Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Shorter, Wayne

Tenor and soprano saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter's unique compositions and improvisations have brought him acclaim as a bandleader and a sideman with Art Blakey, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock and other jazz legends.

Born on August 25, 1933 into a musical family in Newark, New Jersey, Shorter was encouraged in the arts from an early age by his father. His brother Alan was a jazz trumpeter, who can be heard on Shorter’s 1965 album The All Seeing Eye. After attending Newark Arts High School as a visual arts major, Shorter entered New York University and began concentrating on music and the saxophone. Upon graduating in 1956, he entered the army for two years, and then began his career as a professional musician.

                                                        Wayne Shorter
                                                   Photo by Jos L. Knaepen

In 1958, Shorter played briefly in pianist Horace Silver’s band, and began to make connections with many of the musicians who would play a large part in his career. He then joined trumpeter Maynard Ferguson’s band, where he met his future collaborator in Weather Report, Joe Zawinul.

Shorter joined Art Blakey’s The Jazz Messengers in 1959. He stayed with the group for five years, and became the group’s musical director. He can be heard on more than a dozen of Blakey’s best albums, including A Night in Tunisia, Indestructible, Ugetsu, and Free For All.

Shortly after joining Blakey’s group, Shorter first recorded as a leader. From his earliest efforts on Vee-Jay records, his sound and formidable composing skills are fully apparent. On Introducing Wayne Shorter, Second Genesis, and Wayning Moments, Shorter sticks to the hard bop style of the Blakey band, but hints at the directions his later groups would take.

These early recordings, on which Shorter is joined by Blakey, trumpeter Lee Morgan, and other fellow Jazz Messengers, paved the way to Shorter’s signing with Blue Note records in 1964. Between 1964 and 1969, Shorter released nine records for Blue Note, widely considered to be some of his best.

Also in 1964, trumpeter Miles Davis recruited Shorter to join his quintet. Joining Davis’ band, which featured pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams, marked the start of one of the greatest working partnerships in jazz history and the point where Shorter’s career truly took off.

Shorter was given creative freedom by Davis, and on his efforts for Blue Note, and his skills as a saxophonist and composer blossomed at this time. Davis later recalled of Shorter:

“When he came into the band it started to grow a lot more, and a whole lot faster, because Wayne is a real composer. He writes scores, write the parts for everybody just as he wants them to sound. He also brought in a kind of curiosity about working with musical rules. If they didn't work, then he broke them, but with musical sense; he understood that freedom in music was the ability to know the rules in order to bend them to your own satisfaction and taste."

On the Blue Note albums Night Dreamer, Ju-Ju, Speak No Evil, The All Seeing Eye, and Adam’s Apple, and the albums he recorded with Davis, Shorter stays true to Davis’ description, composing songs with memorable melodies and themes, quirky harmonies and rhythmic subtleties, and improvises with an exceptional level of creativity and control.

After leaving Davis’ band in 1970, Shorter released two more albums for Blue Note, Mato Grosso Feio and Isle of Iska, and recorded as a sideman with Joe Zawinul, who had also played with Davis. During this period, Shorter began to play the soprano saxophone on a regular basis. He first recorded on soprano in 1969 with Davis, and has continued to use this horn regularly to the present day.

With Zawinul, bassist Miroslav Vitous, drummer Alphonse Mouzon and percussionist Airto Moreira, Shorter formed the group Weather Report, releasing their eponymous first album in 1971. Over the next decade, Weather Report helped define the sound of jazz-rock fusion, which gained popularity around the world, even as it created tensions within the jazz community.

When not touring or recording with Weather Report in the mid to late 1970s, Shorter found time to record with bassist Jaco Pastorius and Moreira. Shorter also worked with Brazilian vocalist and composer Milton Nascimento on his 1975 album, Native Dancer. Shorter also recorded with Herbie Hancock on the pianist’s album Man-Child, and on a series of collaborative releases with V.S.O.P., a band featuring Ron Carter, Hancock, Tony Williams, all veterans of Miles Davis’ second great quartet, and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Shorter began appearing with pop and rock artists, such as Joni Mitchell and Carlos Santana, and was a guest soloist on Steely Dan’s Aja in 1977. His association with Mitchell continues to the present day, most recently on the singer’s 2002 release Travelogue and on Herbie Hancock’s 2007 tribute River: The Joni Letters.

Following the breakup of Weather Report in 1985, Shorter continued to record as a sideman in addition to releasing Atlantis (1985) and Joy Ride (1988), two albums that relied heavily on electric instruments and synthesizers, sticking to the fusion sound of Weather Report.

The early 1990s were a period of limited output for Shorter. It wasn’t until High Life in 1995 that he recorded again as a leader, this time for Verve Records, where he has produced some of his best work. High Life received a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Jazz Album in 1997, the same year “Aung San Suu Kyi,” a song for the Burmese pro-democracy activist from the Shorter Hancock duo album 1+1, won the Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Composition.

In 2000, Shorter returned to his acoustic roots, forming a quartet with pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade. This quartet continues to tour and has released two live albums, Footprints (2002) and Beyond The Sound Barrier (2005), and the 2003 album Alegria.

Alegria, Shorter's first studio album in ten years, won the 2004 Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Jazz Album, which he won again for Beyond the Sound Barrier in 2006.

Contributor: Matthew Miller