How Wayne Shorter Transformed Jazz Composition in the 1960s
I look back at 10 historic performances
Yesterday I promised to talk more about Wayne Shorter’s music.
Below I survey his remarkable compositions from the 1960s. Some of this article was previously behind a paywall, but I’m sharing it here widely for the first time. I’ve added a few extra observations on Shorter’s legacy and these key tracks.
For those who want a more in-depth survey, here is a link to a three-hour Qobuz playlist.
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10 Important Wayne Shorter Compositions from the 1960s
By Ted Gioia
1. 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 got 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.
2. 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 shows up in the names to his 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? Albert King? Albert Schweitzer? Eddie Albert? Herb Alpert? None of them seemed likely, and I soon ran out of possibilities.
Years later I learned that the piece was inspired by Earl ‘Bud’ Powell. How’s that? When Shorter tried to explain the connection in an interview, he came up with a convoluted recollection of Art Blakey referring to Powell performing at the Royal Albert Hall. Oh well, just listen and dig the tight horn writing, with Shorter shining bright at the height of his hard bop phase.
3. Wayne Shorter (with Lee Morgan and McCoy Tyner), “Night Dreamer” from Night Dreamer, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, April 29, 1964
Those off-kilter minor-key waltzes show up everywhere in Wayne Shorter’s 1960s work. They are dark and sometimes ominous— you could put them all together on a playlist for a haunted house. In this instance, Shorter presents a waltz with (in Shorter’s words) “a heavy groove. It's a paradox, in a way, like you'd have in a dream.”
There’s nothing dreamy in his solo, which hits hard from the opening bar. It’s a joy to hear Shorter working with John Coltrane’s rhythm section on this (McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones, Reggie Workman), but it’s a testimony to his powerful personality that they sound like an entirely different band under his leadership.
4. Wayne Shorter (with McCoy Tyner), “Yes or No,” from Juju, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, August 3, 1964
Just five months after Night Dreamer, Shorter returned to Rudy Van Gelder’s studio with the same rhythm section, and created another made-in-one-day classic album, this time in just a quartet format. A few weeks later, McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones would record A Love Supreme with John Coltrane at the same place, but here they fit seamlessly into Shorter’s grittier conception, once again heavily tilted to minor-key outings at medium-to-fast tempos.
Shorter is now a fully mature composer. In fact, almost every song on this album showed up in The Real Book, that canonic collection of modern jazz charts published (illegally) a few years later.
5. Wayne Shorter (with Freddie Hubbard and Herbie Hancock), “Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum,” from Speak No Evil, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, December 24, 1964
Fans argue endlessly over which Wayne Shorter leader date on Blue Note is the best. It’s hard to pick and choose over such riches, but my vote goes to Speak No Evil, which succeeds on every count. The album includes some of my favorite Shorter compositions, the band is absolutely in sync, and Rudy Van Gelder captures each instrumental voice with absolute clarity, down to every cymbal hit and piano comp chord. I’ve listened to these songs over and over again for decades, and they never exhaust their power to uplift and inspire.
6. Wayne Shorter (with Herbie Hancock), “Infant Eyes,” from Speak No Evil, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, December 24, 1964
This is my favorite Wayne Shorter ballad, both brooding and majestic. The form is a strange 27-bar structure, but the piece unfolds so naturally that listeners won’t notice anything unusual. Shorter is in total command, but the rhythm section of Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Elvin Jones also deserves utmost respect. I’d put this track on any 1960s jazz playlist but, honestly, I revere it so much, I’m more inclined to keep it in a treasure chest as a rare icon from a magical time and place.
7. Miles Davis (with Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock), “E.S.P.” from E.S.P., Los Angeles, January 20, 1965
The work is aptly named—this ensemble seemed to possess an uncanny type of extrasensory perception in its musical undertakings. The beat and formal structures never quite disappear, but are typically presented in the most elusive ways, conveying the sense of improvisation that operates in some blurry zone between tight control and absolute freeform spontaneity.
“The master writer to me, in that [Miles Davis] group, was Wayne Shorter,” Hancock later recalled. “He still is a master. Wayne was one of the few people who brought music to Miles that didn’t get changed.”
Miles had good reason for this. Shorter was the perfect composer and participant for this futuristic type of music. As in so many other cases, his melody line is built from simple phrases of just a few notes, repeated against shifting, dense harmonies. But the placement against the bar line changes with each repetition, seeming to stretch out time and space in novel ways. Shorter now is breaking free from the funk and hard bop vocabulary of his early career, and defining an entirely new way of pushing at the limits of tonal music.
8. Miles Davis (with Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock), “Footprints,” from Miles Smiles, New York, October 25, 1966
Here is another minor key waltz from Wayne Shorter, but this is the most famous of them all—serving as the longest track from Miles Smiles, a beloved album by Miles Davis’s great mid-1960s quintet. Hey, I’d smile too if this was my working band.
The changes are variations on the blues, but the eerie, avant-garde feeling to the whole track tells you how far Shorter has pushed that form by this stage in his personal evolution. Yet it’s significant that he is still drawing on key ingredients from African-American roots music even when he has moved so far outside the gravitational pull of traditional grooves.
9. Miles Davis (with Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock), “Nefertiti” from Nefertiti, New York, June 7, 1967
Nefertiti would be Miles Davis’s final all-acoustic album—a few months later he embraced the emerging jazz-rock fusion sound. I regret the eventual breakup of this extraordinary quintet but, frankly, what more could Miles achieve with this band in this format? Half of the tracks on Nefertiti were composed by Shorter, including this declamatory piece in slow swing time over a repeating 16-bar form. But the most unexpected move here is the constant repetition of the written melody, even where you would expect improvisation. The effect is both mesmerizing and a little unsettling.
10. Miles Davis (with Wayne Shorter), “Sanctuary” from Bitches Brew, New York, August 19, 1969
With Bitches Brew, Miles Davis achieved the first top 40 album of his career—it would eventually go platinum, a rarity for jazz artists—but the impact went well beyond sales. He literally changed the direction of jazz, embarking on a dialogue with rock, funk, and popular styles that would set the tone for the next decade in the genre.
Shorter himself would soon be devoting most of his focus to the fusion ensemble Weather Report, but here he is already demonstrating his skill at self reinvention. “Sanctuary” is his only composition on the original Bitches Brew release (although another piece, “Feio,” would later show up in reissues), and it stirred up some contention over legal rights—as was often the case with Davis. But no one questions Shorter’s ownership of the work, which continued to be a key part of Miles’s repertoire even after the saxophonist left the band.
The track covers a wide range of emotional stances from pointillistic introspection to electronic brutalism before emerging as a smoky groove tune. It’s a fitting capstone to a decade that witnessed so much change in jazz, much of it driven by Wayne Shorter’s singular vision.
I came to Wayne's music in the '80s, first with Weather Report, then his solo album "Atlantis" - which i love even if many critics don't - then back to "Native Dancer" and then finally to the Miles and solo stuff from the 60s. He is a very challenging composer. Not everything is immediately lovable, but all of it is built to last. Sometimes you have to come back to something decades later to realize how amazing it is, and i find it's that with the Blue Note material (I latched onto Herbie Hancock's solo stuff far more easily.) A great life lived and a musical legacy that will last forever.
I'd be interested in your take on his 80's music. I love the writing, if not always the production, of that era. It's quite complex, often contrapuntal, and to me gets too little ink. Atlantis and Endangered Species.