Wayne Shorter’s lifelong fascination with comic books spurred Blue Note’s boss Don Was to propose the idea of a graphic novel to be created as an integral part of a musical project. The story created by Shorter and co-written with Monica Sly with illustrations by Randy Du Burke talks of Emanon, a super hero on an interplanetary journey who has to confront four challenges which will ultimately yield a reward. To accompany the book, Shorter recorded with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra four compositions: ‘Prometheus Unbound’ ‘Pegasus’’ ‘Lotus’ and ‘The Three Marias’. These pieces were first performed live with the Orchestra, and literally recorded in the studio the next day. Emanon, or no name spelt backwards, a title borrowed from an old Dizzy Gillespie tune, is the latest and possibly the most rewarding chapter in the life of Shorter’s quartet now active for almost two decades. Emanon is available in two versions; a Standard Edition presenting the three CDs with the graphic novel or a deluxe edition containing three 180g vinyl LPs and CDs with the graphic novel enclosed in a hardcover slipcase.The first CD sees the trio playing alongside the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra whilst the two other CDs are live recordings by just the quartet at the Barbican in London in 2016.
On the opening ‘Pegasus’ Shorter engages in a timeless and open ended dialogue for piano and sax seamlessly joined by the orchestra and the rest of the band. It’s a rolling ocean of swirling dramatic strings enhanced by powerful snare rolls stopping and starting at will. The beauty here is that the music flows naturally with the orchestra and the quartet complementing each other in an organic fashion. There is in fact a clear cinematic feel to the music which does sound at times like a film score very much rooted in late 20thcentury music.
At this juncture, it is worth remembering that Shorter has a long history of sonic explorations going way back to the 1960s when his compositions shifted the goalposts by playing new combinations of rhythm, harmony and melody, often in an oblique and understated manner. In this context, the established patterns of bop were loosened, allowing more space and a freer dialogue between instruments. Here, solo voicings were often sparse and fragmented, seemingly on the lookout for a new direction to follow. The live recordings at the Barbican are quite possibly the culmination of six decades of Shorter’s incessant quest to reach new sonic dimensions. On CD two and three, his long standing group of Danilo Perez on piano, John Patitucci on bass and Brian Blade on drums joyfully engages in a happily free musical discourse clearly based on empathy and flexibility. Having been a regular outfit for twenty years or so allows them the kind of telepathy and spontaneity which is often too rare nowadays. More remarkably so as Shorter doesn’t usually rehearse.
Although the quarter revisits old Shorter pieces, it’s more like a brief touch and go with an old friend in the firm knowledge that the conversation will clearly move on in unexpected directions than a faithful note for note reproduction. Here, Shorter’s disinterest in completing structures comes across loud and clear; everything must be open ended. On stage, the band will often begin at a slow and somewhat tentative pace. A tune like ‘The Three Marias’ becomes a long exercise in abstraction. Each musician circling around one another, cleverly shifting rhythms and patterns, always on the look out for signs of a new pulse to emerge. At some point in the proceedings, a clear pattern does emerge and the musicians come together. Throughout the two performances, Shorter slides in and out of action with a mixture of tenderness and wild abandon whilst Danilo Pérez ably creates deep vamps and hot licks whilst Patitucci anchors down profound bass lines, all well underpinned by Brian Blade’s explosive an often unpredictable box of drum tricks. Ultimately, whilst there may be no doubt that the two live disks hold a more instinctive and direct appeal as they show the quartet at its most unbridled, after repeated listening sessions the orchestral work is also ultimately very rewarding as it reveals different facets time after time.