Jazz shouldn’t have any mandates. Jazz is not supposed to be something that’s required to sound like jazz. For me, the word ‘jazz’ means, ‘I dare you.’
Wayne Shorter, the last saxophonist standing from jazz’s golden age, its great lateral thinker both as player and composer, tossed off that quote in 2013 when he turned 80. For his 85th birthday, Shorter has tripled down: his latest project Emanon breaches multiple boundaries, stretching out not just beyond jazz, but beyond music itself.
Emanon (“no name” spelled backwards, referencing both a Dizzy Gillespie tune and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man) is a marvelously ambitious sprawl, Shorter’s stab at a work of total art. Containing a 2013 suite of his music re-imagined for jazz quartet and chamber orchestra, a double album of his quartet’s 2016 live date in London, and a graphic novel in collaboration with screenwriter Monica Sly and comic/children’s book artist Randy DuBurke, it’s meant to be heard and seen as a whole. Also touched — it’s not available digitally, only in CD (Standard) or CD/LP (Deluxe) box sets. Or as Shorter puts it, “The packaging is intentionally designed to reveal its dormant possibilities as it travels between alternative realities of the multiverse.” Sounds kinda progressive to me …
Sparked by a long-ago request from Shorter’s former boss Miles Davis, the Emanon suite itself is an insistent, thrilling listen. Its four movements are open-hearted, engaging studies in ebb and flow, with Shorter, pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Patitucci, drummer Brian Blade and the conductorless Orpheus Chamber Orchestra endlessly trading places — constructing, developing and dissolving material; separating, reconnecting, interlocking as an ensemble. As Perez vamps under punchy string and brass licks, Patitucci & Blade launch into swinging grooves, and Shorter sails off in whacked-out, wonderful directions, Emanon takes flight, its echoes of Copland and Vaughan Williams only underscoring its own unique qualities.
The suite’s also the perfect soundtrack for the graphic novel. A long-time comic book fan, Shorter’s declamatory third-person script and duBurke’s swirling surrealism track “rogue philosopher” Emanon’s adventures across realities ruled by complacency, tyranny and conformity — only to face his ultimate fear in the fourth and final chapter. Big on concepts, symbolic as all get-out (perhaps a product of Shorter’s Buddhism?), Emanon the narrative is brash, bold and unblushingly appealing.
Ultimately though, the double-disc live set is my favorite part of this package. Here Shorter does as he has throughout his career, whether as a leader or with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, Miles’ second great quintet and Weather Report — pensively probing three Emanon themes, three back catalog tunes, and an English folk song, reassembling and deconstructing each one for all they’re worth, across unhurried arcs of time. Perez, Patitucci and Blade are full partners here; gracious and energetic, the quartet gives the music plenty of air, space, light and shade, utterly in tune with each other whether they’re riffing in unison or going four different directions simultaneously. This is jazz not as time, chord changes, or even pure melody, but as everything at once. What surround sound and 3D aim for via technology, Shorter and his band achieve with ears, fingers, brain and heart: full-orbed, full-on improvisation at a rareified, ecstatic level.
Other eras in Shorter’s storied career may connect more immediately with listeners — his 1960s Blue Note dates (with Blakey and solo) or Weather Report’s imperial phase at jazz fusion’s commercial height. And he shows no signs of slowing down, currently working on an opera with bassist Esperanza Spalding. But Emanon is Wayne Shorter in his prime, the quintessence of the man and his lifelong musical quest. If you love jazz, you really shouldn’t miss out on this — even if you have to break down and buy the thing. Go on; I dare you!
— Rick Krueger