‘Emanon’ by Wayne Shorter Review: Grand Ambitions on Full Display
A new three-disc set includes work the jazz great recorded with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, performances at London’s Barbican and a graphic novel.
Sept. 10, 2018 3:26 p.m. ET
Wayne Shorter in 2013 Photo: Didier Baverel/WireImage
By now, it would seem hard to enlarge Wayne Shorter’s stature. Mr. Shorter, who turned 85 last month, stands among jazz’s great composers. His works form touchstones for the development of jazz musicianship and vistas from which even casual listeners expand their horizons. His velvety tone on tenor saxophone is among jazz’s alluring pleasures, his piquant sound on soprano saxophone a signal of its searching spirit. In the 1960s, as a member of Miles Davis’s quintet and through his own Blue Note recordings, Mr. Shorter helped establish important new musical directions. His subsequent work, including as a member of Weather Report, upended some of that very legacy while anticipating a jazz landscape only now firmly in view. In December, he will be one of four Kennedy Center Honorees, the annual Washington distinction for artists who have made extraordinary contributions to culture.
With his current quartet, now nearly two decades running, and including musicians roughly half his age—pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade—Mr. Shorter has scripted a daring late-career chapter. The group often employs his classic works as springboards toward collective improvisation, fostering what he calls “self-actualized communal leadership.” The music focuses on motion, dynamics and mood with little concern for style. Meanwhile, Mr. Shorter has suggested grander ambitions. “Without a Net” (Blue Note), released in 2013, featured Imani Winds, a chamber-music wind quintet, on a 23-minute piece, “Pegasus.”
That same year, Mr. Shorter upped his own ante. The day after a Carnegie Hall performance that paired his quartet with the 34-piece Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, he brought the combined ensembles into a recording studio for orchestrated versions of “Pegasus,” along with two new compositions, “Prometheus Unbound” and “Lotus,” and one older piece, “The Three Marias,” which first appeared on his 1985 album, “Atlantis.” These recordings form the first disc of “Emanon,” a fascinating new three-CD release out Friday, including two discs of quartet performances recorded at London’s Barbican in 2016, along with an 84-page graphic novel. (A deluxe edition also includes three 180-gram LPs.)
This new version of “Pegasus” begins with Mr. Perez sounding a crashing chord, and short bursts of theme from Mr. Shorter’s soprano saxophone. Once the orchestra joins in, the effect is something like an overture, with hints of Aaron Copland’s grandeur in the strings. Yet Mr. Shorter’s presence as a composer and orchestrator has little precedent. Tendrils of melody flower into larger movements. Foregrounds and backgrounds shift position with provocative beauty. The music sounds lush yet free of concert-music convention. When Mr. Shorter’s saxophone grabs the spotlight again near the end, he sounds gloriously unrestrained while highlighting the blues at the music’s core. In “Prometheus Unbound,” Mr. Shorter engages in some playful playful call-and-response with the orchestra’s strings. The harmonies of “Lotus” flicker with subtle yet forceful shifts of color. “The Three Marias,” arranged by Messrs. Perez and Patitucci, retains the original’s dancing quality, yet here, freed of its electric-bass anchor and fleshed out through orchestral textures, swirls with newfound possibilities.
Disc Two picks up where Mr. Shorter and the orchestra left off but enters through a side door. Mr. Shorter whistles the theme of “The Three Marias” as Mr. Patitucci bows his bass. Somewhere in the middle, Messrs. Shorter, Perez and Patitucci ruminate at length over four- and five-note snatches of the song. Later on, the group reaches a frenetic climax. Twenty-seven minutes later, it lands in a thoroughly unexpected place. The track is a thrilling example of their method for deconstructing Mr. Shorter’s music. It’s also a dramatic entry into the material from the Barbican concerts, which, taken on their own, would constitute a satisfying release.
Mr. Shorter’s music has long conveyed both an elder’s wisdom and a childlike sense of wonder. The graphic novel that accompanies this music draws upon both aspects. The powerful illustrations here, by artist Randy DuBurke, rekindle a spark of inspiration that perhaps began with “Another World,” a comic book about interstellar travel that Mr. Shorter wrote and drew when he was 15 years old. Writer Monica Sly collaborated with Mr. Shorter for this story of Emanon, a reluctant hero engaged in a righteous battle. The tale incorporates themes with which Mr. Shorter is fascinated and concerned: a sense of current political tensions; the scientific theory of a “multiverse”; and the Nichiren Buddhist teachings that have long guided Mr. Shorter’s life.
“Emanon”—a title lifted from a Dizzy Gillespie/Milton Shaw composition—is “Noname” spelled backward. This befits Mr. Shorter’s aesthetic, in which compositions blur their beginnings and ends, and stylistic monikers don’t apply. It’s no coincidence that Mr. Shorter aligned his quartet with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, which has no conductor (the musicians shape their sound cooperatively as a group).
Mr. Shorter’s music has always demanded alternate routes and suggested parallel worlds—it implies a multiverse of sorts. This package frames such ideas with splendor, elevating his stature in unexpected ways.
Mr. Blumenfeld writes about jazz and Afro-Latin music for the Journal.