Wayne Shorter is a Clay Aiken fan. “There’s a young guy on American Idol has a good voice,” he told me when I interviewed him two years ago, by coincidence the afternoon of season two’s final-results show. Not Ruben: “a victim of his environment,” limited to r&b. “The other guy. He’s got his own sound already, and it has a lot of depth and resonance.” Paul Anka’s gruesome rendition of “My Way” the previous night also met with Shorter’s approval. “Just the drama of it—I don’t care whether he was flat or how many mistakes he made. He gave those young people a music lesson, and I hope they were paying attention.”
Hemingway was correct that a writer needs a built-in shit detector, even if his own went on the fritz for good following his first two novels and the Nick Adams stories. But certain great musicians have been none the worse for lacking a built-in kitsch detector. Louis Armstrong dug Guy Lombardo, Coltrane watched the Marx Brothers for Harpo’s glissing interludes, and Jaki Byard wept when the society bandleader Frankie Carle’s network radio program was canceled. Shorter alchemized both Leroy Anderson (Raymond Scott for squares) and Charlotte Church (Britney Spears for celibates) on Alegría (2003), so why not Jeanette MacDonald? Beyond the Sound Barrier, recorded live at unspecified venues here and abroad over 18 months beginning in late 2002, opens with “Smilin’ Through,” sung by MacDonald to Gene Raymond (her real-life husband) in a 1941 movie of the same name. If operetta is faux opera, MacDonald’s musicals with Nelson Eddy were faux operetta. Yet “Smilin’ Through” proves an apt vehicle for Shorter, and who else would have the nerve to begin a live album (a faux concert) with a ballad?
Or not a ballad, exactly, because pianist Danilo Pérez, bassist John Patitucci, and drummer Brian Blade are already off to the races under a languorous Shorter theme statement whose cry of masculine vulnerability brings to mind Shorter’s 1964 recording of “The Barbara Song” as well as Gil Evans and Stan Getz’s 1949 “Early Autumn” with Woody Herman (a song Shorter played with big bands as a teenager in Newark). You expect Shorter to catch up and pull ahead, maybe on the bridge; instead, the rhythm section slows down and the very notion of tempo falls into abeyance until Shorter switches to soprano and everyone speeds up together. By the end, the only reminder of MacDonald’s trills is in Shorter’s obsessive circular breathing.
Shorter is as ruthless with his own earlier material, including the title track of his 1988 Joy Ryder and the thematically similar “Over Shadow Hill Way” from the same album. Remember when apologists for Weather Report and Shorter’s overlayered solo albums just afterward would try to convince the rest of us that cerebral fusion was just collective improvisation by other means—a plugged-in update of ’60s Miles? Though I still don’t buy this, Shorter’s acoustic revampings have me willing to concede a little ground. “Joy Ryder,” in fact, segues logically from a rhythm section tussle that sounds like improvised Bartók. With Pérez drumming chords, Patitucci sounding a suspenseful three-note ostinato, and Blade keeping up a constant chatter, “Joy Ryder” itself is beat crazy; it and “Over Shadow Hill Way,” which follows directly, use rhythm the way bebop does harmony, as both schema and springboard. Shorter’s soprano has sometimes been too sylvan for my tastes (he’s the slippery slope to Kenny G), but he sticks to the upper register here and proves shrillness can be a virtue. “Over Shadow Hill Way” crests to a volume an amplified band would be pressed to match, though with a clarity of purpose undetectable on the original recording.
Like Alegría‘s Villa-Lobos, the quartet’s adaptation of Mendelssohn’s “On Wings of Song” stays emotionally faithful while taking great liberties (one passage sounds like it could be the work of a 20th-century Mexican composer). The album’s loosest reinterpretation is of Shorter’s own “Go,” a classic from his Blue Note period here retitled “Beyond the Sound Barrier,” though the tossing melody emerges fully at the end, following five minutes or so of what sure sounds like free jazz—or the same sort of reasonable alternative that Shorter proposed around 1965, by which point free was going to extremes.
When Shorter left the Messengers in ’64, Art Blakey replaced him with John Gilmore. Imagining Shorter taking Gilmore’s chair in the Arkestra instead of joining Miles isn’t as far-fetched as it first seems. A film buff and cosmic thinker, he mused about the purpose of film music during my conversation with him. “Why is it there in movies when people are talking?” he asked. He and I were talking, he pointed out, and there isn’t any music. “Then again, then again.” I could just picture him in a sequined jerkin, traveling the space waves from planet to planet. And his slow eruptions on Beyond the Sound Barrier encourage the same fantasy.
The new album won’t garner as many hosannas as Footprints Live! did three years ago, because acoustic Shorter at the top of his game is no longer a surprise. This “live” album is even more deceitful than most: It strives to create the illusion of a continuous performance by occasionally blending one number into the next, as Shorter does onstage, but several tunes begin in medias res and the fade-outs inevitably leave you feeling cheated. Not that any of this really matters. Despite his previous disinclination to lead a band, Shorter now fronts what might be the most cohesive one in jazz. Listening to Danilo Pérez’s pleasant but meandering Live at the Jazz Showcase (Artist Share) after hearing his fierce attack on Beyond the Sound Barrier is all the evidence you should need that Shorter now has the Midas touch with sidemen too.
Wayne Shorter performs at Carnegie Hall June 17.