Prolific musician and composer Wayne Shorter is responsible for some of the most revolutionary jazz of the 1960s, 1970s and beyond. The gifted saxophonist's energetic playing style (on both tenor and soprano) elevated the art of free flowing jazz, while his original compositions thoughtfully deconstructed the bop sound and laid the foundation for jazz fusion. It's unsurprising, then, that the acclaimed musician continues to follow an eclectic career path, guided more by artistic curiosity than commercial success.
A late start
Wayne Shorter was born on August 25, 1933 in Newark, New Jersey. At 15, he attended a Lester Young show that would change his life forever. After watching the Stan Kenton and Dizzy Gillespie bands onstage, along with Charlie Parker and Illinois Jacquet, Shorter was inspired to pick up the clarinet. He soon switched to the tenor saxophone and assembled The Jazz Informers.
The young musician received early and invaluable experience playing in the progressive Jackie Bland Band. While still in high school, he participated in several improvisation contests around Newark - including a memorable encounter with saxophonist Sonny Stitt.
In 1952, Shorter headed to New York City to pursue studies at New York University and soak up the Manhattan jazz scene, frequenting popular nightspots like Birdland and Café Bohemia. Upon graduating in 1956, the saxophonist cut his chops with Johnny Eaton and his Princetonians, earning the title "Newark Flash" for his lightning delivery. But he had to put music on hold when he was drafted into the Army soon after.
The "Flash" returns
Following his service, Shorter began jamming with fellow tenor saxophonists John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. In 1959, he joined Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, staying with the group until 1963 and, towards the end, serving as musical director. He made his debut as a leader that same year on Introducing Wayne Shorter, composing five of the album's six tracks.
In 1964 - a landmark year for the artist - Shorter kicked off his prolific partnership with the Blue Note label with a trio of visionary recordings: Night Dreamer, JuJu and Speak No Evil, all classics in the modern jazz canon.
That same year, he joined Miles Davis's seminal quintet as a replacement for John Coltrane and remained for seven years, composing such memorable songs as Nefertiti, E.S.P., Pinocchio, Sanctuary, Fall, Footprints and - what was to become Davis's moniker - Prince of Darkness. During this productive period, Shorter also released several recordings as a solo artist, evolving his sound from hard bop to avant-garde to jazz-rock while experimenting with the soprano sax.
In 1970, he formed the fusion supergroup Weather Report with keyboardist Joe Zawinul and bassist Miroslav Vitous. After 16 albums and one Grammy (for the 1980 live recording 8:30), the outfit disbanded in 1985. Four years before, Shorter and his fellow Weathermen had given a memorable opening night concert at the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal.
The saxophonist followed up with a new group and a trio of releases on the Columbia label from 1986 to 1988, but critics lamented his lack of originality and quirkiness compared to previous output.
Into the unknown
Although Shorter performed alongside such high-profile acts as guitar wonder Carlos Santana and songstress Joni Mitchell, he didn't return to the studio to record his own material until 1994 with the album High Life. Making his third appearance at the Festival as a leader in the summer of 1996, the musician was presented with the Miles Davis Award.
In 1997, the saxophone star reunited with his former Miles Davis quintet band mate and long time collaborator Herbie Hancock on 1+1. The duo brought the minimalist, intimate series of improvisations to life on the Festival stage in 2000.
Accompanied by some of the new vanguard of jazz - pianist Danilo Perez, drummer Brian Blade and bassist John Patitucci - Shorter released a trio of recordings that marked a creative renaissance for the artist. Footprints Live! (2002) captured him on a European tour; Alegría (2003) had Shorter revisiting earlier works, slowing down the lively pace to the point of reinventing the compositions; Beyond the Sound Barrier (2005) featured an ambitious set of songs (half of which were new material) recorded in three continents over two years. The latter two won the Grammy for Best Jazz Instrumental Album.
In 2009, the 75-year-old legendary musician performed at the Festival in the company of his quartet. Commenting on his creative process, the "Flash" - fearless as ever - replied: "I'm at a point where I'm just going to say, ‘To hell with the rules.' I've got nothing to lose now. I'm going for the unknown."
Returning to the Festival three years later, Shorter delivered an awe-inspiring performance at Place des Arts.
Released in February 2013, the live album Without a Net showcases Shorter’s remarkable chemistry, nurtured over a decade of touring with his formidable quartet.