Wayne Shorter: Live at Montreux 1996

John Kelman By

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Wayne ShorterWayne Shorter

Live at Montreux 1996

Eagle Eye Media


Enigmatic and cerebral, saxophonist Wayne Shorter's still evolving legacy remains one of the richest in the world of living jazz icons. Still, despite some fine writing, his return to recording as a leader after a 10-year absence, High Life (Verve, 1995) was underappreciated and remains an undervalued footnote amongst his classic Blue Note albums and more recent discs, including the empathic Beyond the Sound Barrier (Verve, 2005). Still, while High Life's sound was perhaps a tad clinical and overproduced by Marcus Miller: there was plenty of grist for a more energetic live approach, as documented on the DVD, Live at Montreux 1996.

With only guitarist David Gilmore from the album, Shorter's crack quintet—pianist/keyboardist Jim Beard, bassist Alphonso Johnson and drummer Rodney Holmes—tears its way through three tracks from High Life ("On the Milky Way Express," "At the Fair," "Children of the Night"); "Endangered Species," from Atlantis (Columbia/Legacy, 1985); and the clear high point of the set, the high velocity "Over Shadow Hill Way," which would not find its way onto a Shorter CD until (and in very different form) Beyond the Sound Barrier.

Still very much an electric band, as opposed to Shorter's current acoustic proclivities, Live at Montreux 1996 focuses a sharp spotlight on the Shorter half of the Zawinul/Shorter duo that was at the core of fusion supergroup Weather Report. With Zawinul's world music tendencies removed, this is music that grooves, but also—in direct opposition to Weather Report's "everybody solos and nobody solos" ethic—features a number of outstanding solos for everyone in the band. If anything, the generally taciturn Shorter plays less than anyone else, but every note counts. Few saxophonists can make an extended trill or a high pitched scream mean as much as Shorter, and between his brief solos and oftentimes deceptively complex writing, his stamp is all over the performance, even while affording the majority of the solo space to his group.

Wayne Shorter l:r Jim Beard, Wayne Shorter, Rodney Holmes, Alphonso Johnson, David Gilmore

Gilmore was, at that time, still a relatively emergent guitarist, having spent time with altoist David Binney, guitarist Adam Rogers, bassist Fima Ephron and drummer Ben Perowksy in Lost Tribe. Here he demonstrates why he's such an ideal choice: a consummate accompanist, he's an equally seamless ensemble player when doubling lines with Johnson and a soloist who—whether burning it up on his own as he does on "Over Shadow Hill Way" or trading with Shorter on "Children of the Night"—constructs solos that build relentlessly, with wave after wave of climax, ably supported by Holmes.

Holmes only gets one solo during the set (also on "Over Shadow Hill Way"), and as impressive as it is, it's his ensemble work that's most notable as he both responds to what's happening around him and drives the soloists to greater heights. The camerawork—which captures him from multiple angles (as it does everyone in the band)—is outstanding and enlightening.

Beard is known as much as a producer as he is a player, though he proved on Revolutions (Intuition, 2008), his collaboration with arranger Vince Mendoza and The Metropole Orchestra, that he's an equally gifted composer. Here, however, it's all about the playing, and he proves himself a skilled textural player on his synths, but solos exclusively—and impressively—on piano, delivering an early highlight, along with Johnson, on the funk-driven "On the Milky Way Express" that smacks of Herbie Hancock but with a more direct and less abstract, poetic style.

Johnson was a rising star on his own and with Weather Report, but was sadly overshadowed when he was replaced by Jaco Pastorius in 1976. He's never been out of work since, but his performance here makes his lesser status a shame. Together with Holmes he creates a potent rhythm section, capable of Shorter's twists, turns and rapid-fire lines while, at the same time, soloing with the same attention to construction heard from the rest of the group.

Wayne Shorter

Traditionally, Shorter rarely smiles, but here he's clearly having a good time, enjoying and encouraging his group throughout. The only caveat is that, at 56 minutes including the encore, it's a too short set. Fortunately, however, there are some terrific bonus features, including two tracks from a 1991 appearance with Herbie Hancock that also features bassist Stanley Clarke and Omar Hakim in equally electric and fiery mode. The 28-minute segment includes a radically reworked version of Shorter's classic "Footprints," adding a pseudo-classical intro that leads to a facilely grooving section before heading to its familiar 6/8 theme that features strong solos from everyone, but Hakim in particular. Clarke is outstanding on acoustic bass—another overlooked giant for many years until his recent The Toys of Men and reunion with keyboardist Chick Corea and Return to Forever—switching to electric for a substantially different, early version of "On the Milky Way Express" that sports an energetic yet curiously restrained call-and-response between Shorter and Hancock on synth.


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