Jazz saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter, who has died at age 89, played with many legends over his long career. An 11-time Grammy Award winner, Shorter played with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, Miles Davis, and Steely Dan, among many others, and he co-founded the jazz instrumental group Weather Report. Although Shorter’s style is distinctive, he was versatile enough to integrate his sound seamlessly with straight-ahead jazz, fusion, progressive, and alternative jazz stylists, as well as with folk and pop soloists and groups.
Some of my favorite Wayne Shorter performances were with Joni Mitchell. Shorter joined Mitchell on ten of her albums, primarily during her middle and later period, after she replaced much of her early, reedy folk sound with a warm, intricate jazz style. As Mitchell’s voice moved into a lower, darker range, Shorter’s sax lines, soaring and sinuous, flew above her voice, tying it together with all the instrumental voices that swirled around her.
A fine example of their collaborative style is the song “Moon at the Window” from Mitchell’s 1982 album Wild Things Run Fast. Another is the moody, marvelous song “Yvette in English,” cowritten by Joni Mitchell and David Crosby for Mitchell’s Grammy Award-winning 1994 album Turbulent Indigo. I can’t imagine this song without Shorter’s trills, floating overhead like Yvette’s cigarette smoke.
The Washington Post obituary for Wayne Shorter describes him as “regarded throughout his career as a nurturer more than a leader.” While his distinctive playing certainly influenced untold jazz musicians over the past seven decades, he may well be best known for how beautifully he integrated his sound and style with others. His collaborations were made so much more beautiful, powerful, and lasting because of Shorter’s willingness to be part of a song’s tapestry, instead of needing to have all eyes and ears on him alone. Jazz and pop music are so much the richer for it.