Duke Ellington once remarked that there are only two kinds of music in the world: good music and bad music. A highly subjective scale by which to judge, to be sure, made all the more amusing by the routine spectacle of music fans, and jazz fans in particular, leaning into each other on the street in front of clubs, arms flailing wildly, arguing pointlessly about a certain musician’s ability to connect to the elusive spiritual unknown.
I know, because I was that guy–until I became a captive audience to the lines outside jazz clubs and overheard the debates native to that rare locale. It’s funny how we often won’t recognize our most irritating characteristics until we witness them displayed flagrantly by someone else, blathering loudly that, say, Pharoah Sanders is “really digging deep” or that James Carter is “a bag of tricks with no feeling.”
As much as jazz fans love to talk about depth and feeling, there’s really only one underlying question that determines if jazz is good or bad: Does it sound good?
To run with the example, let’s look at the great Pharaoh Sanders, whom none other than John Coltrane called a “large spiritual reservoir, always trying to reach out to truth”: most of his recordings simply don’t sound that good, ruined either by vocal warbling, electric instrumentation or excessive “exotic” accompaniment. Conversely, James Carter, perennially criticized by jazz intellectuals for selling sizzle instead of substance, has made a string of dazzling and largely listenable albums, with only one or two missteps along the way.
The difference boils essentially down to context–Carter performs primarily with a traditional small combo. It suits him very well, and it’s important to know that. In jazz, it’s been common to misguidedly focus on an individual instrument and thus bypass the overall sound. By several degrees of separation, that’s how we wound up with Kenny G as the bestselling jazz artist of all time.
Context isn’t everything, naturally, but it is this key element that brings us to Wayne Shorter, who performs Feb. 3 at the Marin Center. Shorter is an inarguably brilliant titan of the tenor saxophone, a masterful composer of the classics “Nefertiti,” “JuJu” and “Footprints,” among many others, and a surviving member of the golden age of Blue Note Records. He also, for some unknown reason, made lousy-sounding jazz music for almost 30 years.
From the young kid in New Jersey who got his start playing with Horace Silver and Art Blakey to the jazz legend of today, Shorter can be heard in a variety of settings, the bulk of which do him little justice. Think about it: when you reach for a Wayne Shorter album, do you grab 1964’s Speak No Evil with Elvin Jones and Herbie Hancock, or do you pull out 1975’s Native Dancer with Milton Nascimento and Airto Moriera? Both albums feature well-crafted compositions with fine playing, but Speak No Evil still holds up 40 years later, while Native Dancer belongs in the dustbin of early smooth-jazz dreck.
Shorter made his name in the legendary Miles Davis quintet of ’64-’68, a period which will probably always be regarded as his creative apex. But soon thereafter his muse was deterred (and his wallet lined) by the ’70s electric-fusion ensemble Weather Report, a group of musician’s darlings who proved that you should never listen to what a musician tells you. The 1980s were such a low-water mark for Shorter that he largely disappeared from the studio throughout the next two decades.
So when Wayne Shorter put together a traditional quartet at the turn of the century and recorded Footprints Live!, his first all-acoustic jazz album since the early 1960s, the welcome shock prompted an outpouring of honors among the jazz cognoscenti. Signaling not only a return to form but, yes, also to a wealth of depth and feeling, Shorter wasted no time making full use of the open space afforded him by the acoustic format. Its studio follow-up, Alegría, continued the thrust, and last year’s Beyond the Sound Barrier ranks alongside the saxophonist’s best work of the 1960s.
Wayne Shorter is back in the game.
Shorter has thoughtfully kept the same working group intact, and it is this group he will be appearing with in Marin, comprising drummer Brian Blade, pianist Danilo Pérez and bassist John Pattitucci. Such all-star sidemen would be a godsend for any leader, but for Shorter, who plays upon their vast dynamic abilities to staggering advantage, the fresh context is a pathway to unbridled imagination.
“I’m at a point,” Shorter recently declared, “where I’m just going to say, ‘To hell with the rules.’ That’s all I’m doing with the music now. I’m 71, I’ve got nothing to lose now. I’m going for the unknown.”
Wayne Shorter and his quartet perform on Saturday, Feb. 3, at the Marin Center, 10 Avenue of the Flags, San Rafael. 8pm. $25-$55. 415.499.6800.