I dislike ranking art and artists, because it always seems counter to the spirit of creativity — music is not a competitive sport, you know. Still, if pressed on the matter, I’d say that, until recently, saxophonists-composers Sonny Rollins and Wayne Shorter counted as the two greatest living jazz musicians.
And now, Shorter is gone, having passed away yesterday at age 89 following an illness.
He was an extraordinary improvising soloist, composer and musical conceptualist, as demonstrated through his work in the ’60s with Miles Davis’s second quintet — the trumpeter’s most creative and most influential band, IMO — as well as heavyweight fusion outfit Weather Report and, finally, Shorter’s second-to-none quartet with pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade.
Shorter, a New Jersey native who started on clarinet as a teen before switching to tenor and soprano sax, early on played with pianist Horace Silver’s quintet and trumpeter Maynard Fergusion’s big band. He joined Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers in 1959, eventually becoming musical director and playing alongside the likes of trumpeters Lee Morgan and Freddie Hubbard.
Among his most celebrated releases as a solo artist are 1964’s “Night Dreamer” and “Juju,” “Speak No Evil, ” 1966’s “Juju” all released on Blue Note; 1974’s “Native Dancer,” a collaboration with Brazil’s Milton Nascimento; and 1991’s “1+1,” with Herbie Hancock, his old Miles Davis Quintet bandmate.
The broader pop audience was exposed to Shorter’s sound through his bracing tenor solo on Steely Dan’s “Aja,” as well as his collaborations with Joni Mitchell (10 albums) and Carlos Santana (2005’s “Live at Montreux Jazz Festival).
I saw Shorter with Weather Report at the University of Florida Bandshell in Gainesville and, much later, leading the aforementioned quartet at the Tampa Theatre and at the Montreal Jazz Festival. I’d count all three among my favorite concerts, evenings of music that moved the needle (again) on my understanding of and appreciation for jazz at the highest level.
And I had the opportunity to interview him by phone for The Tampa Tribune; he was generous with his time, and we spent part of the long conversation talking about a shared passion — our love for movies.
Like many other musicians, I’ve frequently played Shorter’s “Footprints,” which has become a jazz standard. Among his other compositions: “Speak No Evil,” “Black Nile,” “Nefertiti,” “Infant Eyes,” “Yes and No” and “Pinocchio.”
Hancock called the saxophonist “my best friend” in a tweet. The two co-wrote the widely circulated “Open Letter to the Next Generation of Artists,” encouraging musicians and others to: Awaken to your humanity, Embrace and conquer the road less traveled, Welcome the unknown, Understand the true nature of obstacles, Don’t be afraid to interact with those who are different from you, Strive to create agenda-free dialogue, Be wary of ego, Work towards a business without borders, Appreciate the generation that walked before you, Live in a state of constant wonder.
Just five years ago, Shorter released one of his most ambitious recording projects — “Emanon,” a package with 3 CDs and a graphic novel that he co-created. For the cycle of compositions, he was joined by his quartet as well as — on some tracks — a 34-piece orchestra. (That title, spelled backwards, is “no name.”
“Shorter’s large-ensemble writing isn’t easily classified. It seems to be located where contemporary classical crosses paths with cinematic grandeur—he’s a film buff—and harmonies owing to the likes of Ellington,” I wrote in a review for Relix magazine. “Melodies rise and fall, and compete for dominance. Strings and brass suddenly pounce. On the 27-minute “The Three Marias” and elsewhere, the quartet digs into their trademark sound, variously sketching out or fully embracing Shorter’s melodies and taking a free-minded approach to building harmonies, rhythms and arrangements. Throughout, the leader’s soprano and tenor playing is absolutely robust, always searching for a way to lead the others to an even higher musical plane. They usually get there.”
As he might have said, the journey is the destination.
Another legendary saxophonist-composer, Charles Lloyd, on Twitter called Shorter “my brother and fellow explorer of the Inner and Outer universe … a visionary, a great composer, and a friend with whom I shared a love for the Eternal Now.”
Lloyd is one of the high-end artists slated to play the 19th annual DC Jazz Fest on Labor Day weekend. Yes, lots of Actual Jazz is on the just-announced bill, including groups led by singers Gregory Porter, new Grammy winner Samara Joy and Montreal’s Lynn Veronneau; two of Lloyd’s fellow NEA Jazz Masters, saxophonist Kenny Garrett and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington; Cuban-born pianist Omar Sosa; and pianist Orrin Evans, the fest’s artist in residence.
The full lineup for the fest, which runs Aug. 30 through Sept. 3, will be released later, and tickets are on sale now.
I first became aware of violinist Sara Caswell’s high-end playing through her work on the big band recordings of Chuck Owen and the Jazz Surge. She’s been instrumental — no pun intended — in helping bring to life the strains of Americana and folk music that Owen has incorporated in many of his recent compositions and arrangements, including those on his 2021 “Within Us” album. Her solos and lead lines were among the highlights of the group’s recent stellar performance in Wesley Chapel, Florida (see my review).
“The Way to You,” Caswell’s third album as a leader, is out today on Anzic Records, and it handily displays her gifts as a player, bandleader, arranger and — on three tracks — composer. As the first recording from her longstanding quartet, it points to the artistic growth she’s achieved since moving to New York City in 2005, she has said.
Caswell, guitarist Jesse Lewis, bassist Ike Sturm and drummer Jared Schonig indeed offer a tight-knit sound informed by their shared history as bandmates. They apply that cohesive interplay to an eclectic program opening with “South Shore,” a piece penned by Australian trumpeter Nadje Noordhuis that alternates between floaty passages and hard-charging sections. It’s one of four tracks gaining from the bright ensemble support and soloing of guest vibraphonist Chris Dingman.
Dingman is also heard on Sturm’s mellow, flickering “Stillness”; Kenny Barron‘s stair-stepping-to-swinging “Voyage,” featuring a soaring violin solo and dazzling back-and-forth action between vibes and electric guitar; and Caswell’s aptly titled “Spinning.” Caswell also contributed “Warren’s Way,” for which she offers an unaccompanied folk-tinged prelude, and the slow-grooving, fusion-edged “Last Call,” co-written with drummer Michael W. Davis (Caswell’s partner) and guitarist Dave Stryker. And Caswell adds Brazilian rhythms and textures to the mix with Egberto Gismonti’s “7 Aneis” (“7 Rings”) and “O Que Tinha de Ser.” The latter is a lesser-known Jobim ballad, minor-toned and laid way back, that makes the perfect chill-down closer.
Caswell’s quartet plays Manhattan’s Birdland jazz club this Sunday and the Jazz Forum in Tarrytown, NY on March 19. Check out the promotional video for the album.
Closer to home, guitarist LaRue Nickelson, one of Caswell’s bandmates in the Jazz Surge, plays the Tampa Jazz Club‘s “Centennial Tribute to Wes Montgomery” on March 19 at 3 pm at HCC’s Mainstage Theatre in Ybor City (Tampa). Nickelson, jazz guitar prof at USF in Tampa, will be joined by pianist Per Danielsson, bassist Joe Porter and drummer Walt Hubbard. For more details and to buy tickets, click here.