The Listening Wind

Wayne Shorter
Odyssey of Iska
Blue Note : 1971

WS, tenor and soprano sax; Dave Friedman, vibes and marimba; Gene Bertoncini, guitar; Ron Carter, bass; Cecil McBee, bass; Billy Hart, drums; Al Mouzon, drums; Frank Cuomo, percussion and drums.

“Please do not understand me too quickly.” — Andre Gide

“Iska is the wind that passes, leaving no trace.” — Wayne Shorter


It’s easy to miss what’s radical and challenging about Wayne Shorter’s music. There’s the seemingly smooth surfaces of the tunes, the placid phrasings, the understated interplay. It’s a music filled with hints and hesitations. Shorter’s best tunes rarely have an immediate impact, and his most fiery playing can initially come off as reserved. His music seeps and insinuates. It demands several listens to fully reveal itself in all its strange glory.

In terms of how it functions, Shorter’s music isn’t all that different from Steely Dan — another act whose entrenched perversities, subversive storytelling, and deadpan sense of humor were effectively masked by a smooth-music facade. Both are significantly weirder than a cursory listen could ever suggest. (And if you’re currently scoffing at the mention of Steely Dan on a free jazz site, you’re exactly missing the point.)


Ethan Iverson’s blindfold test and compelling thoughts on the recent 90s jazz lists prompted us to revisit Wayne Shorter. (His very recent Ron Carter interview didn’t hurt, either.) If you haven’t already checked out his essay, don’t delay. Ethan weaves together many fascinating threads, but his main point revolves around the divide between avant and trad jazz during the previous decade. He argues that some amazing music was overlooked for partisan reasons — if it wasn’t avant, it was dismissed out of hand.

As we read, we were intrigued but not entirely sold. Clearly some of this is personal bias — with some notable exceptions, the avantish stuff from the ’90s simply sounds better to us. Even mainstream critic Gary Giddins posted many consensus picks which were fairly out. And while we’ve defended Brandford Marsalis on this site and seen some of his terrific live gigs during the 90s, we’re still a bit skeptical that any of his albums are truly among of the very best of the decade. But then we came to the section where Iverson quotes Matthew Shipp on the music of Wayne Shorter…

Shipp was griping — with justification — about how little attention the David S. Ware Quartet receives from the mainstream jazz community. But then he drops the bomb that everything the Ware Quartet has done is infinitely better than anything by Wayne Shorter. Now we dig Shipp and his willingness to make incendiary statements, but that’s plain cra-zee. Iverson uses this to demonstrate how some avant jazz fans undervalue the merits of more traditional players in knee-jerk fashion. And he’s right. But the real irony here is that Shorter’s current quartet is actually more radical and experimental than Ware!

We saw Shorter’s quartet play Carnegie Hall several years back. Check our report of that gig, where the band skillfully erased the line between solo and accompaniment and found new ways to create tension within dense and utterly abstract compositions. They made the “everyone gets a solo” format of headliner Dave Holland sound unbearably corny. Although Shorter was playing one of the most hallowed high cultcha institutions, his music was more creative and challenging than much of what was happening simulataneously downtown at the Vision Festival that year. His band just didn’t happen to skronk.


That lack of skronk makes it hard for many avant fans to fully embrace Wayne Shorter’s music. We can relate. Even his more outwardly adventurous Blue Note records like The All-Seeing Eye (featuring a remarkable composition by brother Alan) didn’t totally excite us at first. It wasn’t until we heard the trio of recordings he made after leaving Miles Davis and before joining Weather Report that his genius really clicked.

Many fans consider these albums curios from a wildnerness period, filled with deep crags and jagged edges. But to us the rougher textures and freer structures make them the necessary Rosetta stones, just the thing to crack the code of his music. They’ve given us a keener appreciation of the sly angles and curious geometries of Shorter’s “classic” records like Speak No Evil as well as his seriously abstract work with Miles Davis.

