Jazz Composer Profile 1 – Wayne Shorter

The introvert genius of Wayne Shorter (JCP 1)

Once in a while in history there comes an artist who has the ambition leave something meaningful for the following generations to admire and is not afraid to break boundaries and rules to achieve that. The emotion, feelings and passion one has put into his or her artform are quite relevant but so is the possibility and ability to preserve it. With the bliss of technology we get to preserve a segment in time where the landscape of jazz changed from being a function to get people dancing to a full blown artform of expression rivaling that of classical music. In the heart of the movement was the introvert genius that is Wayne Shorter.


I am starting a new project on my blog where I present different jazz composers and their compositions. I wanted to do something special as an opening to the whole project and pick a jazz composer that will best reflect the spirit of this whole idea. I wanted someone that embodied the jazz movement and transition throughout history and time.

The choice

jazz composition.jpg
Who should represent jazz composition as a whole?

I had several possibilities to approach this goal. One was to pick one of the most prolific composers of songs from the golden era of jazz such as Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Cole Porter, Jimmy van-Hausen, Richard Rogers, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Antonio-Carlos Jobim and Hoagy Carmichael. Many of the compositions have made it deep into the jazz standards repertoire. I have high respect for composers that understand the importance of the audience and making the music consumable even if harmonically complex.

Another approach was to pick one of the so-called “pioneer composers” that have helped change the landscape of jazz through each era. People that were not afraid to sound different and “wrong” at the time and sacrifice fame for their art and the future of jazz. Even narrowing the list to such greats as John Coltrane, Chick Corea, Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, Joe Henderson, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Pat Metheny and McCoy Tyner was a daunting task. (The two examples in the following paragraph belong to this group also but I wanted to keep them separate for the sake of suspense.) It is so subjective to pick someone that represents jazz composition as a whole.

The third approach was the one I chose. I wanted to capture the spirit of composing the way it could have been seen throughout music history. I wanted to find the modern jazz era equivalent to what Bach was for the baroque era, what Beethoven was for the classical era, what Rachmaninov was for the romantic era, what Debussy was for the impressionist era and what Holst was to the modern classical era. Who would carry the mantle for jazz?

After some heavy consideration I narrowed the list to two candidates. In my thought process I had to counterweight popularity and exposure with the essence of composing. The two composers were Horace Silver and Wayne Shorter. I call the former the extrovert genius composer and the latter the introvert genius composer. The reason is that Silver was very proficient in understanding cultural reference points to both general audiences and music audiences alike. He could write simplistic melodies that are easily hummable but also complex musical compositions that would please musicians and their musical intellect alike. A very diverse individual.

Shorter, on the other hand, is more spiritually-bonded and dedicated to composition. That can be seen to be especially true as he approached the avant-garde and free jazz movement. I have to confess I am hardly a fan of avant-garde or free jazz. There is something about “no boundries” and music and melody turning into just sound (and to my ears noise) that I dislike. I like simplistic, folkloric themes and melodies that are grounded and close to how a human voice would sing them.

Horace Silver or Wayne Shorter? A  tough choice! 

However I tried to visualize (or in fact audiolize) the big picture. So I had to swallow my pride for a moment while doing research for this project. As I listened more and more I started to hear what I think is the embodiment of a talented composer – someone who understands the trascendental meaning of art and music as an extension to emotions and feelings. I felt that is how the aforementioned classical composers must have fell when venturing into a new musical era. I felt he represents the jazz composing movement extremely well. He has been composing compositions as a leader and sideman that have really changed the landscape of the genre a lot and luckily has had sidemen that had the same passion and vision about music at the time.

(Please note that the choice of Shorter is highly subjective and will not mean his is objectively the “best” choice to represent the movement in jazz into serious composition.)

How do I present Shorter in an interesting way?

So I finally settled on Wayne Shorter as the flagship composer to these series. But now there is the hurdle of how to approach and present him as a composer. I listened to over 25 records containing his compositions both with him as a bandleader and as a sideman. This was a long and tedious process since Shorter’s compositions are so many (over 100). The first thing I did after that was to make a Spotify playlist with most of his compositions. The emphasis of the list is on the ”golden era” aka. the Blue Note era.

