Wayne Shorter's 'Emanon' Is An Oversized, Mixed-Media Jazz Event

Sep 17, 2018
Originally published on September 17, 2018 2:32 pm
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Our jazz critic Kevin Whitehead describes saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter as one of jazz's wise elders. Decades after he changed modern music a couple of times as a member of Miles Davis' 1960s quintet and then as co-founder of the band Weather Report, Shorter is still breaking ground. Kevin says Shorter's new album is big. In some ways, maybe too big.

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KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Wayne Shorter's new triple album, "Emanon," is a big deal. On one disc, his jazz quartet is embedded in the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra to play four of his compositions. Then come two live sets by the quartet alone in which they play three of the same pieces in their own freewheeling style.

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WHITEHEAD: As if this musical event were not event enough, Wayne Shorter's "Emanon" - that's no name spelled backwards - also includes a graphic novel introduced with an essay by Esperanza Spalding. Randy DuBurke's striking imagery was inspired by the orchestra pieces. Lifelong comic book fan Shorter helped craft the 74-page story. It involves a loner hero fighting the good fight on four grim but disparate worlds in the same multiverse.

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WHITEHEAD: A cynic might view this oversized package more as a collectible object than a multiversal, new mixed-media art form. The graphic novel's hero battles the dark powers, but to my ears the music that inspired the story is brightly colored and about mutual respect. Where Shorter plays over the orchestra, the forces are in balance. He weaves his improvised soprano sax into his written music.

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WHITEHEAD: Wayne Shorter doesn't accompany the orchestra as much as you might wish, but he's always been an economical, almost shy soloist. And it's not like he's a kid anymore. Having the classical and jazz ensembles play some of the same pieces does suggest the graphic novels' parallel worlds. "Emanon" spreads two sets of quartet music over two CDs, though it all would have fit on a single disc. On one set, Shorter features tenor saxophone but rarely builds much momentum on the big horn. He may treat his tenor like one voice within the ensemble rather than its proud lead voice.

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WHITEHEAD: Although many Wayne Shorter fans prefer his brawny tenor, the smaller soprano sax became his main axe decades ago. Its piercing tone lets him be heard over and above dense backgrounds, and he gets a more startling sound up high. But as on tenor, he'd rather react than act up. Some of his best moments come in dialogue with pianist Danilo Perez.

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WHITEHEAD: John Patitucci on bass and Brian Blade on drums. By custom, the quartet Wayne Shorter has led intermittently since 2001 doesn't rehearse. They work out interpretive details onstage. That can make for some laggard as well as thrilling moments in contrast to the cleaner but more contained sound of the chamber orchestra in the same pieces. Shorter says the takeaway is that there's no fixed or final form to these compositions. They are ever in flux, floating out here in the multiverse.

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GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure. He reviewed "Emanon," the new album by Wayne Shorter. Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews the new book "The Real Lolita" about the story of the kidnapping of Sally Horner and the influence it had on Nabokov's novel "Lolita." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF QUINCY JONES' "MONTY, IS THAT YOU?") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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