The Soothsayer: Remembering Wayne Shorter
The groundbreaking jazz titan was 89
The great Wayne Shorter died at 4:00 AM on March 2, 2023. He was 89.
A tenor and soprano saxophone player of great stature, as well as one of the most important composers in Jazz, Shorter was also a prolific collaborator and catalyst. In addition to playing with the most influential Jazz musicians of his time, he made music with Joni Mitchell, Carlos Santana, Steely Dan, Milton Nascimento and the Rolling Stones. Eventually he received a dozen Grammy awards, a Guggenheim fellowship and a Jazz Master designation from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Wayne Shorter was born in Newark in 1933 and attended Newark Arts High School, the first public high school in the country dedicated to the performing and visual arts. A lifelong fan of comic books and science fiction, Shorter completed a degree in music education at New York University and served in the Army for two years, becoming an expert marksman.
In 1959, Shorter began a productive tenure in Art Blakey’s ensemble, playing tenor saxophone, writing for the band and acting as musical director. After repeated invitations from Miles Davis, he became a member of Davis’ second great quintet in 1964, and stayed until 1970, recording the seminal Jazz-Rock albums, In A Silent Way, Bitches Brew and Filles de Kilimanjaro. During the same period, Shorter recorded a classic series of records as a leader for Blue Note records, featuring his own compositions.
Veterans of the jazz rock fusion records Miles Davis recorded, like Bitches Brew, are sometimes known as “sons of bitches” and many of these players went on to form important electric Jazz-Rock groups of their own, like Chick Corea’s Return to Forever and John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra. In this vein, Shorter and keyboard player Joe Zawinul formed the popular Weather Report, recording 14 studio albums between 1970 and 1986 with a varying set of like-minded players, including the great electric bassist Jaco Pastorius.
In 1975, Shorter collaborated with the Brazilian singer and composer Milton Nascimento on the influential album Native Dancer. Shorter’s collaborations with Joni Mitchell on her Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter from 1977 led to a series of appearances on Mitchell’s recordings including her album Mingus in 1979. He also contributed an epic tenor saxophone solo to the title selection of Aja, the most commercially successful album by Steely Dan. He toured occasionally with a supergroup co-led by Carlos Santana called Mega Nova, documented on a live recording released in 1988 of a performance at the Montreux Jazz Festival. He also guested on The Rolling Stones 1997 album Bridges to Babylon.
VIDEO: Wayne Shorter Quartet Live in Bonn 2014
In the year 2000, pianist Danilo Pérez, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade joined Shorter to form The Wayne Shorter Quartet. These musicians became so expert at listening to one another that their improvisations together resembled ESP. They even had a name for their working method: “comprovising.” The group toured widely and recorded four live albums including Beyond The Sound Barrier, which won a Grammy.
Wayne Shorter the man will be missed, for his musical contributions and his often humorous philosophical observations, much prized by those who knew him. But he’ll live through his compositions. Along with his recorded work, these tunes are his great legacy, uniquely spare and beautiful, and they continue to be recorded and played regularly in concert. These melodies offer an unusually rich and evocative sound while using relatively few notes. Davis prized his writing so much that when Shorter brought one of his pieces to a session, Davis insisted the recording of it consist solely of the melody being played repeatedly with no improvisation – the theme with no variation. The resulting album bore the name of the composition: Nefertiti.
Shorter’s singular compositions like “Footprints,” “Infant Eyes,” “Witch Hunt,” “Yes or No,” “Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum,” “Black Nile,” “Speak No Evil” and “JuJu” place him along with Billy Strayhorn and Thelonious Monk in the rarefied company of the greatest composers in Jazz.
May he rest in peace.
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