These two tracks come from the under-appreciated Odyssey of Iska. It’s been billed as a fusion album but doesn’t sound like anything else from the time. The music is not much interested in exploring rock or funk. Instead, there’s a heady mix of African and Brazilian elements, setting a rainforest of percussion against marimba and nimble electric guitar while Shorter’s piercing horn cuts through it all.

This album isn’t a staggering masterpiece like Moto Grosso Feio (see here for our previous entry about it) or as aggressively disjointed as Super Nova, but these tunes effectively flush Shorter’s eccentricities out into the open. You can immediately hear the freedom in the compositions and performances, the creative choices in rhythm and phrasing, the unexpected twists and feints. “Wind” has an appropriately ethereal quality, veering towards a literal imagining of the title before stretching into a pensive, slow ride on the Cartermobile. “Joy” is a twitchy blues, a casually frenetic hoe-down with Shorter swinging his partner into a shallow ditch.

“I’m trying to get more of a sheer sound, instead of a hard and solid instrumentation,” Shorter said about the sessions. “The vibes and marimba helped me along in that direction.” Shorter is the sole horn. He’s accompanied by interwoven basses — Carter plays the lower sounds and McBee the shorter and choppier rhythms. The three drums are also assigned roles -= Mouzon is the main engine, supplemented by Hart and Cuomo, who adds jingling percussion at the beginning of “Wind.”


Several of the simpler tunes (and moments) on Iska point the way towards Weather Report, which Shorter formed weeks after this recording. While he created some significant music with the group, he mostly seemed to recede deeper and deeper into the tapestry of the band as the Seventies progressed and the slick hits kept coming. But then we’re probably not the best folks to talk about Weather Report. The 80s and 90s truly seemed like a wilderness period and any memorable tunes were generally buried beneath acres of glossy production.

Which makes his creative resurgence in early 2000 that much more surprising. None of the released albums by the current quartet quite capture their live alchemy, though Beyond the Sound Barrier comes close. “We try to make creative choices,” Shorter has said of the band. A typical understatement from a musician whose best work has always been so unassuming that it often blows past listeners, as remarkable but unremarked upon as a fresh breeze.

Category Wayne Shorter

16 Responses to The Listening Wind

  1. thanks for the nice essay on Shorter. and the tunes, of course. I think you make a good point (among several) that Shorter’s current band is more radical and experimental than Ware’s. I love Ware, but you are right. So often it is missed that the freedom in music can come from anywhere, not only the soloist that plays the most out notes or the most chaotic stuggles against harmony (all which can be great, of course). The things that Shorter’s band does with rhythm, pulse, texture and time is incredibly original and brilliant. Each time that I’ve seen that band, they amaze me with what expansive territories can be found by intense listening and complete flexiblity and response even though it is still within some sort of shifting harmonic/melodic structure.

  2. Now we dig Shipp and his willingness to make incendiary statements, but thatâ??s plain cra-zee.

    You two are too much of gentlemen. I’d say that’s plain stupid.

  3. Well, I personally don’t require any ugly in my music, and I think the idea that Wayne needs defending is just sort of weird.

    Anyways, I haven’t heard the Wynton album that Crouch played for Ethan, but I’ve long thought precisely the same thing about Blood on the Fields- that it’d be widely lauded as a masterpiece (not saying it’s perfect) if it had come under the name of somebody like Murray.Also, I’m not actually sure whether or not I’ve listened to that particular Branford album, but I really, really, like his late ’80s album Trio Jeepy (even though Branford himself saw its unprecedented positive reception as evidence of the cluelessnessness of critics; as is so often the case, with all due respect, I think he’s full of shit on this point).

    Anyways, I think that both legitimate innovation and legitimate revivalism come from a sense that something essential is missing in the status quo.

  4. …or just intuitive leaps, in the case of innovation.

    There should have been an end-italics thingy after the word “Fields” above, which I added at the beginning of this post. Don’t know if it was necessary.

