When I began this blog in 2011, I ran a few installments that I called “The Pile,” comprising primarily reviews of new releases. I soon abandoned this venture, but now I’ve decided — at least for the moment — to reinstate it as a way to keep up with material by artists I’m not writing about, and so might pass by. It sure beats yelling at the computer about the political events of the day.
These reviews are going to be mainly first impressions, based on one listening, so I’ll undoubtedly miss many nuances and subtleties. It also won’t be my best prose.
For the third installment of “The Pile” on this second go-round, here are my impressions of Wayne Shorter’s Emanon (Blue Note).
Wayne Shorter (Emanon) — (Blue Note):
During one of several conversations I had with Wayne Shorter in 2002 while reporting a long profile about him for Jazziz, he told me that, when he was a child in Newark, New Jersey, his mother referred to the time that he and his brother took for creative play as transpiring in “the imagination room.” That phrase is not an idle metaphor — it’s a great descriptor for the way Shorter has operated through 60 years as a game-changing tenor and soprano saxophonist and a prolific composer who significantly influenced the sound of jazz during the course of his still ongoing career.
Shorter’s imaginative mojo has never been more clearly presented than on Emanon, a 3-CD, 2-hour extravaganza, released six weeks ago by Blue Note to coincide with his 85th birthday. It’s the fourth of his five albums of the aughts that documents his sui generis quartet of almost two decades (Danilo Perez, piano; John Pattitucci, bass; Brian Blade, drums), captured in terrific fidelity in a particularly inspired performance at London’s Barbican Theater, where they follow their consistent practice of deconstructing Shorter’s detailed, highly orchestrated compositions, applying an egoless attitude and a telepathic “instant composition” spirit to their collective improvisations, which revolve around the leader’s preternaturally voice-like postulations on the soprano and tenor saxophones, like an 18th century philosophe‘s condensed discourse on the sum total of human knowledge. Emanon is also by far the most comprehensive presentation of the breadth of Shorter’s 21st century musical production and the philosophical and aesthetic armature that underpins it — the proceedings begin with four performances (“Pegasus,” “Prometheus,” “Lotus,” and “The Three Marias”) on which the quartet is enfolded into the 34-piece Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, an ensemble that knows how to make “textual” fidelity and improvisation coexist while interpreting the composer’s structurally unfolding compositions.
Shorter appropriates the album title from a 1946 recording by the Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra of a medium-tempo Gil Fuller blues on which James Moody, himself a son of Newark, uncorked a much-listened-to 16-bar solo that established him as a pioneer in translating the vocabulary of bebop to the tenor saxophone. The recording — and the efflorescent years of bebop — coincided with Shorter’s passage from adolescence to teen-hood; several years later, in a band of peers, he’d exercise his imagination muscles by playing on clarinet the trumpet parts from Gillespie’s contemporaneous, iconic recording of Fuller’s futuristic, prophetic “Things To Come.”
For Shorter, “Emanon” (“No Name”), stands metaphorically (but perhaps also literally) for a superhero (perhaps an alter-ego), whose adventures in several parallel universes (you could call them “imagination rooms”) are depicted in a 90-page graphic novel painted in High Romantic manner (William Blake and J.M.W. Turner come to mind) by the eminent illustrator Randy DuBurke, whose deployment of light and shadow and command of line is a visual analogue for the narratives conjured by Shorter and company.
Shorter has accumulated an enormous fan base over his sixty years in the spotlight. Not all of the individuals who comprise it relate well to this late period quartet of four masters of rhythm who eschew “swinging” on the grid for an open-ended, breathe-as-one conception that involves subtle permutation of pulse and texture. I don’t mean this pejoratively, but the music on Emanon isn’t easy listening; it requires sustained concentration, with particular attention to what Perez, Patitucci and Blade are doing within the flow.
To me, the effort seems well worth the reward. But if this music isn’t for you, there’s Shorter’s extraordinary recorded legacy since he left the Army in 1959 to join Art Blakey for a five-year run with the the Jazz Messengers during which he composed numerous songs in the “hardbop” idiom that are classics of the canon. There followed a 1964-1970 tenure as improvisational foil and primary composer for the Miles Davis quintet, during which he generated 11 Blue Note recordings of his original music that stand among the treasures of the jazz canon. Then came 15 years of collaboration with Joe Zawinul in the more compositional, plugged-in, groove-heavy environment of Weather Report; and another 15 years in which Shorter stayed plugged in for the most part, making several albums that further displayed his compositional prowess within the sonic context of instrumental pop.
Just remember that Shorter didn’t become who he is by looking backwards, and it’s a safe bet that he never will. His creativity during his ninth decade is Picasso-level.
(That said, to hear Shorter applying his late period style felicitously within a swinging context, view these two sets at a 2015 Rose Theater concert at which he soloed on arrangements of his pieces by Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra’s stellar cast of in-house arrangers.)