Wayne Shorter, the iconic saxophonist, bandleader, and composer whose daring creativity helped redefine the sound of jazz several times over, has died at 89. Per The New York Times, “His publicist, Alisse Kingsley, confirmed his death, at a hospital. There was no immediate information on the cause.”
The Newark, NJ-native Shorter’s recorded catalog spanned eight different decades, from his 1959 debut, Introducing Wayne Shorter, through his 2022 collaborative LP, Live at the Detroit Jazz Festival, which just last month netted him (alongside Leo Genovese) a 2023 Grammy Award for Best Improvised Jazz Solo. During that time, jazz music underwent a complex and wide-reaching process of creative evolution, and Shorter’s fingerprints can be found on many of the most notable inflection points of that story.
In parallel with a decorated career as a bandleader and composer under his own name, Wayne Shorter was recruited to play with a long list of influential musicians through the years. In the early ’60s, he served a crucial role with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. In the second half of the ’60s, he served as a creative force alongside Miles Davis’ Second Great Quintet alongside Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams.
As Hancock explained of his time in the Second Great Quintet in Len Lyons‘ 1989 book, The Great Jazz Pianists: Speaking of Their Lives and Music, “The master writer to me, in that group, was Wayne Shorter. He still is a master. Wayne was one of the few people who brought music to Miles that didn’t get changed.”
After Miles Davis dissolved that project in 1968, he, Shorter, Hancock, and other contemporary jazz luminaries with broad interpretations of the medium sowed the seeds of a new sound with iconic albums like In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew in the late 1960s. The players involved in those two records went on to form the foundational jazz fusion bands of the 1970s. Hancock and Bennie Maupin launched Headhunters. John McLaughlin and Billy Cobham helped form Mahavishnu Orchestra. Chick Corea and Lenny White started Return to Forever. Wayne Shorter joined up with keyboardist Joe Zawinul to form Weather Report.
Shorter’s sound and approach to both the tenor and soprano saxophones evolved yet again with Weather Report, shying away from the lead soloist abilities for which he was known in favor of a more economical, reactive improvisation style, adding texture and harmony to the ideas presented by the band’s more prominent melodic voices like Zawinul and, for a time, bassist Jaco Pastorius.
Wayne Shorter continued to break out of traditional stylistic molds as the years went on. Beginning in the late 1970s, he forged a deep creative connection with folk singer Joni Mitchell and appeared on ten of her albums over the ensuing two-plus decades. His horn can also be heard on the title track to Steely Dan‘s 1977 jazz-rock classic, Aja. In 1988, he toured with Carlos Santana, and later, in 2016, he, Santana, and Herbie Hancock performed under the name Mega Nova along with bassist Marcus Miller and drummer Cindy Blackman Santana.
In 1997, he won new acclaim (and one of his many Grammy Awards) when he linked back up with Herbie Hancock for a piano/soprano sax duet album, 1 + 1. All the while, he continued to maintain a prodigious output of solo material in various configurations stretching through the 2010s (most notably the Wayne Shorter Quartet).
“The six years I was with Miles, we never talked about music. We never had a rehearsal,” Shorter told NPR in 2003. “Jazz shouldn’t have any mandates. Jazz is not supposed to be something that’s required to sound like jazz. For me, the word ‘jazz’ means, ‘I dare you.’ The effort to break out of something is worth more than getting an A in syncopation.”
Thank you, Wayne Shorter, for daring to break out of mold after mold.