Wayne Shorter - Always for the First Time

On The Town | Jean-Pascal Vachon | March 2009

Wayne Shorter, one of the most influential postwar jazz saxophonists (Photos: newjerseyans.com)

"People ask us, ‘When do you rehearse?’ We don’t. How can we rehearse what we don’t know?" Wayne Shorter

OK, let’s be honest: how often do we jazz-writers use such expressions as "the last giant," "the legendary," or "the best of his generation"? It may seem that we resort to hyperboles to compensate for a lack of imagination or because we suffer from a tendency to exaggerate in order to grab your attention…

Yet, when it comes to Wayne Shorter, what else can we say? He’s without a doubt one of the most influential postwar jazz tenor saxophonists, together with Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane and a prolific composer whose tunes have become the pillars of modern jazz repertoire, interpreted by thousands of musicians, from students to professionals.

When you join Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, you know you’ve reached an auspicious moment in your career. The musicians Blakey pulled together were always among the best, and if they weren’t famous yet, they soon would be.

At that time, Shorter’s main influence was John Coltrane, who appeared to be jazz’s new messiah. Miles Davis, a master in the art of finding the right musician at the right moment, had already tried to get Shorter to replace Coltrane when he left in 1960, but Shorter preferred to wait and find his own voice before "graduating" to Davis University. When he finally joined Davis in 1964, Shorter had reached his musical maturity: while keeping Coltrane’s big sound, he had developed his own more succinct manner full of abrupt changes of mood. And the rest, as they say, is history. Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock (heard earlier in Vienna this season), Ron Carter, and Tony Williams created some of the most exciting music in the history of jazz while offering a valid alternative to the free jazz movement. At the same time, Shorter recorded, as a leader, a series of albums for Blue Note, which are among the best recordings of the 1960s. After quitting Miles Davis, Shorter, like Herbie Hancock, embraced the fusion style and, with the late Austrian jazz great Joe Zawinul, co-founded the super group Weather Report.

Yet, despite the group’s success, fans were somehow disappointed with the fact that his unique sound seemed underused. After a somewhat withdrawn phase in the eighties and the nineties, Shorter bounced back at the beginning of the 21st century with his new band (his first all-acoustic foray since his Blue Note years): The new Wayne Shorter Quartet, which has since produced several great albums and become a regular at the best musical venues in the world.

Great jazzmen put together do not necessarily produce great music. Other factors – lack of rehearsal time, lack of a clearly defined concept, or simply too many cooks – may influence the outcome! With the Wayne Shorter Quartet, we’re dealing with four great musicians, four strong yet open personalities, and four dedicated artists who, over the years, have developed a quasi-telepathic understanding of each other. This includes bassist John Pattituci and drummer Brian Blade, who is one of today’s most sought-after collaborators. This list of collaborations (from Joshua Redman to Dianne Reeves, from Bill Frisell to… Bob Dylan!) tells much about his rare qualities and his polyvalence. The band also includes Panama-born pianist Danilo Perez with his distinctive blend of Pan-American jazz.

Like his former employer Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter has such a high respect for his musicians that he prefers letting them find their way by themselves.

"There’s so much freedom," said Blade in an article about Wayne Shorter published in the August 2003 issue of Down Beat. "Wayne always wants the music to take the path it’s going to take. Sometimes it’s almost frightening the amount of freedom he gives his musicians." Instead of clear indications, Shorter may resort to metaphors. In the same article, Perez recalls Shorter asking him to put "some water on those chords." After Perez proposed a solution, Shorter answered, "Yeah, now we’re talking; but the water has to be clear" – perhaps helping explain why, as a child, Shorter was nicknamed Mr. Weird.

Shorter may be 75, but his mind seems to belong to a 20-year old. No need to fear an amiable, unmemorable performance from a musician resting on his (albeit well-deserved) laurels. One should expect extended improvisations based – sometimes very loosely – on his own compositions, where the structure opens the doors to invention.

"We’re playing a similar outline in different cities, but we’re getting further and further away from anything sounding the same from night to night," said Blade. "These guys all have that kind of forward-looking attitude. They understand that it’s OK to be vulnerable, to open oneself and take chances, and not be afraid of the unknown. So, if somebody feels like they want to bring something else to it, they do it. We don’t have any mandates in this band."

Shorter, a practicing Buddhist who meditates daily, has a sense of mission about his music as he expressed it, again in Down Beat:

"What I want to do is make music that can inspire people to be self-thought, to be an individual. Decide for yourself, make a stand. Sounds not heard, thoughts not thought, actions not taken – this is what I want to connect," says Shorter. "The little-known actions, the little-known thoughts. The road less traveled."

Recommended listening:


JuJu (Blue Note, 1964)

Speak No Evil (Blue Note, 1964)

Native Dancer (Columbia, 1974)

Footprints Live! (Verve, 2002)

Alegria (Verve, 2003)


Under Miles Davis’ name: (all on Columbia)

E.S.P. (1965), Live at the Plugged Nickel (1965), Miles Smiles (1966), Nefertiti (1967), The Sorcerer (1967), Filles de Kilimanjaro (1968)

With Weather Report: Weather Report (Columbia, 1971)

With Joni Mitchell: Mingus (Asylum, 1979)

Wayne Shorter Quartet.


Mar. 20, 19:30


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Musicologist Jean-Pascal Vachon teaches at Webster University Vienna and gives lectures on the history of music at various venues around the city. In addition, he also contributes texts and works as a translator for the Swedish classical label, BIS.

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