Judge Dan Mancini wishes he had a nickname as cool as "Mr. Gone."
"The musicians who are about to come out now need no introduction. They are some of the greatest musicians I have ever known."—Quincy Jones
Jazz luminaries don't come much brighter than Wayne Shorter. One of the finest composers in jazz's storied history, the tenor and soprano saxophonist began his career under the tutelage of Art Blakey as one of the Jazz Messengers, playing on albums like A Night in Tunisia and Caravan. Less than a decade later he gained wider fame as a member of Miles Davis's second great quintet, the band that delivered classics like Miles Smiles and In a Silent Way. Less than a decade after joining Davis, Shorter became a jazz-fusion innovator by teaming with keyboardist Joe Zawinul to form Weather Report. Shorter is a spectacular saxophonist, but throughout his many musical adventures in acoustic and electric jazz, it's always been his compositional talents that have set him apart. Thoughtful and inventive, he penned the indelible jazz classic "Footprints" (fine versions of which appear on Miles Smiles as well as Shorter's LP Adam's Apple), not to mention standards like "Night Dreamer," "Dolores," "El Gaucho," "Witch Hunt," and many, many others. Over the years, Shorter's tunes have been played by everyone, becoming integral vehicles of exploration in the communal experiment that is jazz.
Wayne Shorter: Live at Montreux 1996 finds the musician-composer performing a too-brief 56-minute set at Switzerland's famed jazz festival. The set kicks off with Shorter's composition "On the Milky Way Express" from his 1995 LP, High Life. The tune opens with a minimalist tenor solo by Shorter, followed by electric bassist Alphonso Johnson's noodling exploration. After a brief return to the head, guitarist David Gilmore (not David Gilmour of Pink Floyd-fame), keyboardist James Beard, and Shorter trade aggressive runs before bringing the song to an end. Like the opening tune, "At the Fair" (also from High Life) proceeds at an even tempo but finds the band winding through rhythmically complex riffs and shifting dynamics, while delivering dense and energetic solos. These two extended jams consume nearly half of the program's running time. Next, the quintet reaches back to 1988's Joy Ryder for the syncopated, up-tempo number "Over Shadow Hill Way," which includes a solo by drummer Rodney Holmes. They return to High Life for a tight rendition of the funky "Children of the Night" (originally released in 1961 on the Jazz Messengers' Mosaic), with a fine piano solo by Beard, followed by Shorter switching gears for a soprano sax solo. The quintet wraps up the show with a seven-minute encore performance of "Endangered Species" from 1985's Atlantis, another up-tempo crowd-pleaser, again featuring Shorter on soprano sax.
The band is tight and impressive throughout. Young players Johnson, Gilmore, and Holmes are fiery and prodigious, though there's often a sense of studied, machine-like accuracy to their playing—even during their solos. Beard's work is more soulful, particularly when he steps away from the synthesizer to demonstrate some impressive two-handed work at the grand piano. It comes as no surprise, however, that Shorter is the glue holding the band together. His playing is tight and full of soul. His solos ride confidently atop the frenetic rhythms of Johnson and Holmes. His tone is perfect. Shorter isn't a legend for nothing.
Considering that the quintet's performance was captured on standard definition video, the full frame transfer on Eagle Rock's DVD isn't half bad. Colors are accurate, while detail is reasonably impressive in close-ups and medium shots. Crane shots of the entire stage lack strong detail to the point of looking slightly fuzzy and out of focus. Far more important than the video presentation, however, is the audio. The default option is a cleanly recorded PCM stereo mix that offers firm bass response and crisp midrange and treble. It doesn't compare however with the fuller bass and overall expansiveness of the Dolby 5.1 surround mix presented as an alternative. Finally, there's a DTS 5.1 mix that is nearly identical to the Dolby track, though its marginally tighter ambient space was ever so slightly more pleasing to my ears.
In addition to the main performance, the disc offers bonus tracks from 1991 and 1992 Montreux performances involving Shorter. The 1991 set features pianist Herbie Hancock as bandleader, Omar Hakim on drums, Stanley Clarke on bass, and Shorter on saxophones. They deliver an interesting arrangement of Shorter's jazz classic "Footprints" that begins with Clarke bowing a double bass before sliding into the tune's signature syncopated bass line. Shorter blows a choppy and aggressive tenor solo, followed by Hancock, who starts quiet and builds to a crescendo with some really nice left-hand work. Clarke delivers a mind-blowingly rich but tasteful solo on the upright before a brief solo by Hakim that puts Holmes' spotlight turn in the main program to shame. Next, we have another version of "On the Milky Way Express." Clarke switches to electric bass and Hancock to synthesizer. Clarke's slap bass-style and Hakim's fine cymbal work kick up the funk, while Shorter's playing is fluid and confident. All in all, Hancock's 1991 quartet is more impressive than Shorter's 1996 outfit. The two legends are as great as one would expect, while Clarke and Hakim have the almost playful rapport essential for a great rhythm section.
Despite the fine playing in both the 1996 and 1991 performances, the highlight of this disc is the two songs from 1992. The band—dubbed The Miles Davis Tribute Band—features Shorter on saxophones, Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass, Tony Williams on drums, and Wallace Roney on trumpet. It is Davis's second great quintet with Roney standing in for Davis, who'd died less than a year earlier. The band rips through Shorter's "Pinocchio" from Davis's 1968 record, Nefertiti. Roney follows Shorter with a trumpet solo that proves he deserves his place in the band. They're followed by Ron Carter's impassioned solo on the double bass, which is in turn followed by Shorter on the soprano sax. Next up is a medley of Ron Carter's ballad "Pee Wee" and Davis's composition "The Theme" (or "Miles' Theme"). During "Pee Wee," Hancock and Shorter trade delicate solos on piano and tenor, respectively, before the band launches into Davis's hard-driving, post-bop classic from The New Miles Davis Quintet LP, which showcases Williams' muscular drumming, double-time walking by Carter, and Shorter and Roney perfectly in sync with one another.
The 1991 and 1992 performances are presented in 1.78:1 anamorphically-enhanced widescreen transfers. Taken once again from video sources, the image is decent but suffers from overblown reds and some ghosting (particularly from lighting hotspots on the bells of Shorter's horns). On the audio front, we have the same PCM, Dolby 5.1, and DTS options provided for the main program.
Combined, the main program and bonus tracks run 105 minutes.
The only problem with Wayne Shorter: Live at Montreux 1996 is that 105 minutes is far too short a time to spend with a composer and player of Shorter's caliber. With a passable video transfer of a now substandard source, and excellent audio mixes, the disc is a must-own for fans of Shorter and jazz in general.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Eagle Rock Entertainment
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