In December, Wayne Shorter, the legendary and unparalleled saxophonist, was honored by the Kennedy Center, where his work was officially recognized for his contributions to American culture. That honorific can hardly encapsulate the impact Shorter has had on the genre of jazz, as his imprimatur is on basically every significant development of the music since the 1950s. He played with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, he replaced Coltrane in Miles Davis’ quintet and helped shepherd Miles’ second (or third?) career changeup; he made 11 albums as lead for Blue Note in the ’60s (from the accepted classics like Speak No Evil to unheralded masterpieces like Schizophrenia); then helped jumpstart the jazz fusion genre with his work on Bitches Brew and as a member of Weather Report; and made a lot of underrated albums in the ’80s that are touchstones for the jazz revivalists of today. You could spend the next 10 years of your life trying to unpack Shorter’s musical legacy and not get close to figuring it all out.
Which is to say that, at 85, Shorter has done enough to be enshrined in the Kennedy Center, a body of work you can let rest. But that’s not how Shorter operates; he spent the last five years arranging and conceptualizing the most ambitious jazz album of the last few years not made by someone named Kamasi: Emanon, his 25th album as the lead, is a multimedia experience, a triple-LP release of live and studio recordings that come packaged with a graphic novel written by Shorter. Shorter has been upfront about his love for comics going back forever, but I don’t think anyone could have expected this, a full-length graphic novel about a philosopher who travels between two worlds paired with an album that sounds like a dramatic, swelling score for an unreleased superhero movie. Now that the album is on streaming services — until now, it was only available as a CD or LP box set — it needs to be heard to be believed; 60 years into his career, Shorter is still pushing his boundaries and still finding new ways to bring new life to his instrument.
The album’s highlight is disc one, where Shorter’s long-running quartet — pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade — is backed by the 30-plus piece Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. The orchestra brings an enormity to the proceedings here; everything feels bigger when it's backed by a string arrangement. Emanon opens with the plaintive “Pegasus,” an origin story for the album to come, where Shorter opens the album floating in and outside the arrangements for the rest of the musicians. “The Three Marias” features scorching and towering solos from Shorter, as the orchestra and his band power forward; it feels like the fight sequence between a hero and a villain as they crash through buildings and trade radioactive punches.
The second and third discs take the tracks from the studio and explodes them out to 30-minute running times, director’s cut versions that cut down on the orchestra and expand the improvisation. While the first disc makes the case for Shorter’s continued vitality as an arranger, the second two highlight his dexterity as a live player. This is a player who played with the best jazz musicians of all time for 60 years, and he can still sound like he’s learning new things about himself and his instrument, can still bring new modes of expression to the front. His playing here soars, and dives, and comes at the rest of the players at amazing angles. Shorter sounds powerful and inquisitive, a balancing act on a high wire that’s rewarding on repeated listens. Emanon is a force to be reckoned with, an album by a master who still has things to say and can still challenge his audience.