Emanon, a full-length graphic novel co-written by Wayne Shorter and included with his new album of the same name, tells the story of a “rogue philosopher” who travels between worlds, spreading a message of truth and empowerment. For much of his 60-plus-year career, Shorter has been on an analogous mission. The saxophonist-composer branched out from era-defining jazz groups with Art Blakey and Miles Davis to create a legacy of innovative, genre-blurring work, on his own and in collaboration with everyone from Joni Mitchell to Carlos Santana and Milton Nascimento. The musical portion of Emanon (currently available only on CD or LP) is another milestone, combining bold orchestral statements with the mercurial spontaneity of Shorter’s remarkable long-running quartet.
In addition to comic books, film soundtracks have been a lifelong obsession for Shorter. On disc one here, which teams the quartet with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra for a series of lengthy studio tracks, he harnesses his own brand of unabashed cinematic drama. The themes of these four pieces, some of which have appeared in different versions on other Shorter releases dating back to the Eighties, have a bright, questing grandeur. But what gives these renditions their own special intrigue is the way the lush might of the orchestra alternates and combines with the spare, fluid elegance of the quartet. When Shorter’s soprano sax soars above the full 30-odd member ensemble, improvising exuberant responses to the composed passages, the effect is magical.
The quartet material on discs two and three, recorded live in London in 2016, thrives on a completely different energy. Like the famed mid-to-late-Sixties Miles Davis quintet of which Shorter was a key member, this group — rounded out by pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade — cultivates a state of constant flux.
Opening track “The Three Marias,” also heard on the studio disc, sprawls to nearly 30 minutes in its live version. We hear the group moving from ghostly ballad-esque textures to a kind of painterly, chamber-like free jazz and finally a jittery, madcap catharsis. Throughout the concert, Shorter’s written themes serve only as faint sketches; the point is the way the band feels its way instinctively from moment to moment. “When I heard those guys dropping the bottom out from under me, I knew it was ‘Go for it’ time,” the saxophonist told Michelle Mercer, author of the excellent Shorter bio Footprints, of performing with the Davis band’s famously tempestuous rhythm section. Hearing the saxophonist navigate Perez, Patitucci and Blade’s propulsive yet ever-shifting grooves on tracks like “She Moves Through the Fair” and “Prometheus Unbound” here, one can sense those old instincts kicking in. Forty-plus years later, this rogue philosopher still sounds like he’s holding on for dear life — and loving every second of it.