The sad death of soprano/tenor sax titan Wayne Shorter has inspired many column inches but, reading most of the obituaries, you might be forgiven for thinking that he was completely dormant during the 1980s.
Nothing could be further from the truth, even if he took more of a backseat in his ‘day job’ co-leading Weather Report (though still contributed brilliant compositions, of which more later).
Your correspondent has to declare a large interest. Wayne’s music was part of my DNA from early doors, probably courtesy of the memorable tunes ‘Harlequin’ and ‘Palladium’ on WR’s Heavy Weather and beguiling ‘The Elders’ and ‘Pinocchio’ on Mr Gone which my dad played throughout my childhood.
By 1985, I was all-in. Wayne was my E.T. and my Monk, Virgo Rising, delivering nuggets of brilliance straight into my burgeoning musical brain. WR’s Sportin’ Life made a huge impression, featuring his majestic composition ‘Face On The Barroom Floor’.
Then Wayne’s contributions to Joni Mitchell’s music started to register – there were many highlights throughout the 1980s, from ‘Be Cool’ and ‘Love’ on Wild Things Run Fast to ‘A Bird That Whistles’ on Chalk Mark In A Rainstorm.
Then his solo album Atlantis hit. Strange to report though, apart from the opening ‘sweetener’ ‘Endangered Species’, I failed to really ‘understand’ this dense, intricately arranged record of acoustic chamber fusion for about 20 years. I’m bloody glad I persevered.
Phantom Navigator came hot on its heels. Like his friends and bandmates Miles and Herbie Hancock (and inspired by his commitment to Human Revolution), Wayne was tired of improvising over ‘jazz’ rhythms and standard songforms, branching out into symphonic/through-composed material utilising synthesizer and sampling technology. But of course it sounded completely unlike anyone else. ‘Condition Red’ was an immediate brain-blower, and again this most misunderstood/underestimated album has proved a sleeper classic.
Ditto 1988’s Joy Ryder, with the extraordinary ‘Someplace Called Where’ featuring Dianne Reeves, brilliant ‘Over Shadow Hill Way’ and some fantastic Hancock/Geri Allen/Darryl Jones/Nathan East/Terri Lyne Carrington interplay throughout.
The 1980s Columbia albums get fairly short shrift in critical circles these days but Wayne played several compositions from that era – ‘Atlantis’, ‘Over Shadow Hill Way’, ‘Joy Ryder’, ‘Endangered Species’, ‘The Three Marias’ – right through to the 2010s.
Then there were the intriguing 1980s guest spots and side projects: he acted memorably in ‘Round Midnight’ and contributed to gorgeous ‘The Peacocks’ and brilliant ‘Une Noche con Francis’ (duelling with Dexter Gordon) on the Oscar-winning soundtrack album.
There was a moving guest performance on Toninho Horta’s ‘Ballad For Zawinul’ from the guitarist’s Diamond Land album (still not available on streaming platforms at time of writing) and the memorable team-up with pianist Michel Petrucciani and guitarist Jim Hall on Power Of Three.
Wayne also contributed a fine solo to Stanley Clarke’s ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’ and played beautifully throughout Buster Williams’ 1988 album Somethin’ Else. (Chime in below if I have missed any other great Wayne 1980s guest performances.)
Wayne ended a fruitful decade recording The Manhattan Project’s excellent self-titled live Blue Note album at Chelsea Studios, NYC, in December 1989 alongside Clarke, Petrucciani and Lenny White (c’mon Universal, get this on streaming platforms). He plays some marvellous stuff throughout, particularly on Jaco Pastorius’s ‘Dania’, new composition ‘Virgo Rising’ and a reversioned ‘Nefertiti’.
Then there was the live work. Wayne toured the UK regularly between 1985 and 1988. I think I saw him four times during the decade, and each concert was fascinating.
There was a Weather Report gig at the Dominion Theatre in summer 1984, a poorly-attended solo gig at the Logan Hall on 25 October 1985 (‘lack of promotion ’, someone said to my dad) and a really weird all-nighter at the Town & Country Club on 4 April 1987 when Wayne’s sci-fi fusion stopped the jazz dancers in their tracks!
Then there was a gig with Carlos Santana at the Royal Festival Hall on 13 July 1988 of which I can’t remember much apart from a few hippies in the front row loudly saluting every note Carlos played, and Ndugu Chancler’s absurdly-high cymbal setup. (There was also apparently a solo Wayne gig at The Astoria in April 1988 which for some reason I missed.)
I would study him and his sidemen (and, notably, sidewomen: his 1980s bands featured no less than five women, Marilyn Mazur, Geri Allen, Tracy Wormworth, Renee Rosnes and Carrington), fascinated and enthralled by the originality of his music and playing.
Farewell to a master, a talisman, an enlightened being. Nam myoho renge kyo.
Further listening: check out my Wayne playlist which outlines some key tracks of his career.