Wayne Shorter in the 1960s: 10 Classic Compositions
The sax master celebrates his 89th birthday this week, but these songs never grow old
I’m not much for rankings, but Wayne Shorter belongs on my list of the top five living jazz artists. That’s hardly a controversial claim—most savvy jazz fans would agree.
So it’s always a good time to celebrate his life and times, but especially this week, when the saxophonist celebrates his 89th birthday. Below is a birthday photo posted yesterday on Facebook. You might notice the photos of Igor Stravinsky and Herbie Hancock in the background, but to check out Wayne’s choice of T-shirt, you need to click on the entire image.
Below I’ll focus on only a small part of Shorter’s legacy—just tracks featuring his own compositions from the 1960s. But, by any measure, these are key contributors to his world-beating fame. Each of these tracks is cherished by jazz fans, but it’s testimony to this artist that many will be disappointed by what I left out.
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Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers (with Wayne Shorter and Freddie Hubbard), “Children of the Night,” from Mosaic, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, October 2, 1961
Wayne Shorter’s later stint with Miles Davis’s band get more attention, but this early 1960s Art Blakey sextet was as exciting as any combo in the jazz world during that era. Shorter was no youngster when he joined Blakey, having first earned a degree in music education and serving in the military before becoming a Jazz Messenger. He acted as musical director for the band during a rich four-year period, and would deserve our esteem if he had never done anything more than compose and perform on those timeless Blue Note albums. “Children of the Night” already reveals Shorter’s marriage of austerity and expansiveness—the A theme is just two-note phrases over two alternating chords, followed by a boppish interlude over ii-v changes. But that’s all the band needs for a series of heated solos. Shorter’s tenor work reveals that he has already assimilated Coltrane and Rollins into his own personal conception of modern jazz.
Art Blakey (with Wayne Shorter and Freddie Hubbard), “This is for Albert,” from Caravan, New York, October 23, 1962
That sense of angularity and indirectness isn’t just part of Wayne Shorter’s soloing style, it also impacts how he gives names to songs. Years ago, when I first played this at jam sessions, I assumed the song had been written for Albert Ayler. But then I learned this composition dated back to 1962—before Ayler had released his first album—and so had to abandon that theory. What other Albert fits the bill? In fact, the piece was inspired by Earl ‘Bud’ Powell. How’s that? Shorter tried to explain the connection some years later, and came up with a convoluted recollection of Art Blakey referring to Powell performing at Albert Hall. Oh well, just listen and dig the tight horn writing, and Shorter shining bright at the height of his hard bop phase.
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