Wayne Shorter – Alegria
(Verve – 2003)
by Eugene Holley, Jr.
In contemporary comic book lore, there was a figure named Galactus. He was a scientist who survived the big bang that ended his universe and created ours. In the process, he became a powerful demi-god with unlimited power; a force beyond space and time.
The Newark-born tenor/soprano saxophonist/composer Wayne Shorter, who turns 70 this year, is the jazz version of Galactus. Or, put in another way, he is the last jazz god. He is the most evocative composer of the modern jazz era. His urgent, Coltrane-influenced sax sound, his stints with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, Miles Davis and Weather Report and his classic compositions span the ebb of the hard-bop of the late ’50s to the daring avant-garde and fusion period of the late ’60s and early ’70s. Beyond jazz, Shorter’s collaborations with Milton Nascimento, Steely Dan and Joni Mitchell made his recordings with those artists collector’s items.
But as far-reaching as his ’80s and ’90s projects, from Atlantis to the Grammy Award-winning High Life, generations of Shorter fans hungered for the maestro to return to a more acoustic sound. Last year, the CD Footprints Live! — with pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade — quenched that desire. Imagine an ancient Egyptian scribe who wrote hieroglyphics thousands of years ago, helping present-day Archaeologists translate those symbols into today’s modern languages, and you’ll get the vibe of awe that musicians and listeners felt when they heard classics like “Footprints” and “Juju” played in the present tense.
Shorter’s newest CD, Alegria (Spanish for Joy), is the first studio project since the Grammy Award-winning 1995 album High Life, and it is the most comprehensive recording he has ever made. If Footprints Live! represented the rebirth of Shorter’s classic musical language from the ’60s, then this CD heralds the birth of a new musical civilization signatured by the saxophonist’s expansive musical worldview and evocative arrangements. Co-producing this massive project is Robert Sadin, the brilliant, but underrated arranger who also worked magic on Herbie Hancock’s Gershwin’s World and Kathleen Battle’s So Many Stars. Like those projects, Sadin frames Shorter’s music with a woodwind/chamber/brass ensemble that encompasses jazz, world and classical textures that provide the Shorter with his most poignant sonic setting on record.
Danilo Perez and Brad Mehldau are on piano, John Patitucci again is on bass and Brian Blade is behind the drum kit, along with Terri Lyne Carrington. The Peruvian Alex Acuna, an old Weather Report bandmate with Shorter, joins the group on percussion. The CD’s lone new tune, “Sacajawea” is a successor to Shorter’s Blue Note ditty “Adam’s Apple.” It’s an ironically upbeat boogalo penned for the Indian girl who “helped” Lewis & Clark” explore the American west. Although it serves as the “overture” to this recording, the haunting “Black Swan (In Memory Of Susan Portlynn Romeo)” the last track on High Life, makes a more fitting intro. “Vendiendo Alegria,” by Antonio Molina, was a song suggested by Miles Davis in the ’60s and its Andalusian airs suggest deeper shades of Sketches of Spain. A martial reincarnation of “Capricorn II” from Davis’ supergroup which included Shorter, Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter, recalls Tony Williams’ “Rat Patrol sound” on the trap drums, courtesy of Blade’s Louisiana-born cadences. The anonymously-penned “12th Century Carol” was first played by Shorter when he was a student at New York University and is reborn with a peppery, African beat.
For this writer, Shorter’s futuristic and folkloric treatment of Villa-Lobos’ “Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5” is, to coin Duke Ellington’s phrase, “Beyond Category.” Villa-Lobos wrote this work after he sailed down the Amazon river recording Tupi Indian melodies. Shorter travels down the same route as Villa-Lobos, powered by Acuna’s Afro-Luso rhythms and Bach’s interlocking counterpoint portrayed by cellist Charles Curtis. Then in the middle of the composition, Shorter and label-mate Chris Potter engage in a tenor sax dialogue representing the mix of Europe, Africa and indigenous sounds that comprise that huge south American country. Then, the track concludes and brilliantly seques into an anthemic update of Shorter’s “Angola,” from the LP The Soothsayer, propelled by Carrington’s “Drum is a Woman” motherland pulses.
Shorter’s soprano and tenor playing is his most expressive in years. Throughout the CD Shorter’s growls, slurs, attacks and weight of sound show that he’s still, as his friend John Coltrane said, “… scrambling them eggs,” creating aural omelettes that combine the tenor and soprano sax into one meta-horn configured by Shorter’s unlimited musical vistas.
Wayne Shorter once said that, late in his career, he could “finally hear the full sound of an orchestra,” compositionally speaking. If this CD is any indication, his conception of music is more than the artistic statement of one artist: It’s the soundtrack of the 21st century.