I wanted to show the compositions here but not take too much space. I was at first going to go through his albums chronologically and post all compositions here one by one but soon found out if would be daunting both for me and the reader. So I decided to post the playlist on top and just put the names of the composition and as a reference the corresponding number on the playlist. I also finally decided to limit the number of example tracks to 3-6 per era (depending if he composed only as a bandleader or as a sideman) so as to keep the example playlist to a reasonable size.

Organizing and optimizing the material

Now about the organizing. I realized there are several eras that Shorter went through as a player and also as a composer. His religion (buddhism), personal life and closeness to family life affected greatly the way he wrote music and perhaps the reason for writing. Also two distinctive types of Shorter co-existed at the same time (both as player and composer). There was Shorter – the bandleader but also Shorter – the sideman. His sideman projects overlap with each other but I will focus only on the most prominent group project he had at the time of each era (Art Blakey / Miles Davis / Weather Report).

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Wayne Shorter playing a solo

I divided the subject into six (or technically eight including two hiatus phases) time phases I call “eras” and have freely named them so:

  1. The pre-Blue Note Records Era (Sideman to Art Blakey)
  2. The Blue Note Records Golden Era (Sideman to Miles Davis)
  3. The Weather Report Fusion Era (Player in Weather Report)
  4. The Columbia Records Slump and First Hiatus
  5. The Verve Records resurrection and Second Hiatus
  6. The (“Footprints”) Quartet Era

Also there are two separating tangents to the subject. These are the aforementioned “Leader-Shorter” and “Sideman-Shorter”:

Wayne Shorter as a leader (Including the dual/duo projects with Milton Nascimento and Herbie Hancock)

Wayne Shorter as a sideman (to Art Blakey (and the Jazz Messengers) / to Miles Davis (Quintet) / to Weather Report)

I will therefore go through each of the era and look at what has happened to Shorter during the time and then present his compositions both while being a leader and sideman.

About Wayne Shorter as a composer

I want the focal point here to be about Shorter as a composer. Him as a player is a totally different ball game and will not go deeper into the subject. Neither will I dwell on his bio and life unless I feel it affected his compositional style and/or motives for composing.

Pre- Blue Note Records Era (Late 1950s – Early 1960s)

Shorter was born in 1933. He has always been open to new experiences, cultures and music which can be seen later in his personal life choices and style of composition. He graduated with a degree in music education in 1956 and later spend two years in the U.S. Army where he briefly played with Horace Silver taking influence from him. His other early compositions were influenced by Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane and Coleman Hawkins. (Basically influenced by the sound of the so-called Miles Davis First Great Quintet). His early works had that eager “fullness” in them that young composers often have. He has been both a bandleader and a sideman since the late 1950s having his own compositions already on his first album (Introducing Wayne Shorter) and on Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers which he joined at 1959. His style was quite avant-garde already at the time with lots of harmonic concepts and changes. Compositions during that time include the likes of Pug Nose, Backstage Sally and This is for Albert.


Blue Note Records Golden Era (Mid 1960s – Early 1970s)

During the 1960s he joined Miles Davis and got signed to Blue Note Records. This is the time where many considered him at his very peak as a composer. He honed his composing style both not only as a bandleader but also as a sideman with Blakey and later with Davis. He began to leave more space and add more structural substance to his compositions. He left Blakey and joined the newly formed so-called Miles Davis Second Great Quintet (the first had Coltrane on saxophone) in 1964. Some of the compositions that Shorter composed for the Miles Quintet were E.S.P , Prince of Darkness, Fall, Iris and Pinocchio.

But his genius as a composer can be seen as a bandleader during his Blue Note Record prime era between 1964-1966. Although it may seem like a short spur, a total of 7 award-winning albums were published during that time (including Night Dreamer, Juju, Speak No Evil and Adam’s Apple). And on these records are most compositions that Shorter is known for (listed later below).

