAL LIFE (MID 1960s – EARLY 1970s)
Shorter met and married Teruko Nakagami in 1961. They had a daughter called Miyako. In fact, the compositions Infant Eyes and Miyako are dedicated to her. The couple divorced in 1964. In 1966 Shorter met Ana Maria Patricio. They got married in 1970 and had a daughter called Iska. Shorter drew oriental and Japanese inspirations from his first wife and Latin American and Brazilian influences from his second wife. The different cultures of Nakagami and Patricio had great impact on the quality and spirituality of his lifestyle and compositions. He practices buddhism and valued family and inner peace greatly. He translated some of this mindset into the style of compositions as well and many of his compositions were named after and dedicated to the close ones in his life.
THE WEATHER REPORT FUSION ERA
1970s – EARLY 1980s
In the 1970s Shorter co-formed the jazz fusion group Weather Report together with keyboard player Joe Zawinul and bass player Miroslav Vitous. The group incorporated world music, avant-garde jazz, free jazz and modern electronic sounds into their style. They cycled through a big range of musicians and played all the way until 1986. The band was very popular at the time and still is to this day. Shorter composed for the band mostly in the early years. That meant that most of Shorter’s compositions for Weather Report had that avant-garde trademark albeit with an electric fusion twist.
Shorter’s compositions for the band include Palladium, Scarlet Woman and Three Clowns. He had objectively lost some of the creative spark he once had. His compositions lacked the strong structure and melody drive they previously had. Nevertheless , Weather Report was a critically acclaimed success throughout the bands whole lifespan.
THE COLUMBIA RECORDS SLUMP
Objectively speaking, Shorter’s compositional style hit an all time low between 1985 and 1988. Although Weather Report was greatly successful, his compositions as a bandleader were far from what they had been before. He left Blue Note Records for Columbia Records where he made a second attempt at jazz-fusion compositions. These new compositions were either predictable or over-complicated and lacked nuances and structure. Compositions during that period included Atlantis, On The Eve Of Departure and Joy Rider.
FIRST HIATUS FROM COMPOSING
1988 – 1995
Shorter’s dauhter Iska tragically lost her life following a gran mal seizure in 1986. The death of his daughter most probably led to his first (and longest so far) hiatus from composing which lasted from 1988 to 1995.
THE VERVE RECORDS RESSURECTION
1970s – EARLY 1980s
In 1995 Shorter joined the the record company Verve Records and had a second attempt at fusion-jazz composition. This time the attempt was far more successful. Technically Shorter’s compositions ventured into modal jazz, post-bop and neo-bop territory. His first album after the hiatus was High Life. It was produced by Marcus Miller (who also played bass on the album) while keyboardist Rachel Z contributed to the orchestration and sound design of the album, giving it a smooth neo-bop sound. It is the only album where Shorter plays alto and baritone saxophones (usually played soprano and tenor). This could be seen as Shorter being open to new musical horizons within his musical sphere – perhaps it was time for a resurrection. An example of this new style of compositions is On The Milky Way Express.
Unfortunately tragedy struck once more. In 1996 his wife Ana Maria and his niece Dalila died in a plane crash on their way to see him in Italy. (I am not sure about the chronological event line with the 1+1 album being released exactly one year after the accident. Perhaps the accident made him want to do the project or he had already started it and wanted to finish it to honor the memory of his wife). This caused Shorter to go into his second composing hiatus that lasted from late 1997 to 2002.
In 1997 he teamed up with Herbie Hancock and created a beautiful, musically intertwining duet album called 1+1. It is the most intimate Shorter had composed and played so far. It is musical conversation in its purest form. His Buddhist views and social values played a roll in his compositions and their naming. A good example is the composition Aung San Suu Kyi (named after the Burmese activist), which won a Grammy.
SECOND HIATUS FROM COMPOSING
1997 – 2002
Unfortunately tragedy struck once more during this period. In 1996 his wife Ana Maria Paricio and his niece Dalila died in a plane crash on their way to see him in perform in Italy. This caused Shorter to go into his second composing hiatus that lasted from late 1997 to 2002.
THE FOOTPRINTS QUARTET ERA
2002 – 2023
In 2000 Shorter formed the first permanent acoustic quartet as a bandleader. It included Danilo Perez on piano, John Patitucci on bass and Brian Blade on drums. The quartet has incredible synergy and communication skills on top of elite level technical mastery of their instruments. All musicians want to use themselves and their music, both through their compositions and playing, as an ambassador for social and humane values.
Their first live album Footprints Live! came out in 2002 and set the groundwork for what was to come. The style of the group is highly interactive and spiritual and resembles the stylistic movements of Chick Corea‘s latest acoustic trio. That is no coincidence since they both share the same bass player. OneThe second live album came out in 2005 named Beyond the Sound Barrier.
In 2003 Shorter released the critically acclaimed album Alegria. It starred many famous sidemen and won several awards. It seemed like Wayne had got his composing groove back.
In 2013 the quartet released their third album Without a Net this time under the record label that got him the most fame – Blue Note Records. The quartet released their next album Emanon (“no name” spelled backwards) during 2018 which featured a whole philharmonic orchestra and was dedicated to the world of comic book art (something that Shorter was very fond of). The last album featuring Shorter was a live recording from Detroit’s Jazz Festival 2022 logically called Live At The Detroit Jazz Festival.
From a compositional point of view Shorted continued on the project he left on from the 1+1 album. His compositions were highly spiritual, contextual and interactive. His latest compositions tend to resemble contemporary classical and modern film score music. They include compositions such as Tinker Bell, Beyond the Sound Barrier, Lotus and Endagered Species.
Wayne Shorter took his last breath on March 2nd 2023, leaving behind a superlative compositional legacy matched by very few souls in the jazz world. Though gone in flesh, he will forever be present in spirit in the hearts and ears of millions!
(c) 2023 Sibil Yanev