Wayne is coming to Lincoln Center. What will Wayne do? What will Wayne, who like Miles needs no last name (nor, I suppose, do Herbie, Ron, or Tony), ever do? The only thing certain is that he won’t do whatever we expect. No, that isn’t quite right, as he has trained us not to bring expectations to his performances, but rather anticipations–though he cannot quell our vain hope that he will parcel us into a time machine and do do that voodoo that he once did so well. Dream on, or better still, back to the recordings, which have grown in stature as few from that era have. The Lincoln Center program promised a new work for chamber orchestra and jazz musicians, an adaptation from Sibelius, and a retrospective running the gamut from the Blue Note pinnacle, Juju and Speak No Evil, to the recent Verve enigmas, High Life and 1+1. It did not promise nor deliver the saxophone virtuoso of yore. Indeed, as the orchestra set progressed, with Wayne alternating constantly between tenor and soprano–phrasing with the strings, overlaying a few phrases, launching blood-rushing solos that ran aground almost instantly in the clogged arteries of the composition–one couldn’t help suspecting that the musician who never wanted to be a leader, or at least postponed the obligation until he had no choice, was no longer interested in playing the saxophone either. Fair enough: focus on the composition. Easier said than done. If Franz Liszt announces a new work, follows the conductor onto the stage, and seats himself at the piano, you figure he’s going to play the damn thing. If the piece does not require his keyboard pyrotechnics, then Franz should either conduct from the podium or retire offstage. When Wayne holds a tenor saxophone in front of an open microphone, it is impossible to listen to the strings sawing a characteristically repetitive theme over funky rhythms without expecting him to mount a woolly assault. And when he repeatedly teases you with startling introductory figures only to quickly put the instrument down, lift another, and stand peering at the score, you find yourself focusing not on the piece at hand but on the absence it underscores. Where is Wayne? He’s there but he isn’t there.
The chimera of fusion obscures Wayne Shorter’s accomplishment and dilemma. Fusion isn’t the issue–he turns in his boldest playing in years on High Life. My guess is that, like Sonny Rollins, he is one of those painfully honest musicians who can’t happily fake an orgasm or traverse old ground. And if the commercial advantages of fusion kindle suspicions of compromise, the complexity of the work ought to defuse them. Jazz is in the business of fusing musics. In a radio interview a few years ago, Shorter offered an exemplary riposte to those who would isolate jazz from the rest of music. I paraphrase loosely from memory: If all the outlets and inlets of a great lake are closed, it will become fetid and die. More often than not fusion is meretricious and deserving of contempt. But that can hardly be said of Shorter, or of James Blood Ulmer, who happened to regroup the Odyssey band at the Knitting Factory the same week Shorter was mining the instrumentation and techniques of Europe and pop. Odyssey subsumes Hendrixian guitar colorations and the indigenous values of native fiddling and trap drumming in a trio that, for all the intimated borrowings (they are legion), sounds like nothing else.
Jimi Hendrix, like the early Ornette Coleman, embodied total freedom as a soloist, indulging long phrases and feedback wailing that cannot be contained in structural grids, supported by bass and drums. Ulmer, like the later (harmolodic) Coleman, plots his moves in tandem with his musicians, elaborating the illusion of freedom through compositional devices. That obvious lineaments of Ulmer’s style as singer and guitarist savor of Hendrix can hardly disguise the far more obvious distinctions. Hendrix did not play jazz–or at least not as well as rock: cf., his Wes Montgomery–inspired post–“Star-Spangled Banner” blues at Woodstock–and Ulmer will never be mistaken for a rock guitarist. Odyssey earns its star-spangled crescendos by a studied, incremental buildup of elemental blues riffs enveloped in the sweet burly dissonance of Ulmer’s guitar and the siren wail of Charles Burnham’s electric violin. Their intertwining, abetted by Warren Benbow’s drums, is so quenching that the addition of bass, let alone keyboard or wind instruments, might seem irrelevant at best and intrusive at worst.
Ulmer’s 1983 Odyssey (Columbia/Legacy) remains a singular album, a funhouse of reflections that change shapes depending on who’s in front of the mirrors. Pointedly excluded from the framework, despite Burnham’s academic training, is Europe. Instead we get a native American stew of jazz, blues, country, rock, pop, gospel, an extended riff on “Pop Goes the Weasel”–a solid-state mosaic, never a pastiche, in which musicianly conductivity is amplified by compositional finesse. After 15 years, the band that made Odyssey has adopted the name, with Ulmer so absorbed in the group aesthetic that he is second-billed to Burnham on the new record, Reunion (Knitting Factory Works). The violinist takes more expansive solos than 15 years ago, but they are tethered to Ulmer’s guitar-generated themes, and when they twirl in patterns with the drums, as on “Love Dance,” they produce something akin to a sophisticated reel. Many of the solos are embellishments on a centered thematic figure, which, when configured in a perpetual downward cast, can hardly fail to recall trademark compositions of Shorter.
Although he previously contributed to Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers such noteworthy themes as “Lester Left Town” and “El Toro,” the true Wayne, as opposed to the hard-bopping apprentice, makes his debut with the 1961 “Contemplation (Buhania’s Delight)”, a strangely colorful progression of chords wedded to a moody, memorable melody. Never widely performed, it establishes the m.o. of the composer who soon remade the Miles Davis Quintet with his naggingly original, gloomily unforgettable themes. Differences between his methods as player and composer were unmistakable: In the first role, he could not bear to repeat himself–even riffs were avoided; in the second, he made repetition a sine qua non that reached its apogee in the melodically static “Nefertiti”–and appeared in several guises at the Lincoln Center concert, especially in a vamp-till-ready encore with a booming emphasis on first beats.
As his association with Davis ended and he looked around for another leader (enter Joe Zawinul), Shorter found a second voice on soprano, taming that recalcitrant instrument with his dreamy, pitch-perfect articulation, generating an expressively melancholy sound that retained its abrasive edge in the upper register but avoided the Middle Eastern wail. His own albums, not as widely recognized in the ’60s as later, included Juju, which is so comprehensive a display of his tenor that you can begin to intuit from it his need to move on, and the more thematic works–from the folkloric Speak No Evil (with its homage to his daughter) to the cosmological Super Nova (with its homage to Billy Strayhorn), plus his intervening attempt to explore God’s own purview in The All-Seeing Eye. I often got the feeling, perhaps unfairly, that he was hiding out in Weather Report, but I hear little in those years to rival the pictorial intensity of his writing since then, especially on the 1+1 duets with Herbie Hancock–an insidiously programmed collection of unwavering pensiveness that can only be appreciated or endured a few tracks at a time. Two pieces from that album provided the highlights at Lincoln Center. For while there was a mild charge in hearing tight Blakey-era voicings on “Speak No Evil,” his vocalized skittery arpeggios on “JuJu,” and an inexplicable four-beat treatment of Sibelius’s “Valse Triste,” there was true beauty in “Meridianne–A Wood Sylph,” in which pianist Eric Reed outdid himself laying out changes behind Shorter’s written statements and then embroidering them in his solos, and “Aung San Suu Kyi,” perhaps Shorter’s most exquisite ballad to date. He hardly improvised on those pieces, and didn’t need to. They filled the room in a way the chamber orchestra could not. The fusion process was–as it should be, as it is in Odyssey–invisible.