During the latter phase of the Blue Note era (1967-1970) Shorter had a stylistic movement into deeper avant-garde and free jazz territory and incorporating world music elements in his compositions. Albums such as Schizophrenia, Super Nova and Odyssey of Iska reflect this new style. The last album of this era was most probably Native Dancer – a collaboration with brazilian singer Milton Nascimento. Although one can clearly hear a gravitational force towards fusion-jazz in the compositional style on that album.

Wayne Shorter Miles Davis
Wayne Shorter with the Miles Davis Quintet

About his personal life at the time. During the same period he met Teruko Nakastami (got married to her in 1961 and broke up in 1964) and had a daughter – Miyako (the compositions Infant Eyes and Miyako are dedicated to her). Later on he met Ana Maria Patricio (met her at 1966 , got married to her in 1970, died in a plane crash in 1996) and had a daughter Iska (died of a grand mal seizure in 1985). As one can probably tell both his family and the different cultures of Teruko and Ana Maria had a great impact on the quality and spirituality of the compositions . One can assume he was most musically fertile during exactly this time in the 1960s. The family tragedies affected him deeply, naturally, causing two hiatus periods in which he didn’t compose anything. He practices buddhism which can also be heard in the style of his later compositions. Many of his compositions were named after the close ones in his life.


The Weather Report Fusion Era (1970s – Early 1980s)

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In the 1970s Shorter co-formed the jazz fusion group Weather Report together with keyboard player Joe Zawinul and bass player Miroslav Vitous. The group incorporated world music, avant-garde jazz, free jazz and modern electronic sounds into their style. They cycled through a big range of musicians and played all the way until 1986. The band was very popular at the time. Shorter wrote mostly in the early years of the band (the focal point of composition later turned to RnB-oriented jazz with Zawinul taking greater control of the creative input of compositions). That meant that most of Shorter’s compositions for the band had that avant-garde trademark but with an electric fusion twist. Compositions for the band include Palladium, Scarlet Woman and Three Clowns. He had, however, lost some of the creative spark he once had in the previous decade. His compositions and solos lacked the strong structure and melody drive of his earlier works. Nevertheless , Weather Report was a critically acclaimed success throughout the bands whole lifespan.


The Columbia Records Slump (Mid 1980s)

There was a three year period (1985-1988) where his compositions and playing hit an all time low. Although Weather Report was greatly successful his compositions as a bandleader were far from what they had been before. He left Blue Note Records for Columbia Records where he made an attempt at jazz-fusion compositions. These new compositions were either predictable or over-complicated and/or lacked the nuances and structure of previous ones. Compositions during that period included Atlantis, On the Eve of Departure, Yamanja and Joy Rider. The death of his daughter Iska in 1986 most probably led to his first (and longest so far) hiatus from composing which lasted from 1988 to 1995.


First hiatus 1988-1995*


The Verve Records resurrection (1995-1997)

In 1995 Shorter teamed up with Verve Records and had a second attempt at fusion-jazz composition. This time the attempt was far more successful. Technically Shorter’s compositions ventured into modal jazz, post-bop and neo-bop territory. His first album after the hiatus was High Life. It was produced by Marcus Miller (who also played bass on the album) and keyboardist Rachel Z contributed to the orchestration and the sound design , giving it that smooth neo-bop sound. It is the only album where Shorter plays alto and baritone saxophones (usually played soprano and tenor only). This could be seen as Shorter being open to new musical horizons with his music – perhaps it was time for a resurrection. An example of this new style of compositions is On The Milky Way Express.

Unfortunately tragedy struck once more. In 1996 his wife Ana Maria and his niece Dalila died in a plane crash on their way to see him in Italy. (I am not sure about the chronological event line with the 1+1 album being released exactly one year after the accident. Perhaps the accident made him want to do the project or he had already started it and wanted to finish it to honor the memory of his wife). This caused Shorter to go into his second composing hiatus that lasted from late 1997 to 2002.

