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November 23, 2004
THE FOOTPRINTS OF A GIANT
Wayne Shorter is one of the genuine living legends of jazz. Among the cognoscenti, the only question about his place in the hierarchy is whether or not he’s more important as a saxophonist or as a composer. There is no debate about his stature in the music’s history.
The mere thought of boiling down his 45-year recording career into a two-disc retrospective is a daunting one, but the folks at Columbia Legacy have undertaken just such a task. The result is the new Footprints: The Life and Music of Wayne Shorter, put together to coincide with the release of a new biography of the same name due out next month. It’s a thoughtfully assembled project. Yes, it’s incomplete, but it does hit many of the high notes.
Beginning with Shorter’s “Lester Left Town” from early in his stay with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in 1960, this set traverses the history of jazz in the second half of the twentieth century. The classic “Speak No Evil” is here from the Blue Note album of the same name, but the bulk of his ‘60s work is represented by tracks from his tenure with Miles Davis, including “E.S.P,” “Footprints,” “Nefertiti” and “Sanctuary.”
Before disc one ends, we’re up to the ‘70s and the greatest fusion band of the era, Weather Report. There are four of Shorter’s compositions for that band here, including the incomparable “Mysterious Traveler,” and a striking track from Native Dancer, his highly regarded collaboration with Brazilian vocalist Milton Nascimento. We get a sampling of his sax work with Steely Dan (“Aja”) and Joni Mitchell (“Dry Cleaner from Des Moines”) before shifting into the latter day solo era of electronics and funk, best represented by “The Three Marias” from Atlantis, the album that seemed at the time to be the logical extension of the concepts first developed with Weather Report.
The collection winds up with Shorter’s return to acoustic music. J. J. Johnson’s “In Walked Wayne” is a beautiful piece from the trombonist’s 1999 farewell, Heroes. Shorter and Herbie Hancock’s two-man 1 + 1 is spotlighted by its best cut, “Aung San Suu Kyi.” The saxman enters the new century with “Masquelero” from his celebrated 2002 live album on the Verve label.
A couple of years ago, Blue Note put out a double-CD peak at Shorter’s work for that label, The Classic Blue Note Recordings, and truthfully, you need that along with at least a couple of Weather Report albums to even begin to fully appreciate this man’s legacy. Nonetheless, Footprints is one of the most welcome arrivals of the year.
SOUL MUSIC LIVES!
When you hear the voice, you’ll know you’ve heard it before, though you may not be certain where. If I were to start snapping my fingers and sing the title riff from “Respect Yourself,” you’d make the connection immediately. Mavis Staples is alive and well, and her dark-hued, rough-edged voice is as powerful as ever, stirring up memories of the heyday of Memphis-based Stax R&B.
Back in 1972, the Staple Singers were at the top of the pop charts with that song and “I’ll Take You There,” two life-affirming records soaked in the southern gospel sound the family had been producing since Mavis and her siblings were youngsters in the late ‘40s. What we remember are the message songs the group produced in those latter days of the civil rights era, songs imbued with an earthy spirituality and faith in God.
The centerpiece of Mavis Staples’ new recording, Have a Little Faith, is “Pops Recipe,” an immediately accessible recitation of wisdom in which she delineates the philosophy of her late father, Roebuck “Pops” Staples, who was the mastermind behind the family band: “He said accept responsibility, don’t forget humility; at every opportunity serve your artistry/Don’t subscribe to bigotry, hypocrisy, duplicity; respect humanity/That’s Pops’ recipe.”
Faith is on Alligator Records, best known as the country’s premiere blues label, but Staples’ music provides an antidote to the blues. In the uplifting urgings of the title track, the mellow reassurance of “God is Not Sleeping,” and the funky clavinet-driven gospel of “I Still Believe in You,” the message of hopefulness is clear. Only in “There’s a Devil on the Loose” are the lyrics not ultimately redeemed by optimism or encouragement.
“In Times Like These” was written by the record’s co-producer Jim Tullio in the wake of 9/11, and “At the End of the Day” echoes the structure of Bob Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody,” but much funkier. The disc is bookended by a slide-guitar propelled admonition to “Step Into the Light” at the beginning, featuring a cameo appearance by British folk guitar legend John Martyn, and a refreshingly original take on an old warhorse, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” at the end.
Have a Little Faith is a wonderful return to form for one of the greatest voices of the classic soul era, one that’s bound to wind up on many “Best of” lists this year.
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