WAYNE SHORTER

by Max Sparber in


Sometimes it seems like everyone wants to tell me jazz is dead. People have stopped ending phone conversations with “goodbye” and instead quickly mutter “jazz is dead” and then hang up. Greeters at stores welcome me with a booming cry of “Jazz is dead!” Email spammers promise fortunes of African cash, all for me, if I only transfer them some money to assist in the movement of Krugerrands and, oh, by the way, jazz is dead.

Jazz isn’t dead. What dies? People die, but the things they make live on. Culture has its moment, and then seems to fade, and then suddenly arrives again, sometimes having gone underground and armed itself. The time of the hobo came and went, but there is still a hobo convention in Iowa and people still carve nickels as creative tramps once did. And so it goes, working its way back in time. Everything that had its moment still has its adherents, and will rise again. There are musicians making early classical music on antique instruments. There are poets writing in Old English. There are still painters whose primary media are earth pigments and cave walls.

Jazz is not dead, because Wayne Shorter is not dead. He is 80, or 80-something, and still tours and still puts out albums. He is a link to the past, but he is also proof that the past is still with us, still doing its thing, still biding its time until it can become the present again. Jazz will always be with us, singing old stories in our ears, and telling new stories to those who want to hear it, and one day, once again, there will be many who want those stories.

In the meanwhile, there are enough who still care to bring Wayne Shorter to Omaha and have him play at the Holland Center, one of Omaha’s premiere venues. And that is as it should be, and those of you who know Shorter already know this. His resume is too long to completely summarize, but it involves defining roles in Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, Miles Davis's Second Great Quintet, and Weather Report, which is sort of like having played with Elvis, and then The Beatles, and then Led Zepplin.

Shorter is a man with a saxophone, which, for a time, coupled with the trumpet, were the instruments of jazz’s triumph. Jazz had been America’s pop music, but, after World War Two, it became the language of America’s introspection. Combos became small and wildly adventurous, and so you have the blues-driven hard bop of the Jazz Messengers, which dug deep into the African and rural American roots of jazz while still exploring the stratospheric possibilities of composition and orchestration. Shorter wrote some of the medium’s defining songs, such as “Lester Left Town," named after saxophone great Lester Young. There was Shorter, looking back at one of jazz’s legends while looking forward to the medium's possibilities. The song replaced Young’s unhurried sweetness of melody with startling chromatic runs, but maintained the musician’s swinging precision.

Jazz was ravenous then. There were no sounds that Miles Davis wouldn’t explore, and Shorter became one of his primary composers. There was “Nefertiti,” as an example, a soaring acoustic composition that moves at a funereal pace, consisting of an ambiguous melody that repeats itself for almost eight minutes as the rhythm section improvises wildly underneath. That was Shorter’s composition, dating to 1967.

And then, in the following year, Davis went electric with long, rock-inspired compositions. The album was called “Miles in the Sky,” a direct nod to The Beatles, and included a song called “Paraphernalia.” The song featured an angular, groovy guitar riff and ratatat drums underneath spacey horns, and that was Shorter too. It all culminated in 1970’s “Bitches Brew,” an album that magnificently combined Davis’ relentless ingenuity in arrangement (the band had two bassists, two to three drummers, two to three electric piano players, all playing simultaneously) with the sonic possibilities developed by rock and roll, especially the wild psychedelia of Jimmy Hendrix. Shorter was part of it, and wrote the final track on the album, ‘Sanctuary,” a mellow, soulful song that somehow seems to be all edges, the finish to the album that created jazz fusion and is one of its finest examples.

And then there was Weather Report, which everybody insisted on calling fusion except the members of the band itself. For 16 years, Weather Report explored a lot of territory on the musical map of the world, the band more or less continually improvising at every moment around songs that referenced Afro-Cuban sounds, rhythm and blues, soul, funk, pop, and big band. Shorter was there, often in the background, stepping in with his saxophone to add a needed harmony here, a improvised hook there. The band defined the restlessness of jazz in the 70s, its sense of being both unmoored in time and very much of its era. (Jaco Pastorius’ fretless bass playing remains one of the sounds that best defines the 70s.) It was an era in which jazz seemed to stop declaring itself, and claiming that it could be anything, and instead seemed as though it was questioning itself, and asking “what am I?”

It’s a question the form is still asking, and Shorter is still there, adding nuance to the question and providing his own answers. He put out an album just last year, “Without a Net,” which All About Jazz described as “devoid of nostalgia and full of improvisational freedom.” These are not the words you use to describe a dead genre whose practitioners are living waxworks, recreating the sounds of a receding past. These are the words you use to describe a still-dynamic genre whose possibilities are only limited by the fact that, at the moment, it is slightly out of favor.

That moment will pass, and jazz will return. One hopes that Shorter is there for that moment as well.

Wayne Shorter appears at the Holland Center on April 2; go to Omaha Performing Arts for more information.

Max Sparber

Max Sparber is a historian, playwright, and critic. Follow him on Twitter or email him with your arts events at maxsparber@gmail.com.

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