In 1997 he teamed up with Herbie Hancock and created a beautiful, musically intertwining duet album called 1+1. It is the most intimate I have heard Shorter play so far. It is more a musical conversation than anything else. His compositions and style of playing embodied the healing process he has gone through. His buddhist and social values can also be clearly heard in his compositions and their naming. A good example is his composition Aung San Suu Kyi (named after the Burmese activist) on that album , which won a Grammy.


Second hiatus Late 1997-2002*


The (“Footprints”) Quartet Era (2002-Present)

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Wayne Shorter (Footprints) Quartet

In 2000 Shorter formed the first permanent acoustic quartet as a bandleader. It included Danilo Perez on piano, John Patitucci on bass and Brian Blade on drums. The quartet has incredible synergy and communication skills on top of elite level technical mastery of their instruments. All musicians want to use themselves and their music, both through their compositions and playing, as an ambassador for social and humane values. Their first live album Footprints Live! (this is where the name of the band comes from) came out in 2002 and set the groundwork for what was to come. The style of the group is highly interactive and spiritual and resembles the stylistic movements of Chick Corea‘s latest acoustic trio. (No wonder since they share the same bass player).

One more live album came out in 2005 named Beyond the Sound Barrier. During the quartet period Shorter also released a critically acclaimed album as a bandleader called Alegria (released in 2003). It starred many famous sidemen and won several awards. It seemed like Wayne had got his composing and playing groove back.

For the quartet’s third live album (that came out in 2013) called Without a Net , Shorter went back to the record label that got him the most fame – Blue Note Records. The quartet is to release their next album during the third quarter of 2018. It will be titled Emanon** (“No name” spelled backwards).

From a compositional point of view Shorted continued on the project he left on from the 1+1 album. His compositions are highly spiritual, contextual and interactive. They have that modern, sophisticated jazz sound that is common in post-2000 “serious” jazz formations. They include compositions such as Tinker Bell, Beyond the Sound Barrier and S.S. Golden Mean.

*Hiatus from composing, not necessarily from playing

**The album is already released at the moment of this publication


Final words

Wayne Shorter has been a key figure in developing the avant-garde jazz movement which I believe is the direct continuation of the chronology of classical music. Apart from a small creative slump in the mid-1980s Shorter’s compositions have adapted well to the jazz world around him. Or even better put – the jazz world has adapted to the compositions of Wayne Shorter. Keep in mind this piece of work has focused mainly on the compositional side of Shorter and only scratches the surface on how influential he was to jazz as a player as well!

Wayne Shorter Cover Pic
Shorter was very influential as a player as well as a composer

This is so far the largest project I have done on this blog (both in research and writing/editing) so I will very pleased if you liked it and found it educational. Don’t hesitate to tell me if I have mistakes. Thank you for reading! I hope you will enjoy the whole series! See you in the next part!

Underneath I present a playlist featuring some of his most prominent compositions. I have used iRealPro 1300+ playlist as a reference and have added two modern compositions from his more recent albums to the playlist. There are a total of 35 compositions in this playlist and are in alphabetical order except the final two.

Wayne Shorter Compositions Spotify Playlist:

  1. Adam’s Apple
  2. Ana Maria
  3. Armageddon
  4. Backstage Sally
  5. Beauty and the Beast
  6. Black Nile
  7. Dolores
  8. Deluge
  9. E.S.P
  10. El Gaucho
  11. Fall
  12. Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum
  13. Footprints
  14. Harlequin
  15. House of Jade
  16. Infant Eyes
  17. Iris
  18. Juju
  19. Limbo
  20. Mahjong
  21. Miyako
  22. Nefertiti
  23. Night Dreamer
  24. Orbits
  25. Pinnochio
  26. Prince of Darkness
  27. Speak No Evil
  28. Toy Tune
  29. United
  30. Virgo
  31. Wild Flower
  32. Witch Hunt
  33. Yes Or No
  34. Aung San Suu Kyi
  35. S.S. Golden Mean

© 2018 Sibil Yanev