It's hard to determine which act Wayne Shorter is on when it comes to his five-decade career. Breaking this long strange trip into four (too) neat divisions can perhaps give us a handle on the artistic trajectory of this equally brilliant and enigmatic figure.
First there were the acoustic years, the apprenticeships with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers and Miles Davis's mid-'60s quintet -- overlapping with Shorter's own influential Blue Note recordings -- cementing his reputation as a magisterial tenor and soprano saxophonist and composer of rare distinction. The Weather Report tenure followed as Shorter explored jazz-rock-funk fusion with the popular band; his never-quite-in-focus electric-acoustic solo career, covering the past two decades, is a third marking point. And now, in the past three years, Shorter has come full circle.
On last year's "Footprints Live!" Shorter mixed it up with a vigorous trio of younger, unplugged players, responding with focused and stirring improvising, a great deal on his often-neglected tenor, sending the message that all was well with this modern jazz giant. The future looked bright as Shorter approached his seventies.
Hot on the path of "Footprints" comes "Alegria," Shorter's first all-acoustic album since the late '60s. Apart from its overall excellence, "Alegria" is nothing like its predecessor. A studio creation, the new album features a host of supporting horns, winds and percussion, as well as a cello soloist, to bolster Shorter and his core trios; the steadying hand of producer and occasional arranger Robert Sadin can be felt throughout. Where the live album was all about contained explosiveness -- which often broke out, thrillingly, into the real deal -- "Alegria" maintains its composure.
Which isn't to say that Shorter keeps a lid on his abundant charms. Though there are a handful of sharp piano solos, Shorter remains the chief improviser, delivering stunning statements on both of his horns. His tenor work retains the same bite and elliptical delivery of his glory days, his soprano still remarkably free of all the sentimental tics that a few generations of sub-Shorter followers have allowed to seep in and demean the instrument. While the live album found Shorter working in the heat of the moment with gripping results, this studio project miraculously loses none of the spontaneity or passion that gives Shorter's playing its compelling individuality.
Fresh compositions don't seem to be on Shorter's mind these days so much as reworking older tunes and refashioning an eclectic melange of favorite material. So new versions of "Orbits," "Capricorn II" and "Angola" sidle up nicely to adaptations of classical work by Villa-Lobos and Leroy Anderson, a Latin pop song, a 12th-century carol and a Celtic mainstay, the gorgeous "She Moves Through the Fair." What could have come across as an unrelated grab bag, instead, through Shorter's unifying playing and ensemble vision, unfolds as a musical narrative issued from an inclusive, connective mind.
Jazz, to its credit, is blessed with some very hip elder statesmen -- welcome to the club Wayne.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8151.)