As a tenor saxophonist, Wayne Shorter has few equals. As a composer, he is one of jazz’s most innovative wmusicians. Shorter is the one player other players listen to when they want to have their backs scratched musically. Newcomers to jazz may well have heard Shorter playing and not known it. As a session musician, he’s appeared on pop-rock recordings by Carlos Santana, the Rolling Stones, Joni Mitchell, and Steely Dan.
Shorter’s career has been long and varied. After a very brief stint with Maynard Ferguson’s big band, he was recruited by Art Blakey and his Jazz Messengers. Blakey served as an incubator for Shorter’s musical ideas, and he soon became a prolific contributor to the band. However, it was as a member of the Miles Davis Quintet, also featuring Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams, and Ron Carter, that Shorter truly flourished. Davis’s influence is apparent from the shift Shorter made as a player while with the quintet. His musical ideas became more focused and less reminiscent of John Coltrane, one of Shorter’s early influences and the man he replaced in the quintet. Over the seven years he was in the group, Shorter made a huge contributions to its overall sound.
After his tenure with Davis, Shorter, along with his friend, pianist Joe Zawinul, spent fifteen years leading one of the more innovative fusion groups in jazz, Weather Report. He also played as a sideman with other artists, but still found time to record under his own name. To date his most creative and innovative work can be found on the double CD The Classic Blue Note Recordings [Blue Note #40856]. It features twenty-two selections Shorter recorded as both a leader and sideman over a twenty-nine-year period.
Disc one is the essential recording and features highlights from nine of his solo albums. These sessions include such sidemen as Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, and John McLaughlin. Three of the songs are culled from Shorter’s 1964 masterpiece Speak No Evil: “Witch Hunt,” “Infant Eyes,” and the title track, “Speak No Evil.” All of them have become jazz standards but none surpasses Shorter’s 1966 recording of “Footprints.” It is the crown jewel and the composition that helped establish Shorter as a composer of note. He wrote it especially for Miles Davis and it appeared on his Miles Smiles album but Shorter’s version predates it by eight months. This is classic Shorter, featuring exceptional writing and playing.
The second disc comprises ten Shorter compositions on which he was a featured sideman. Six of his most significant contributions from his years with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers (1959-64) are here, including the classics “The Chess Players” and the tribute to the great saxophonist Lester Young, “Lester Left Town.” Also included are tunes he recorded with Freddie Hubbard, Lee Morgan, Michel Petrucciani, and The Manhattan Project, including versions of “Nefertiti” and “Limbo,” songs from his days with Miles Davis.
Since the demise of Weather Report in 1985, Shorter has been in a creative slump that he can’t seem to pull himself out of. Although The Classic Blue Note Recordings concentrates on the 1960s, it does serve as a reminder of Shorter’s importance as one of jazz’s leading figures over a long time. He is still a voice we should pay attention to in the hope he will return with another recording of merit.