It was the summer of 1969, flower power was in the air, conventional hard bop was in serious trouble, and Wayne Shorter wrought the hipfest Super Nova in the company of a gaggle of guitarists and percussionists. Super Nova , while typical in many ways of jazz in 1969, is by no means the average Blue Note session or the average Wayne Shorter album, but it has its charms.
He had the help of a stellar lineup. Shorter’s soprano (he plays no tenor on this album) was complemented by guitarists John McLaughlin and Sonny Sharrock, who were joined by Walter Booker on one track; Miroslav Vitous on bass; Jack DeJohnette on drums and African thumb piano; Chick Corea, of all people, on drums and vibes (no piano); Airto Moreira on additional percussion; and Maria Booker singing on one track. An unusual lineup today, but not too head-turning alongside the likes of Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew or Pharoah Sanders’ Karma , which have more in common than is usually acknowledged, and were the sort of thing that turned heads back then.
"Super Nova" kicks off our love-in with a repeating motive from Shorter, who follows his figure down various paths and returns repeatedly to home base with an oboe-like Coltraneish tone, while behind him his guitarists and drummers bubble and churn. McLaughlin squeezes out an undistinguished solo (with Sharrock thrashing behind him), and then it’s back to Wayne, sounding more like Trane every second. "Swee-Pea" is oddly titled, for the title reminds me of the Popeye’s baby, but the track is the occasion of some beautifully touching playing from Shorter. Romantic and elegiac by turns, he is at his most affecting here. Miles bandmates Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams would have backed this one up capably, but the percussion and guitars create a shimmering backdrop that works quite well. "Dindi" takes us to a hooting, groaning rain forest, which is suddenly broken by, lo and behold, Maria Booker singing a soft Portuguese ballad a la Astrud Gilberto. Playing Joao to Maria’s Astrud is Walter Booker on classical guitar. Then it’s back to the rain forest. There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to the structure of this song, except that bossa nova was popular in 1969, and Maria’s part is nice. Shorter plays outstandingly all through this album, but especially on "Water Babies," where he is the only soloist. The sidemen get restless on "Capricorn," especially the drum corps, and Shorter’s soprano grows more sonorous to match them. His soprano preaches, brays, and warns; the drums churn and the guitars quiver, but never get solo time to speak of. Wayne is always at the center on this album. Not to take anything away from Wayne: he can pull it off, and does.
Super Nova is ultimately a period piece, although one may claim a wee place for it in history as an early rivulet of the now-mighty stream called World Music. Is it the revanchist success of Wynton Marsalis & Co. that makes it sound more dated today than Speak No Evil, Etc., or any of Wayne’s earlier, more conventional hard bop Blue Notes? T. S. Eliot observes that any new addition to a canon alters one’s perception of the all the existing members. With Etc. begetting numerous children and Super Nova relatively barren, is it any wonder that the latter album would now seem more remote?