I'm glad Ethan points out the proclivity of certain jazz "legends" to coast on their reputations at big concerts, rather than show up and play. I've seen several examples of this in my own concert going, including the Wayne/Herbie Carnegie Hall concert Ethan references (I'd be even less kind than he. I left the building angry).
First, I have before, and will again professed my love for High Life. I think it's a great, great album, and both the writing and Wayne's playing are beyond spectacular. However, I think some of the criticisms Ethan (and others) make are valid. Specifically, that the music doesn't especially groove- the rhythm section play, despite the amazing musicians involved, would be right at home on Smooth Jazz FM. I have two thoughts on this. One, those bass lines are ridiculously hard. I saw Wayne's touring band for that record, and the bass player, whose name I forget, had clearly worked her ass off, and was still struggling to hit the lines. I think it's hard to find a groove when you're scuffling.
Which leads to point two: I don't doubt that Wayne has had orchestral ambitions for many years, and to that date High Life was the closest he'd gotten to that goal. (He has since had multiple commissions and orchestral performances, including one I reviewed last fall.) So I have a hunch that presenting the compositions clearly and beautifully trumped the other considerations on this record. (Isn't this the downfall of many a studio album anyway?) If you listen to Alegria, the orchestra is handled very differently. He also has Blade and Danielo, which I'm sure has something to do with it, but still, there it feels like the orchestra is superimposed on top of the quartet. In High Life, the writing is THE important thing. I try to evaluate the record starting there. And God is the writing incredible! (The other records, I can't speak to here. Maybe soon. Remember, only in the last five years or so has a lot of love been shown to 70s Miles. Maybe 70s and 80s Wayne records are still waiting for their time.)
I appreciate Ethan's respect for Peter Watrous, who waylayed Shorter when the album came out on the front of the NY Times Arts page. But especially for that piece I don't at all share it. At all. Go back and read the piece; I'm not sure that Watrous ever actually listened to the record. I don't feel like he ever actually addresses the music, just dismisses it. To me this is the height of intellectual laziness. I'm all for a writer making me angry to make me think; I just want to be sure s/he put some thought into what they wrote to make me angry.
Finally, to Ethan's request for a "fantasy football Wayne band". (Confession, I love fantasy football, and am still bitter about my early exit from my league's playoff this year because Wes Welker blew his knee. But I digress...) I actually don't wish Wayne would make a standards record, or anything but he wants to make. And it's not just "respect for the musician/artist's prerogative" reasons. I like many people was waiting with baited breath for the Keith Jarrett quintet record of the mid-90s that never arrived, with Keith playing new music accompanied my new players.
As I mentioned in my comments to Ethan, it doesn't take much study of Wayne's music in the past thirty years to come to the conclusion that he's more than a little bit obsessed with anthems. One of Ben Ratliff's subtitles in his fantastic Listening with Wayne piece from 2004 is "A Taste for the Heroic". In concert he quotes the "Superman" theme. A lot. As far back "When You Dream" on Joy Rider, and maybe before, Wayne has been writing very anthemic music. You could argue there are strains of this in the classic 60s stuff, but the later in his career you go, the more explicit it gets.
The great songs of Tin Pan Alley that make up the bulk of jazz rep pre-1970 are wonderful, flexible forms, but very few in my view are particularly anthemic. (There are exceptions, of course) That's not what they're built to do; most were originally sung, and many are built on some level to further the plot of the show they're in. The "Just in Time" solo Ethan transcibes is amazing, but it's hard for me to imagine how Wayne's playing today would address that form. Listen back to Wayne in this jam session, which I've linked to before- he's already over the edge of playing on a "conventional blues". Or to his playing on his last two appearances on Herbie records- "Cottontail" on Gershwin's World, and "Nefertitti" on River. Where he is artistically, would playing "Just in Time" be even a useful artistic choice? Interesting to us jazz nerds, nostalgic certainly, but useful?
Is there a musician in the history of jazz more constantly adventurous than Wayne Shorter? More willing to follow his ears whether or not they fit the trend? I think that's why so many of the commenters on Ethan's blog talk about a Wayne performance as "over in one note". Like Ornette, his commitment to whatever he's doing is complete and total. Every performance of the current quartet that I've heard is a high wire act- the architecture is so fluid that the level of risk is tremendously high; I've never heard another band on that level risk and fail as often as they do; I've also rarely heard another band fly as high. I wonder if there'd be any risk left if Wayne paid a visit to Tin Pan Alley. Maybe, I don't know. But I'm happy to hear Wayne continue to push forward.
I'm not trying at all to trash Ethan- quite the contrary, I love the piece and what it brings up, and I agree with him more than I don't. Just coming at it from a different angle...
(Two vaguely related requests- has anyone seen the video a commenter referenced of Joni singing at the Olympic opening ceremony? Didn't even know. And does anyone have a lead sheet to "When You Dream" On my list of tunes to play soon.)