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Remembering Wayne Shorter, jazz saxophonist and visionary composer

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF WAYNE SHORTER'S "HARRY'S LAST STAND")

GROSS: Jazz saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter died on March 2 at age 89, more than 60 years since he began recording. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says Shorter was an inquisitive innovator inspired by film and literature as much as sounds - one of the great musical minds of our time. Kevin has an appreciation.

(SOUNDBITE OF WAYNE SHORTER'S "HARRY'S LAST STAND")

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: "Harry's Last Stand" from 1959. Wayne Shorter was always a double threat as composer and saxophonist. In either role, he liked pithy little phrases he could develop or maybe just repeat over and over, self-sufficient. But the harmony behind a hummable tune could be awesomely unconventional. Shorter might, say, layer one chord progression for horns over another for the bass. He wrote pieces with unusual structures that might trip up even top musicians. And yet the music had an easy elegance evident on albums he made for the Blue Note label in the 1960s. This is "Speak No Evil."

(SOUNDBITE OF WAYNE SHORTER'S "SPEAK NO EVIL")

WHITEHEAD: Wayne Shorter got an early break when drummer Art Blakey hired him to play and write for the Jazz Messengers. In 1964, Miles Davis drafted him into his brain trust with bassist Ron Carter, drummer Tony Williams and pianist Herbie Hancock, a Shorter ally ever after. Wayne wrote the quintet tunes that bounced around by the interval of a fourth, a rule-breaking move that became a marker of hip '60s jazz. The classic example is "E.S.P.," the opener and title track of Shorter's first album with Miles. Wayne even gets the first solo. He had arrived.

(SOUNDBITE OF MILES DAVIS' "ESP")

WHITEHEAD: Everyone in Miles' quintet started writing tunes like Wayne. His sinewy, economical tenor saxophone sound could be brusque or tender. Drawn into electric jazz a few years later, first by Miles and then as member of the jazz-rock arena band Weather Report, Shorter turned to the higher-pitched soprano sax, which could rise above the rumble. He adopted a thin, pointed, stabby tone, the better to pierce a thick texture.

(SOUNDBITE OF WEATHER REPORT'S "BLACK MARKET")

WHITEHEAD: Wayne Shorter kept busy with side projects during the Weather Report years, including reunions with the guys from Miles' old band and sessions with Joni Mitchell, Steely Dan and Carlos Santana. Shorter's album "Native Dancer" made an international star out of his featured guest, Brazilian singer Milton Nascimento.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MIRACLE OF THE FISHES")

MILTON NASCIMENTO: (Singing in Portuguese).

WHITEHEAD: Shorter could be used rather sparingly in groovy Weather Report. After they split up in the '80s, he made electric records that might sound like that band, but with more Wayne in it.

(SOUNDBITE OF WAYNE SHORTER'S "OVER SHADOW HILL WAY")

WHITEHEAD: Turning back to acoustic jazz, in 2001, Shorter assembled a quartet with pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade, the saxophonist's main vehicle in the new century. The four only played together onstage, rarely rehearsing. But they all knew classic Shorter tunes they could slide in and out of and stretch every which way. It was a glorious return to form. This is from his golden oldie "Footprints," not that you'd recognize it.

(SOUNDBITE OF WAYNE SHORTER'S "FOOTPRINTS")

WHITEHEAD: Even in that late quartet, Wayne Shorter played more soprano than tenor sax. When he joined forces with classical musicians late in life, the little horn's spearhead sound made it easier to lead by example - sometimes, anyway.

(SOUNDBITE OF WAYNE SHORTER'S "PEGASUS")

WHITEHEAD: In 2021, Wayne Shorter premiered a chamber opera with improvisational elements, "...(Iphigenia)" - one more musical world to explore. The libretto was by Esperanza Spalding, one of a few women who recorded in Shorter's bands - among them, Terri Lyne Carrington, Geri Allen, Renee Rosnes, Patrice Rushen and Rachel Z. As composer and saxophonist, Wayne Shorter has been much imitated for decades by generations of musicians. He was a visionary. He influenced the course of jazz as much as anyone in the last 60 years.

(SOUNDBITE OF WAYNE SHORTER, CURTIS FULLER, JAMES SPAULDING, HERBIE HANCOCK, RON CARTER AND JOE CHAMBERS' "MIYAKO")

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead is the author of the book "Play The Way You Feel: The Essential Guide To Jazz Stories On Film." And he writes for Point of Departure and the Audio Beat. After we take a short break, John Powers will review the film "Return To Seoul," which he says surprised him from start to finish. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL BISIO QUARTET AND RON SODERSTROM'S "AM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kevin Whitehead
Kevin Whitehead is the jazz critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Currently he reviews for The Audio Beat and Point of Departure.