Alegría, Wayne Shorter's first all-acoustic studio recording as a leader since 1967, finds him working with a rich and broad palette of orchestral colors, including percussion, brass, woodwinds, and strings and drawing upon musical inspirations that span the past millennium. Alegría features a traditional Celtic folk song, a Bach-inspired piece by the modern Brazilian classical master Heitor Villa-Lobos, a popular Spanish song of the 1960s-alongside radical re-workings of some of his own famed compositions from the 1960s, and one new work, the smoking boogaloo "Sacajawea."
Shorter says he's worked to achieve his panoramic perspective: "The key thing about this album is that it represents an ongoing process of me learning how to get out of my own way. Tiger Woods once said that he lost a golf match because he was in his own way. Imagine if Beethoven had gotten in his own way-he would have written all his major symphonies for himself as a concert pianist! When you're modest enough, it broadens your perspective, and you can be free to do anything."
Any recording from the internationally acclaimed jazz figure is eagerly anticipated, but Alegría has special significance as it comes on the heels of the phenomenally successful Footprints live! This 2002 release was Shorter's premier live recording, documenting the first time he had ever toured as the leader of his own acoustic group. The quartet is comprised of some stellar young musicians, Danilo Perez, John Patitucci, and Brian Blade, who each put aside their own highly respected bands to tour with Shorter. Footprints live! earned a Grammy nomination for Best Jazz Instrumental Album and was universally lauded. The record topped "Best of 2002" lists in The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times, and won a rare five stars from DownBeat magazine. European press rivaled that enthusiastic response: the Academy of Arts in France named Footprints live! Best Jazz Album, and Italy awarded the record three top prizes.
Alegría was recorded in advance of the Footprints live! tour, and includes three selections with his hit quartet, which critics, musicians, and fans are calling the "best small group in jazz." "This recording was really the only rehearsal we had," Shorter says. "The seeds of Footprints live!, its initiation, is subtly evidenced in some of this studio music. After we finished recording in the studio, we were able to build from there with the tour and create the stories you hear on the road."
With the assistance of producer Robert Sadin, (Herbie Hancock's Gershwin's World), Shorter drafted the quartet members, and several other creative young players as collaborators, including drummer Terri Lyne Carrington and pianist Brad Mehldau. On four tracks a sure sense of groove is supplied by Alex Acuña, the percussionist who played with Shorter and Joe Zawinul in Weather Report.
Wayne Shorter's own background is inextricably linked to the history of modern music. Shorter was born in 1933 in Newark, New Jersey and studied visual art at the Arts High School there, but was attracted to music and began playing the clarinet at the relatively late age of fifteen. "I liked the storytelling role of the clarinet that I heard on compositions like "Scheherezade", Shorter remembers. "It was just glowing with possibility there in the shop window, with its shiny silver keys."
He graduated to the tenor saxophone when he was seventeen, and within a couple years his brilliant playing on the horn had earned him the nickname "The Newark Flash" across the river in Manhattan. He joined up with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers in 1959, and it wasn't long before Shorter began gaining notice as a composer and was promoted to "musical director" of the Messengers.
When Shorter joined the Miles Davis band in 1964, his writing was vital to establishing the sound of that classic quintet with Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams. Davis typically reworked the compositions of his sidemen but granted Shorter rare autonomy: "When I wrote stuff Miles would say, 'There's no need to change any of Wayne's music. It's all there.'"
While recording prodigiously as a leader on his own Blue Note dates, Shorter continued to work with Miles. When he followed Miles on his excursions into electric jazz, he adopted the soprano saxophone as a second instrument, winning the best soprano category in DownBeat magazine Readers Poll for seventeen
years. Shorter co-founded Weather Report with Joe Zawinul, and he enlarged his compositional canvas with sprawling fusion works that succeeded commercially as well as artistically-1977's Heavy Weather went gold.
In the '80s and '90s Shorter worked on several soundtracks, and lent his finesse to the pop music of Steely Dan, Joni Mitchell, and Carlos Santana, among others. He recorded several solo albums for Columbia Records, and then two Grammy award-winning records for Verve: High Life in 1995, and 1+1, a 1997 duo recording with longtime associate Herbie Hancock.