  5. Hey- Wonderful post. Were the 90s really the years that avant got more recognition and praise than more mainstream or marketable music? I totally missed that. As for the reception for Blood on the Fields, I think there’s plenty on record along the lines of hagiographic ejaculations. I can’t imagine the work presented by anyone other than Wynton Marsalis. What if Cecil Taylor presented it? Bill Dixon? Captain Beefheart? Strange games we get up to, instead of practicing or self-producing our own CDs.

    So I’m not entirely sure what’s being brought up here. It’s great to encounter confusion, becomes it usually means I’m about to be schooled.

    Musicians seem to utter inscrutable and bizarre statements quite often. Shipp’s attitude toward Shorter is yet another example in a long line of such comments. Someone should compile a book of completely unsupportable statements made by musicians.

    What I admire about Shorter is manifold: his compositions, arrangements, solos, stylistic range. Shorter on tenor is completely distinct from Shorter on soprano. He’s one of the nexus figures who seems to not give a rat’s ass whether he’s “innovative” or “mainstream.”

    It’s funny that what Miles Davis heard in Shorter was Coltrane. He’s quoted saying that in, I think, the PBS documentary. Of course the influence is there but Shorter has poured so many other approaches through his funnel…or whatever.

    The next time you hear yet another execrable cover of Footprints, race home and put the version from Miles Smiles on, immediately.


  6. “Strange games we get up to, instead of practicing or self-producing our own CDs.”

    Breslin, I’ve been in and out of the hospital for 12 fucking years. I’m looking at my 10th operation, hopefully soon. I get shit from some fucking asshole every time I walk down the street. Please don’t be one of them.

  7. Anyway…

    I guess I should have said ” itâ??d be widely lauded as a masterpiece…by the sort of people who are apt to dismiss it out of hand.”

    My point is that it’s actually pretty similar to the sort of thing that is promoted by free-jazz nationalists. aside from being really, really good.

  8. In fact, just go read what Ethan had to say, Maybe you’ll be swayed. Jesus Christ in a fucking sidecar.

  9. hey godoggo- I meant the “we” literally in “strange games *we* get up to,” as in, I think the speculation is as interesting as you do or the next guy does. So, while it may have seemed I was giving you shit, in fact I was as amused at my own theoretical *bent* as anything else.

    Stanley Crouch is also amusing. He has made quite a career out of making unsupportable statements. It served him well and made him a brand and a commodity. Of all the folks in The Musician’s Compendium of Unsupportable Statements, Crouch would be indexed more than just about anyone else, except maybe Miles Davis. But I have never trusted that he’s really about the music. I trust Gary Giddins, for example, to be about music. Crouch has always sounded like he’s about…Crouch.

    sorry for being irritating,


  10. Now wouldn’t it be great if everyone posting comments on here didn’t give a rat’s ass about categories and just tried to talk about music that is rewarding to listen to? That generalization about cover versions of Footprints is as irritating as it is incorrect, because most people know that Wayne Shorter recorded it on Adam’s Apple eight months before he did it on Miles Smiles, and I personally believe that Shorter was the dominant creative force in that particular Miles quintet, both as a fine composer (I would rate him alongside the likes of Monk) and an awesome interpreter of existing repertoire (e.g. on Live at the Plugged Nickel).

    I expect that there are some execrable covers, but there are also plenty of intelligent and respectful interpretations by good musicians who have recorded it because they rate it highly as a modern standard. And Wayne gets a composer’s royalty either way, so I bet he doesn’t lose any sleep being judgmental about cover versions. And just imagine, mighn’t it be possible that bad versions of good tunes provide some new listeners with a reason to seek out the originals?

    On the subject of the Iska tracks: many, many thanks for making them available. This is very fine music, and if it is a tad less ‘out’ than your normal fare, then all thanks also to Ethan Iverson for his very timely intervention in the listings debate. Blue Note’s policy on back catalogue releases is infuriating for people who care about the music, and it is open to anyone to tell them so by going to their web site and using the review sections for in-print titles to post requests for the release of out-of-print titles. At the very least, the out-of-print references will be picked up on Google searches for the out-of-print titles.

