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Wayne Shorter - Emanon Music Album Reviews

With his ever-ambitious quartet, the legendary saxophonist from many of Miles Davis’ best records again reimagines his own standards, now with the help of a graphic novel and an orchestra.

Wayne Shorter has released just four albums since 2002, all with the quartet of relatively young hotshots he formed only a couple of years earlier. By comparison, during one particularly productive span in the mid-’60s, the saxophonist issued seven now-canonical records in three years, even as he composed and performed at a furious pace with Miles Davis’ classic second quintet. But the purpose of Shorter’s current ensemble—a fierce and finessed assemblage, with Brian Blade on drums, Danilo Pérez on piano, and John Patitucci on bass—was never to put out easy records. Shorter started this band, in large part, to deconstruct his own compositions, many of which had become standard jazz repertory. He wanted to shake his music from the weight of legacy in a highly improvised, reactive setting where each member shared equal footing. The band’s anarchic approach hasn’t always worked on stage, but the quartet has nobly pursued this high-wire act for nearly two decades, a veritable eon in this realm.

Shorter’s new Emanon—that is, “no name” backwards, a title borrowed from a Dizzy Gillespie classic—makes up for lost time by gathering three discs of stage and studio work. It’s accompanied by a space-themed graphic novel of the same name, illustrated by accomplished comic artist Randy DuBurke and with text by Shorter and the screenwriter Monica Sly. Emanon combines a four-part suite recorded with the conductorless Orpheus Chamber Orchestra with two discs of the quartet playing those pieces and a few others live in London. The suite includes tunes that are old, recent, or altogether new—“The Three Marias,” from Shorter’s 1985 album, Atlantis, sits alongside “Lotus,” for instance, which makes its debut.

This assortment suggests a sort of circularity. Shorter is simultaneously looking back and forward, scrambling your sense of time and space. The ambitious works occasionally sound like scores, as in the opening to “Prometheus Unbound,” where snare rolls and dramatic string flourishes recall the overture to an imaginary musical. They feel static as a unit, perhaps because the 34-piece orchestra is so dense it drowns out the quartet. The orchestra and the quartet occasionally come together, as at the beginning of “The Three Marias,” in which Blade maneuvers deftly around a skittering melody. Still, the most satisfying moments come when the orchestra stops playing, allowing the quartet to settle into its own groove, as it does often for those London sets.

Live, the pieces begin slowly and somewhat tentatively. “The Three Marias,” for example, is recast as a 28-minute abstraction, the rhythm expanding and contracting as the band darts around it. But on each tune, at some point, a pulse appears and the musicians dig in. Pérez is a master of atmosphere, delivering dark vamps and bluesy licks on “Lotus” and “Adventures Aboard the Golden Mean,” a tune from the quartet’s 2005 album, Beyond the Sound Barrier. Patitucci holds down the low end with round, resonant notes. Like Tony Williams before him, Blade is the group’s trickster. His tom rolls, rat-a-tat snare work, and explosive bass-and-cymbal hits keep the music in flux. Shorter, on tenor and soprano saxophones, slithers in and out and around, often wailing wildly but at times playing tenderly.

Shorter turned 85 last month, and the Kennedy Center will honor him later this year. But he’s still a protean force, not focused on shoring up his oeuvre for preservation. He’s now working on an opera with the jazz singer and bassist Esperanza Spalding, and, in January, his quartet will play four nights at the SFJazz Center in San Francisco, a testament to his vitality. “At this point I’m looking to express eternity in composition,” Shorter, a practicing Buddhist, says in a biography. On Emanon, it’s thrilling to hear him search for it, even when he comes up short.

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