By Dave Pehling
SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — Arguably the most important living saxophonist on the planet, gifted songwriter and musician Wayne Shorter has been shaping the course of jazz for the past six decades.
A lifelong player who studied music in high school and New York University with the encouragement of his parents (Shorter’s father prodded him to to take up the clarinet in his teens), the musician managed to work briefly with pianist Horace Silver during a stint in the Army before entering full-time employment in trumpet player Maynard Ferguson’s band after being discharged.
Shorter’s first big break came when he was invited to join drummer Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in 1959. The definitive hard-bop ensemble of the era, Blakey’s group was already known to be a proving ground for young jazz phenoms. That reputation grew during Shorter’s five-year stretch with the band when the membership would include such powerhouse players as trumpeters Lee Morgan and Freddie Hubbard and pianists Bobby Timmons and Cedar Walton.
It was during his tenure as saxophonist and musical director that iconoclastic trumpet genius Miles Davis tried to poach Shorter for his own group after the departure of John Coltrane. Shorter would decline, but he would eventually be persuaded by the persistent bandleader to join one of the most storied jazz quintets of all time in 1964.
The all-star group that also included teenage drum virtuoso Tony Williams, bassist Ron Carter and master piano player Herbie Hancock would push Davis to new heights on a string of five classic albums like E.S.P., Miles Smiles and Nefertiti that would feature many Shorter compositions (“Footprints,” “Sanctuary” and “Orbits”) that became jazz standards. At the same time, Shorter released a remarkable series of his own albums as a leader for Blue Note that remain some of the most beloved modal jazz records of the ’60s.
The quintet would also help usher Davis into his electric era with the inclusion electrified instrumentation on Miles in the Sky and the group’s swan song, Filles De Kilimanjaro. While the quintet would dissolve, Shorter, Hancock and Williams continued to play an important part in the landmark electric-jazz recordings that followed — In a Silent Way in 1969 and the epochal Bitches Brew the next year. Those sessions also introduced Shorter to keyboard player Joe Zawinul.
Shorter and Zawinul would team to form the adventurous all-star group Weather Report in 1971. The pair anchored the ensemble as it evolved from avant-garde electric jazz to funky fusion to global groove for the next 15 years with a variety of contributing players including bassists Miroslav Vitous, Alphonso Johnson and troubled genius Jaco Pastorius as well as drummers Peter Erskine, Chester Thompson and Alex Acuña.
Though Weather Report rose to become one of the biggest fusion groups of the ’70s, Shorter still managed to squeeze in other important projects like his collaborative album Native Dancer with Brazilian songwriter Milton Nascimento, the ’60s Miles Davis quintet reunion V.S.O.P. with Freddie Hubbard taking over on trumpet and session work for such notables as Joni Mitchell, Carlos Santana and Steely Dan. Shorter continued into the ’90s recording his own electric jazz albums as a leader and reviving his collaborations with Hancock in several settings.
In 2002, Shorter entered a new era with his long-running acoustic quartet featuring bassist John Patitucci, Panamanian pianist Danilo Perez and gifted drummer Brian Blade. That group has dazzled audiences the world over and backed the now 83-year-old saxophone great on several live albums including Shorter’s most recent acclaimed effort for Blue Note, 2013’s Without a Net. For this special run of performances at the SFJAZZ Center’s Miner Auditorium, Shorter’s quartet will feature earlier collaborator Terri Lynn Carrington filling in for an absent Brian Blade.
Wayne Shorter Quartet
Thursday-Sunday, April 27-30, 7:30 p.m. (4 p.m. on Sun.) $40-$115
SFJAZZ Center Miner Auditorium