Alegría synthesizes many aspects of Shorter's career into a forward-thinking retrospective of musical languages and styles. Of the record's style, Shorter jokes, "I'd call it impressionistic, but don't want to say French impressionism, cause they put a big price tag on that."
Bassist John Pattitucci says that Shorter possesses the prowess of many classical composers combined. "Wayne's got a feel for the melody, like Puccini, on an extremely high level, but he's also got the harmonic complexity, like Ravel. He's got a bunch of stuff going on at the same time."
Shorter showcases his growth as a composer with reworkings of some of his older material, including "Capricorn" , "Orbits" , and "Angola" , a tune he originally recorded at one of his 1965 Blue Note sessions. In its earlier incarnation, "Angola" sped along, tight and swinging. Here, with layered African rhythms opening up the tune vertically and a horn chorus broadening the melody, Angola is reharmonized and restructured into an entirely new sound.
"You don't have to be governed or restricted by playing solos on a 'prefabricated" harmony,' Shorter says. "When we have one harmony start off and it doesn't have to come around a second or third time, you're not restricted, and you start to create a new drama extemporaneously, right on the spot, not really knowing where it's going to go."
One of the record's most beautifully realized tunes is Villa-Lobos's "Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5", which was arranged by Sadin. On the piece, a plucked cello chorus seems to be holding court for Alex Acuña's Afro-Brazilian percussion. Shorter's tenor improvisation, a study in moody refinement, offers a contrapuntal foil to the cello's statement of the famous melody.
Some of the selections on Alegría came to Shorter quite serendipitously. A few years ago Shorter discovered some sheet music tucked away in a piano bench, including "12th Century Carol", a choral piece he sang as a student at New York
University. The medieval carol blossoms here with Shorter's groove-based variations.
From the same "time capsule" piano bench Shorter exhumed "Vendiendo Alegría", a 1930s flamenco tune popularized by Spanish singer Antonio Molina and Orquestra Montillo. Miles Davis gave Shorter the music in the mid-'60s, suggesting that he "do something with it."
"As I started investigating the tune," Shorter says, "I was struck by how simplistic the melody was, and I wanted to celebrate it with an arrangement that would have it grow." Shorter applied some of Miles Davis's lessons in the tune's rearrangement. "When Miles would change things in existing compositions, mostly he would take out notes, notes, notes, notes to let all the jazz ditties out. Miles would make space for them. Space has its own groove and swing."
Shorter points out that the word "space" can have multiple associations, and connects its interplanetary meaning to his defining vision for Alegría: "If you get into an aircraft and go a certain distance from the earth and turn on a sound device, you'd hear all different cultures and sounds going on at the same time. That's something like what I'm trying to do on Alegría; there is presence yet not intrusion; consonance yet not complete unity. And you've got to keep it all grooving; that's another challenge right there."
One of the most grooving tunes on Alegría is the lead track, "Sacajawea," a new Shorter composition. Its boogaloo feel is in the tradition of "Sidewinder", the classic tune by his onetime Jazz Messengers bandmate Lee Morgan. As for the expectations the title might set up, Shorter says, "It doesn't have the ceremonial sound you'd typically associate with Indians in a Western film. This could be an expression of Native American children, playing to surprise each other. The recurring melody is about tenacity, and the shout-out at the end is an ultimate declaration of affirmation."
Shorter's description of "Sacajawea" is true of his overall artistry. His music transcends genre while keeping the improvisational genius and surprise of jazz burning at the center. Shorter celebrates his 70th birthday in 2003. Inspired by the younger members of his quartet, he's creating some of the most powerful music of his career. Shorter's childlike imagination and ceaseless innovation in music invite comparison to the enduring vitality of Picasso in the world of art or of Bergman in film.
This exquisite and moving recording is a towering peak in Shorter's outstanding career, and will no doubt garner more success for the composer and performer. For Wayne Shorter, the secret to that success is finding Alegría or "joy" in continued creativity: "It's not how far can you go on any given record, it's where you can go after it's done. Happiness is a work in progress."