Even before that, Shorter was part of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers of the early 1960s, when he helped move jazz out of the hard-bop past and into a future that is still being defined. He was named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment of the Arts — the country’s highest honor for a jazz musician — in 1998 and has long been hailed as the finest living jazz composer.
He’s won nine Grammy Awards and, after stoking the furnace of jazz for so long, has earned the right to sit back and play a few of his greatest hits — if jazz musicians actually had hit records — for old time’s sake. He turned 80 last month, after all, and he’s spent the past months on a celebratory worldwide tour that has taken him from Panama across Europe to the Hollywood Bowl and now to the Kennedy Center, where he’ll appear Thursday with his quartet.
But if you’ve paid any attention to Wayne Shorter, you’d know that this is no nostalgia tour.
Remember “Speak No Evil,” “E.S.P.” and “Infant Eyes” from in the ’60s? You used to bop to Weather Report’s “Birdland” and “Mysterious Traveler”? Well, enjoy the memories, because Shorter isn’t going to relive the past for you.
Since 2001, with his new acoustic quartet, he’s been embarking on a musical journey that seldom looks back at the familiar signposts. Most of the pieces he performs these days are new, including “Gaia,” a composition he wrote for the dazzling young bassist-singer Esperanza Spalding, who will also appear Thursday with the National Symphony Orchestra.
Just don’t expect to leave the Kennedy Center humming any of Shorter’s new tunes. The sinuous melodies that used to crawl into your ear have given way to dashes, drops and flashing blades of aural color. His most recent recording, “Without a Net,” has been heaped with praise by critics, but it can be difficult to warm to, especially if you haven’t been following his recent music. The only tune on the disc that could be called a standard, “Flying Down to Rio,” was written for a Fred Astaire movie in 1933, the same year Shorter was born.
But he’s turned it inside out, with a darting, percussive quality that skitters along on the edge of dissonance. He keeps you on your toes and — sort of like Astaire, come to think of it — makes you admire his musicality and, even more, the sheer audacity of his performance. You marvel at how he can defy gravity and spin through impossible turns and still keep his balance.
“I have my own meaning for jazz,” Shorter says. “Jazz means, ‘I dare you.’ I dare you to get out of your comfort zone.”