Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Shorter, Alan

Alan Shorter, like, his younger brother, Wayne Shorter, started out on the saxophone, then switched to the trumpet and flugelhorn at age seventeen. He played in an avant-garde style from the start. After a brief and brilliant run of recordings over six years, he disappeared from jazz, leaving behind only enigmatic traces of his life in music.

Alan as born in Newark, New Jersey on May 29, 1932, six years before his brother. He attended grammar school on Oliver Street, near the Shorter home. His inquisitive and rebellious personality, typical of his music, was evident even in his childhood . His early practice included playing along with pianist Lennie Tristano’s Crosscurrents.

The Shorter brothers were notoriously serious about their music, and serious non-conformists: Alan painted the nickname "Dr. Strange" on his horn case, and Wayne's read "Mr. Weird." Both played in an band led by Jackie Bland, along with Grachan Moncur III on bass and pianist Walter Davis, Jr. “The Shorters were always set apart," recalled Nat Phipps, another Newark bandleader. "Their attire was different. We might be dressed for a party, but they’d come in looking like undertakers, in dark suits with three or four buttons.”

Shorter attended Howard University from 1952 to 1954, and was a classmate of another Newark native, Leroi Jones, later known as Amiri Baraka. Shorter moved to New York in the early 1960s, where he worked with Carla Bley and Pharoah Sanders in Charles Moffett’s group, and with tenor saxophonist Archie Shepp, with whom he recorded Four For Trane for Impulse! in 1964.

He recorded The All-Seeing Eye with Wayne for Blue Note in 1965, which included the track "Mephisopheles," and Capricorn Moon and Why Not with saxophonist Marion Brown in 1965 and 1966.

"Mephisopheles"is a brooding, angular, and humorous meditation on the problem of evil. On this track Wayne has quirky, and snake-like solo, typical of his mid-60s work, while Herbie Hancock and Joe Chambers, circulate a marvelous march-like and swirling backdrop. Alan’s solo, is softer-edged and introspective, with turning, bluesy runs and lightning-quick fingerings. Robust and teasing, it effortlessly articulates feelings of a dynamic energy, along with thoughtful Lee Morgan-like half-valved slurs. Never tiring or repeating himself, the solo is bright and airy, and has an austere confidence unlike other like-minded trumpeters of this period, such as Don Cherry.

Shorter performed in drummer Sunny Murray’s Acoustical Swing Quartet in San Francisco in August 1967 and recorded as a leader on Orgasm in late in 1968. In 1970, also as a leader, he recorded Tes Esat, for the America label in France. At this time, he primarily performed solo avant-garde shows in clubs in Europe to small audiences.

In his Tes Esat liner notes, Shorter equates his style with the work of a minimalist sculptor, bending melody into ellipses and eloquent reiterations: the album is a peak of avant-garde music in Europe, and it retains the feel and essence of that period. Accompanied by Gary Windo on tenor saxophone, Johnny Dyani on double bass, flute, piano, and bells, and Rene Augustus on drums, “Disposition” has a long-form Ascension-like sound, and shows each member moving to the foreground and sliding back, delivering a extravagant feeling. The free genre serves here both as a philosophical and musical underpinning. Shorter’s solo is both cheery and melancholy, and is played over a twitchy arco bass line. Verging on the nuanced colors of Bill Dixon’s solos, Shorter here is playful, but menacing.

While in Europe, Shorter also performed and recorded with groups led by Alan Silva and published an article in France's Jazz magazine in 1974. Nothing is known of his subsequent musical activity, although he returned to the United States and settled in Los Angeles, California, where he died on April 5, 1988. He wrote a book, about seven hundred pages, on philosophy and culture; the manuscript was never published, despite efforts by his mother to find a publisher after his death .

In the absence of other documentary evidence, Shorter's 1974 article offers a glimpse into the mind of this talented and enigmatic artist:

“First there was Jazz Music, which was limited to the stage and to feed the orgasms of those who, wrongly, thought that this experience would nourish their unrealities, for they considered Jazz to be a ‘whim of nature’—that was their reasoning. Then there were those who appreciated this music with honest curiosity. After that era came Black Jazz Music. And that phase in Jazz then demanded an extension beyond the strict periphery of other times, digging with singular strength into the Black Experience and the long-buried consciousness of ‘self’ or the ego. As far as I’m concerned, at my present level of existence, I find that the term Black Jazz Music doesn’t satisfy my personal hunger. To me, it’s New Music. I oriented my vision not toward Black Jazz, since I’m already Black, but towards Transcendent and Universal Music, in other words, the music of my being inspired by God. That energy obliges all my primal energies to combine or mingle in a beautiful élan it would be vain to define—I take part in this rare experience, and that is enough for me.”

Select Recordings

As leader:

Orgasm, Verve, 1968

Tes Esat, America, 1970

As sideman:

With Archie Shepp

Four for Trane, Impulse!, 1964

With Wayne Shorter

The All Seeing Eye, Blue Note, 1965

With Marion Brown

Marion Brown Quartet, ESP, 1965

Marion Brown, ESP, 1965

Contributor: Sean Singer