    Irritated by Mr Breslin and emboldened by Mr Iverson, I will end this with a list of two CDs recorded in 1993 that are a long way to the mainstream side of my normal out-ish tastes in jazz but are hugely pleasurable listens none the less: Alto Memories by Gary Bartz and Sonny Fortune, and Stompin’ with Savoy by the Marc Copland Quintet. The Copland album includes versions not only of Footprints but (shock, horror!) of All Blues and Blue in Green. The Bartz/Fortune album includes versions of Capuchin Swing, Stolen Moments and Lonely Woman. (And yes, my record collection does include John Zorn’s take on Lonely Woman on the excellent Naked City album — the more the merrier as far as I’m concerned.)

  11. D:O says:
    “[Shipp] drops the bomb that everything the Ware Quartet has done is infinitely better than anything by Wayne Shorter”

    Shipp says:
    “The people that would go out to see the Wayne Shorter quartet, which I think our quartet is infinitely superior to, would not come out to hear the David S. Ware quartet”

    I thought he meant that the Ware Quartet was infinitely superior to the current (or contemporaneous) Shorter Quartet. Whether your agree or disagree, it’s not quite the same as saying that Ware’s work was superior to Shorter’s.

    That aside, interesting post, as always.

  12. Hi John- It seems you are intent on carrying the banner for covers. I haven’t heard a cover version of Footprints other than the one on Miles Smiles that carried anything particularly worthwhile. I’m also an admirer of the recording you mention on Adam’s Apple, and thought perhaps the word “version” in my first unbelievably irritating comment was not in fact the phrase “original version,” but maybe it’s easy to supply the word “original” from one’s overheated imagination. It’s also heartening to be reminded that *most people know* that Shorter recorded Footprints on his own date 8 months prior to the Miles Smiles recording. ‘Round these parts, most people know Chris Botti is kind of a cute guy and Diana Krall is just the most talented jazz singer ever.

    I heard Marc Copland in a strange double bill with Kurt Elling a couple of years ago and he did a curious solo piano version of Footprints in combination with All Blues. All Blues was given Copland’s two-thousand chord substitution treatment and the usually evocative and vaguely mournful head of Footprints was draped over the top like a fancy tablecloth. Cover heaven.

    Bad versions of good tunes do not provide new listeners with a reason to seek out the originals. They provide listeners with the usual crap corporate jazz wet toilet tissue experience of bland, pointless, packaged and dare I say irritating semantic depletion.

    Good versions of good tunes is another matter.

    I agree with your assessment of Shorter, as represented by my original irritating comment. Again, not sure why you rise to Shorter’s defense in reaction to my unqualified praise.

    As for not giving a rat’s ass about categories: It’s Stanley Crouch in Ethan Iverson’s living room who insists on forcing the issue of territories. Which is really hilarious, actually, because in fact if Wynton Marsalis could have welcomed David Murray to a session maybe something interesting *would* have taken place.


  13. Peter, that was a cumulative response to a number of sarcastic comments that you’ve posted in various places, not always at me, and I assumed that this was in a similar spirit. Apparently I was wrong. Fine. Anyway, here are some thoughts about sarcasm:

    1. It’s rarely really clever.
    2. It’s not funny – this is what distinguishes it from “humor ” – quite the contrary, in fact; see #3.
    3. It’s calculated to provoke a negative emotional reaction – anger or embarrassment – and thereby shut down discussion.
    4. In my case, it tends to get me really fucking pissed off, even when I don’t have any particular emotional stake in the subject matter. This is a reason I rarely read conservative political blogs any more, and I feel that I should.

  14. Hi godoggo- Food for thought. I can be sarcastic, it’s true. The tendency toward sarcasm comes from my own already negative emotional space. As you have pointed out, I tend to get outraged on a dime. I’m sure the discussions I jump into, as well as my peace of mind and that of others, will benefit from work on clarity of expression minus the rancor, plus a slightly more breezy attitude. As you have also pointed out, the music world will continue to unfold however it will unfold, regardless of my own or others’ blog comments.



  15. godoggo — are you thinking what I’m thinking?

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