Saxophonist Wayne Shorter, one of the most distinctive voices of his jazz generation as a soloist, composer and bandleader, died Thursday at a hospital in Los Angeles, his publicist confirmed to Variety. He was 89.
Initially counted among hard bop’s foremost young lions of the early ’60s, Shorter developed a personal style that mated forceful swing with a sometimes angular attack that incorporated tenets of the day’s avant-garde players. Originally a star on tenor, he became a lyrical voice on the soprano sax in the electric unit Weather Report. He forged a wholly distinctive and instantly identifiable approach to his instruments.
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“You have to know the difference between what you’re told and what you find out for yourself,” the musician — known as “Mr. Gone” and “Mr. Weird” for his out-there personality — told critic Bob Blumenthal in 2002. “To be original, to me, means to celebrate something so hard that you want to give it a present. The more original you get, the deeper the confrontation of eternity.”
A 10-time Grammy winner, Shorter was feted with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Recording Academy in 2015.
Shorter first gained major notice as a sideman and writer in two of jazz’s greatest finishing schools, Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers (1959-64) and Miles Davis’ so-called second great quintet (1964-68). He simultaneously distinguished himself as a leader on a series of recordings for Blue Note Records.
After the dissolution of Davis’ quintet, he served as an integral player on the trumpeter’s epoch-making albums “In a Silent Way” (1969) and “Bitches Brew” (1970), which inaugurated the electric jazz fusion scene of the ’70s.
With another Davis sideman, keyboardist Joe Zawinul, Shorter co-founded the fusion unit Weather Report, which released several highly successful albums from 1971-86.
His success as a fusioneer led to work with such pop luminaries as Joni Mitchell, Don Henley and Steely Dan.
Following the dissolution of Weather Report, the saxophonist returned to a straight-ahead format and founded a widely praised quartet featuring pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade.
He was born in Newark, N.J., and went to Newark Arts High School, where he took up clarinet and then tenor saxophone. His brother Alan played trumpet and alto alongside him in the school band. After graduating from NYU in 1956, he played briefly with pianist Horace Silver’s hard bop group before a two-year hitch in the U.S. Army. Following his service, he played in trumpeter Maynard Ferguson’s band, where he first encountered Zawinul, then newly emigrated from Austria.
Shorter’s stint with Ferguson was short-lived, for in 1959 he was recruited by trumpet prodigy Lee Morgan and drummer Blakey to succeed Hank Mobley in the Jazz Messengers. The saxophonist’s four-year stand with the group, then jazz’s premier hard-bop ensemble, saw the flourishing of his talents as a composer. During the same period, he cut his first dates as a leader for Vee-Jay Records. He was named “new star saxophonist” by Down Beat in 1962.
Shorter was originally shortlisted to replace John Coltrane in Davis’ “first great quintet” in 1960, but he declined to leave Blakey at the time; he ended up solidifying the trumpeter’s lineup in 1964, joining pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams.
Davis’ group toured and recorded prolifically, issuing six studio LPs on Columbia in four years; during this period, Shorter penned several key compositions for the band, including “E.S.P.,” “Footprints,” “Prince of Darkness,” “Masqualero,” “Nefertiti,” “Paraphernalia,” “Water Babies” and “Sanctuary.”
At the same time, Shorter held a solo contract with Blue Note, for which he had recorded in the Jazz Messengers. He cut eight discs as a leader during this era, including such widely praised sets as “JuJu” (1964), “Speak No Evil” (1965), “The All Seeing Eye” (1966) and “Adam’s Apple” (1966). He also worked as a sideman with some of his label colleagues, including Morgan, Williams, Lou Donaldson and McCoy Tyner.
He stayed on board with Davis during the apex of the trumpeter’s commercial career as the first great star of electric fusion. He was joined on Davis’ key albums of the period by Zawinul, and supported the keyboardist on his self-titled 1971 solo debut for Atlantic.
Many of Davis’ sidemen launched fusion groups of their own at the dawn of the ’70s: the Mahavishnu Orchestra (John McLaughlin and Billy Cobham), Return to Forever (Chick Corea and Lenny White), the Tony Williams Lifetime (Williams and Larry Young) and Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters (with bass clarinetist Bennie Maupin). But Weather Report, founded in 1971, was the longest-running and most popular of these acts.
Built around the core of Shorter and Zawinul, and featuring bass phenom Jaco Pastorius at the height of their fame and success, the band recorded 14 studio albums. Two of them, “Tale Spinnin’” (1975) and “Heavy Weather” (1977) — the latter of which featured the instrumental hit “Birdland” — reached the top 40 of the American album chart. The 1979 live album “8:30” won Shorter his first Grammy, for best jazz fusion performance.
His heightened commercial profile made Shorter the go-to soloist for some pop performers. After guesting on Joni Mitchell’s 1977 set “Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter,” the saxophonist went on to appear on seven more studio albums by the singer-songwriter. He was the key soloist on the title track of Steely Dan’s 1977 smash “Aja.” He would later solo on Don Henley’s 1989 hit “The End of the Innocence.”
Taking the soprano sax as his main instrument for nearly two decades, Shorter remained a dominant instrumental voice in Weather Report, but his composing for the group took a back seat to Zawinul’s funk-driven hits. The format was largely exhausted by the time the band called it a day in 1986.
Shorter’s highest-profile gig of the ’90s was his appearance in V.S.O.P., a reunion of Davis’ ’60s quartet with Freddie Hubbard filling the trumpet chair. Shorter and Hancock regrouped for the 1997 duo recording “1+1,” which included the Grammy-winning composition “Aung San Suu Kyi.”
He founded his first permanent band with Perez, Patitucci and Blade in 2000. The group’s recordings for Verve and Blue Note included the concert sets “Footprints Live!,” “Beyond the Sound Barrier” and “Without a Net.” The 2003 studio session “Alegria” was a large ensemble date. Shorter collected four Grammys for his solo work and composing from 2003-13.
He was named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master in 1998.
Shorter, who was married three times, is survived by his wife Carolina and his daughter Miyako (from his first marriage to Teruka Nakagami). His daughter Iska died from an epileptic seizure in 1985; his second wife Ana Maria was killed in a 1996 plane crash off New York.
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