Wayne Shorter recently celebrated his 72nd birthday, but there are clearly no indications that the legendary tenor and soprano saxophonist is showing any signs of age. In fact, Shorter seems to be busier than ever these days. In addition to his appearance with members of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra at the Touhill Performing Arts Center to inaugurate the new Fusion Series (September 28), Shorter and his band, Footprints, have traveled the globe and crisscrossed the U.S. in recent months.
In late July and early August, Shorter co-headlined the Emissaries for Peace concert tour in Japan with famed guitarist Carlos Santana and keyboard great Herbie Hancock. The concerts were held in conjunction with the 60th anniversary of the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and were designed to instill a renewed commitment to promote world peace. Shorter followed those performances with a round of concerts in Belgium, France, and Italy in August. And his St. Louis date kicks off a month-long tour that will take him up and down the East Coast, back to the Midwest and then to Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, Brazil.
Shorter, born in Newark, New Jersey, is no stranger to hectic schedules. By his teens the precocious young musician had switched from clarinet to tenor sax and was making frequent journeys across the Hudson River to sit in at Manhattan jazz clubs. He attended New York University and received his music degree‹keeping up on the local jazz scene all the while. After serving in the Army, he played a short stint with Maynard Ferguson before drummer Art Blakey asked him to join his Jazz Messengers band in 1959. Working with fellow Messengers Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, and Cedar Walton, Shorter soon gained the attention of Miles Davis with a playing style that added a lyrical touch to the muscular approach Shorter had learned from his major influence, John Coltrane.
In 1964 Shorter joined the famed Miles Davis Quintet that featured Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass, and Tony Williams on drums. Working with Davis until 1970, Shorter displayed a fine compositional touch, contributing classic compositions such as "Footprints," "Nefertiti," "Paraphernalia," and "E.S.P." to the band's songbook. During that same time period, the prolific Shorter began to record as a leader for the Blue Note label, turning out memorable albums such as Night Dreamer, JuJu, Speak No Evil, The All Seeing Eye, and Adam's Apple.
By the time Davis had moved into an exploration of jazz fusion with recordings such as Bitches Brew, Shorter had decided to put together his own fusion group with the help of keyboardist Joe Zawinul. The result was Weather Report, a band that dominated jazz in the 1970s‹and made Shorter a superstar in the music world.
By 1985 Weather Report had decided to call it quits. For the first time in his career, Shorter wasn't part of an ongoing, successful group that served as a counterpoint to his own solo recordings. It was a period of adjustment. After releasing a couple of recordings with a heavy electronic influence, which didn't live up to expectations, Shorter decided to pull back from recording and performing and refocus his musical direction. By the mid-1990s he was back on track, appearing in duo concerts with longtime compatriot Hancock, then assembling Footprints, a band of talented young musicians (pianist Danilo Perez, bass player John Patitucci, and drummer Brian Blade).
Shorter's comeback since then has been remarkable. After the release of Footprints Live! in 2002, DownBeat magazine's 2003 Critic's Poll named it Album of the Year‹and also voted the band Acoustic Jazz Group of the Year. Shorter himself was honored in three categories: Jazz Artist, Soprano Saxophonist, and Composer of the Year‹and was also named to the DownBeat Hall of Fame.
In Shorter's most recent recording, Beyond the Sound Barrier, the quartet blends jazz with Mendelssohn. Shorter and the band have begun to perform more frequently with classical orchestras, including a previous performance with David Robertson and the Orchestre National de Lyon. Robertson has vivid memories of that collaboration.
"The thing that was amazing about working with Wayne is that he's the type of musician who is constantly searching for things," says Robertson. The orchestra rehearsed one of Shorter's standards with the quartet, but the composer/saxophonist was unhappy with the piece's opening. The next day, Shorter returned with new parts he had written in his hotel room. "Have you got a score?" Robertson asked. "No, no, no," Shorter told him, "I just wrote it out of my head."
"And it was perfect!" Robertson recalls. "The new opening kicked it off just in the right way. The voicing of the instruments was perfect. It was an orchestration that could not have been better. All of this just from someone who said, 'This opening is not the sound that I really want to have, so I'm going to add this in to make sure that it's right.' This is the type of thing that's constant when you're working with Wayne‹this striving after something that's out there that he's going to be able to bring in and make available to us."
Terry Perkins is a freelance writer who writes about jazz for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, DownBeat, the Jazz Series Review, www.allaboutjazz.com, and other publications.