In a 2014 interview, the saxophonist Wayne Shorter was asked how often his working quartet rehearsed. His reply was evasive and illuminating: “How do you rehearse the future?”
This was classic Shorter—gnomic, gnostic, mischievous, wise. It was a bit of a humblebrag too. For more than six decades, he conjured the future of music into being, with or without the benefit of rehearsal. Shorter, who died yesterday at 89, was a giant of jazz as an improviser, bandleader, and thinker, but above all as a composer—arguably the greatest in jazz since Thelonious Monk, and inarguably one of the greatest the genre, and the United States, has ever produced.
Consider two of Shorter’s most famous songs. “Footprints,” a hypnotic blues in 3/4 time, is superficially simple enough that it’s a staple for high-school jazz combos and adventurous rock bands. “Nefertiti,” from the same era, is so immaculately constructed that when Miles Davis, Shorter’s employer at the time, recorded it on an album of the same title, he simply had the band play the melody over and over for nearly eight minutes, without any solos. The album begins with Shorter’s saxophone delivering the melody, which starts on a descending riff that gives the impression that the listener is stepping into a conversation already in progress—which, in a way, you are.
In these and many of his most enduring compositions, Shorter’s music is a sort of abstract expressionism, along the lines of paintings by Helen Frankenthaler, his contemporary who was herself influenced by jazz. Both artists’ work is saturated in color but restrained, unpredictable and free yet self-contained, and imbued with alluring enigma.
Over his career, Shorter was a member of four of the most important jazz bands to ever play, traversing the path from post-bop to the contemporary cutting edge. In Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, jazz’s premier finishing school, Shorter was musical director. Next, he jumped to Miles Davis’s “second great quintet,” serving as lead composer as the group defined acoustic jazz in the 1960s, then went electric. In the 1970s and ’80s, Shorter co-led Weather Report, the premier jazz-fusion band, with Joe Zawinul. In the 21st century, Shorter convened an acoustic quartet that was a fitting heir to Davis’s band for musicianship and innovation.
Every first-rate jazz musician must be an excellent team player, but Shorter seemed to find particular inspiration in close collaboration with other musicians. In Blakey’s band, he was paired on the front line with the mercurial trumpeter Lee Morgan. Shorter was the cool to Morgan’s hot. (As a teenager in Newark, New Jersey, who was obsessed with science fiction and comics, Shorter dubbed himself “Mr. Weird.”) The band was one of the best examples of the blues- and gospel-inflected jazz of the era, known as hard bop.
Shorter also released several excellent albums under his own name in the 1960s, but his best-known work in that decade was with Davis. After his famous band with John Coltrane split up, the trumpeter worked to assemble a new band of comparable caliber, eventually landing on a line-up featuring Tony Williams on drums, Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass, and Shorter on saxophone. Although every member of the band contributed songs, Shorter wrote the most, and his influence extended beyond just those compositions.
“Wayne was the idea person, the conceptualizer of a whole lot of musical ideas we did,” Davis wrote in his autobiography. “Wayne has always been someone who experimented with form instead of someone who did it without form … Wayne is a real composer. He writes scores, writes the part for everybody just as he wants them to sound.”
As Davis began experimenting with electric keyboards and guitar, Shorter stayed with Davis and played on the pathbreaking electric records In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew. In spring 1970, however, he left the band, joining up with Zawinul, an Austrian keyboardist who had also contributed to those records, to form Weather Report. The group became the longest-lasting and most commercially successful of the great jazz-fusion bands, staying together until 1986 and producing the infectious crossover hit “Birdland.”
Though its output was sometimes uneven, Weather Report managed to mostly avoid the excesses and cheesiness associated with fusion. Zawinul came to dominate Weather Report compositionally and sonically, but Shorter’s horn playing and writing were essential to the group’s success. (His “Sightseeing,” an underappreciated classic, has recently enjoyed new attention from younger musicians such as Christian McBride and Anthony Fung.) Shorter also contributed a centerpiece solo to Steely Dan’s “Aja” in 1977, and played on multiple Joni Mitchell records.
His greatest post–Weather Report project didn’t appear until 2000, when he formed a quartet with the pianist Danilo Pérez, the bassist John Patitucci, and the drummer Brian Blade. Like Davis’s second great quintet, this band paired an eminence with players from a younger generation, and like the Davis band, this one expanded the bounds of acoustic jazz. The first time I heard them live, in Edinburgh in 2003, was one of the most dazzling performances I’ve seen. Playing without written music, the four musicians seemed psychically linked, navigating often obscure structures—none of the standard form of a melody, then a series of solos, then another turn through the melody. The band could lurch in any direction or around hairpin turns without warning but always functioned as one. A percussive explosion from Blade or surprise montuno from Perez would lead the music somewhere unexpected. (The group released three excellent live recordings.)
Shorter continued to produce music at a high level nearly to the end of his life. His 2018 record, Emanon, which paired the quartet with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and came with a graphic novel co-written by Shorter, topped many jazz critics’ year-end lists, and in 2021 he debuted … (Iphigenia), an opera co-written with the young bassist Esperanza Spalding.
Though Shorter didn’t sound quite as distinctive as his forebears Coltrane and Sonny Rollins on the tenor saxophone, he was still one of the instrument’s most original and important players. His three-and-a-half-minute solo take on “Thanks for the Memory”—synthesizing Charlie Parker’s bebop agility, Rollins’s raw power, and Illinois Jacquet’s honk—never ceases to thrill, while his gorgeous balladry on “A Remark You Made” is a study in direct expression. And Shorter was the most influential soprano saxophonist after Coltrane.
His serpentine and elliptical improvised lines, often turning in on themselves, echo his composed melodies. They also matched his koan-like manner of speaking in interviews. When you heard Shorter, you knew you were hearing wisdom, even if you couldn’t quite grasp it all right away.