Back in 1978, when I was 14 years old, I got a copy of Steely Dan’s album “Aja”. Listening to this album was like entering into a new undiscovered world. Around this time, I was getting into jazz and my introduction to the art form was initially through bands on the poppier edge – bands like Spyro Gyra and Seawind. “Aja” is just as much of a jazz album as it a pop album, and when it was released, it didn’t really sound like anything else out there.
For me, the highlight of this wonderful album has always been the title track. The song “Aja” is expansive and expressive in a way that is completely unique in the entire Steely Dan catalogue. In the very center of this 8 minute piece is an improvisation between saxophonist Wayne Shorter and drummer Steve Gadd against the backdrop of Michael Omartian’s rhythmic piano jabs. The expressiveness and interplay between these musicians is quite remarkable! Wayne Shorter was playing sax lines unlike anything I had ever heard. I remember around this time telling my high school friend/drummer Ed Snyder that Wayne Shorter was my favorite sax player. He has remained so ever since!
A bit later, I was introduced to Wayne’s innovative band Weather Report through their album “Mr. Gone”. It was through this album that I began to experience how he used space and economy in his playing. It was also my introduction to Wayne’s brilliance as a composer.
His pieces from that album, “Pinocchio” (which was originally recorded with Miles Davis), and “The Elders” both express melodies which are at once angular and mysterious. He is still one of my favorite composers!
In early 1980, Ed and I went to see Weather Report live at Perkins Palace in Pasadena. As much as I loved Weather Report from their recordings, seeing them play live was such a revelation. By this time in the band’s evolution, they had developed a style of group improvisation where, in the words of drummer Peter Erskine, “Everyone soloed and no one soloed”. The improvisational interplay between the musicians became more important than what any given “soloist” was doing. This too would have a lasting impact on me, and would be an aesthetic that Wayne would carry into his subsequent bands.
A few years later, I went with my friends Scott Eilers and Robb Dominguez to see Jaco Pastorius’ Word of Mouth Band at The Palace in Beverly Hills. While we were waiting for the show to start, I noticed Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter walking into the theatre. This was a year of so after Jaco left Weather Report. Wayne and Joe ended up sitting just a few rows in front of us. I had the opportunity to briefly meet them both, and tell them how much their music meant to me. It was such an honor, and a memory that I will always carry with me!
Joni Mitchell has been one of my favorite songwriters ever since I feel in love with her 1979 album “Mingus” when I was in high school. Wayne had a very special musical relationship with Joni. From 1976 – 2002, he played on 11 of her studio albums. This was the longest-term musical collaboration in both Wayne’s & Joni’s careers!
His soprano sax created an emotional and musical dialogue with Joni’s voice that was unlike any other. The way they worked together was pure magic!
In 2000, Wayne initiated a new quartet with pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Patitucci, and drummer Brian Blade. This incredible group would stay together as a band for the rest of Wayne’s life.
Through his years with the great Miles Davis Quintet, and then with Weather Report in the 70s, Wayne was at the vanguard of creation of a form of group improvisation that exerted a great influence on modern music. This form of conversational improvisation would reach it’s highest peak in Wayne’s quartet. I had the great blessing of being able to see this group twice; once at The Masonic in San Francisco in the early 00s, and once at SF Jazz in 2014. This group achieved such a completely magical balance between improvisation and composition. The musical chemistry that this band achieved under Wayne’s inspiration is unlike anything else I have ever experienced. In my opinion, they were by far the most important jazz band of their time!
In all, I have seen Wayne perform live 8 times through the years. It has always been such an inspiration, and I feel really lucky to have been on the planet at the same time as this incredible human being!
In 2014, I started playing music with reeds player Randy McKean and guitarist Sean Kerrigan. This mbira, reeds, and guitar trio became known as Tumble.
One of the first things we did together was a groove centric arrangement of Wayne Shorter’s tune “Down In the Depths”. Wayne recorded this in 1959 for his very first solo recording “Introducing Wayne Shorter”. I had been listening intensely to this piece, and could hear such emotional “depth” as well as an interesting angularity and tension in the melody.
Although Wayne’s version was played in the bebop style with lots of intricate chord changes, I could hear how this melody could also be interpreted against a solid bluesy ostinato. We ended up recording our version of this piece on our 2017 album “Music For Trio”.
About a year later, my bandmates and I started thinking about another Wayne Shorter piece to cover. I had been kicking around a slower, more contemplative take on “Black Nile”. This piece was taken from Wayne’s 1964 album “Night Dreamer”. Unbeknownst to me, Sean had been working up a crazy cool mixed time signature riff which fit over the introduction of the piece.
I had completely skipped over that section of the composition in my version. It was amazing that out of all the many compositions of Wayne Shorter, Sean and I were both drawn to work on “Black Nile”. We joined forces and put together an arrangement that had elements from both of our sketches. It was meant to be! We recorded our version of “Black Nile” on our second album “Waves”.
By that time, we were playing with bassist Bill Douglass and are quite honored that he worked with us on that project!
Since Wayne Shorter was such a huge influence on all of us in the band, we had long talked about doing an entire concert featuring our interpretations of Wayne’s music. This is finally coming to fruition on Saturday November 11, 2023 at The Side Door in Sacramento.
Poster by Kathy Dotson
For this special performance, we are doing our interpretations of pieces from Wayne’s repertoire that he composed between 1959 – 1964. We’re super happy to have our friend/saxophonist Tony Passarell and his quintet joining us for this performance. They will be featuring Wayne’s music that he composed from the late 60s through the 80s.
I cannot express how excited I am for this evening in honor of the musical genius of Wayne Shorter and the great influence he has had on our lives as musicians!
Wayne Shorter passed into eternity on March 2, 2023 at the age of 89. His vision remains deeply relevant to our world today – a vision that has always been expansive and deeply humanistic. As a long-term practicing Buddhist, he has strived to tap into the sense of life’s mystery in his music and performance, and communicate that vision to his fellow human beings. He described the music his quartet performed as “zero gravity” music. I also really love his definition of jazz – “Jazz means I Dare You.” We aspire to bring some of that spirit to our performance on 11/11/23.