Wayne Shorter’s five greatest rock music moments
Tyler Golsen Thu 2nd Mar 2023 18.52 GMT
To even casual jazz fans across the globe, Wayne Shorter is nothing short of a legend. As a member of two of the most legendary ensembles in the genre’s history, Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and Miles Davis’ Second Great Quintet, Shorter’s diverse saxophone skills made him of the most in-demand players in the world. But to rock audiences, Shorter’s name is slightly more elusive.
Shorter, who recently passed away at the age of 89, is perhaps most famous for founding acclaimed jazz-fusion outfit Weather Report with fellow legends Joe Zawinul and Don Alias. He could be seen sharing bills with prominent rock, and R&B acts across the 1970s as rock audiences became enamoured with the bass skills of the band’s bassist, Jaco Pastorius. At the famous Havana Jam in 1979, Shorter and Weather Report played alongside rock greats like Stephen Stills and Billy Joel.
Throughout his career, Shorter became interested in exploring beyond the traditional jazz form. Weather Report heavily incorporated elements of funk and soul into their sound. It wasn’t long before Shorter found himself being tapped to contribute to records from a diverse array of artists in multiple genres. Exploration and experimentation had always been a critical element of Shorter’s musical philosophy, which often presented itself in the guise of taking on styles that weren’t in his natural comfort zone.
There wasn’t a single genre that Shorter wasn’t willing to take on at least once: folk, electronica, disco, easy listening, flamenco, and even pop music were all filtered through Shorter’s signature sax sound. Across nearly eight decades of work, Shorter has amassed one of music history’s most diverse and impressive discographies. Shorter even found some time to play rock and roll during those years.
While it was never his primary focus, Shorter often played with famous rock stars. Whether those players were jazz-adjacent, like Carlos Santana, Joni Mitchell, and Steely Dan, or simply admirers, like The Rolling Stones, Shorter was an easy presence who could slip into any composition. If you’re looking to appreciate Shorter’s work but have difficulty getting acclimated to jazz, here are some of his greatest moments in the world of rock music.
Wayne Shorter’s five greatest rock music moments:
Joni Mitchell – ‘Jericho’
Joni Mitchell had more or less fully transitioned away from folk and into jazz by the end of the 1970s, so much so that her final album of the decade would be a direct tribute to the legendary bass player and composer Charles Mingus. Mitchell had already lured Pastorius to be her in-house bassist, so it didn’t take much to get Shorter on board as well.
‘Jericho’ had been a staple of Mitchell’s live performances for years, having appeared on the live album Miles of Aisles three years before its studio appearance on 1977’s Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter. Shorter’s soprano sax adds a heightened layer of jazz to the folky track, with quick bursts of colour floating around the song’s busy arrangement.
Steely Dan – ‘Aja’
The worst-kept secret in music was that Donald Fagen and Walter Becker were jazz freaks masquerading as rock and rollers. With each subsequent Steely Dan album came a greater dedication to jazz, and by the time 1977’s Aja rolled around, they had almost completely returned to their preferred genre.
“Almost” is the operative phrase. While the album’s title track sprawls and solos like a classic jazz composition, it also has a prominent mixture of rock in its DNA. During his solo, Shorter seems to infuse elements of classic rock and roll sax players like King Curtis and Rudy Pompilli into his playing, easing up just enough on his jazz roots to create a truly unique solo.
Carlos Santana – ‘Soweto (Africa Libre)’
If we’re all being honest with ourselves, Santana’s Spirits Dancing in the Flesh is not one of the high points of Carlos Santana’s career. Featuring a reconfigured Santana lineup with none of the band’s classic members, the album leans far too heavily on outdated production, cheesy synthesisers, and exhausting gimmicks. Santana himself is as sharp as ever on the guitar, but the album as a whole tends to fall flat.
Shorter had previously worked with Santana on the strictly jazz LP The Swing of Delight, but here the saxophonist gets to let loose in a more traditionally rock setting. ‘Soweto (Africa Libre)’ finds Shorter ducking in and out with his soprano sax, clearly delighting in playing off the rapid-fire runs of Santana’s guitar work.
Don Henley – ‘The End of the Innocence’
It might be hard to remember now, but Don Henley’s ‘The End of the Innocence’ was a major critical and commercial hit in 1990. Winning a Grammy Award for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance, the song was also a top ten hit in the United States and preserved Henley’s place as one of the most viable voices in rock music.
It’s a pretty cheesy song to listen back to, especially with Bruce Hornsby’s piano tracks over the top, but one element of the track remains timeless: Shorter’s soprano sax solo. While it may not be his most enthusiastic performance on record, Shorter’s solo adds a necessary edge to Henley’s power ballad.
The Rolling Stones – ‘How Can I Stop’
Charlie Watts was a dedicated jazz fanatic, the only member of The Rolling Stones who would be watching Chuck Mangione rather than Chuck Berry. Another great jazz saxophonist, Sonny Rollins, contributed a beautiful sax solo to ‘Waiting on a Friend’ through his instigation.
It wouldn’t be a surprise if Watts insisted that Shorter be brought in to play on the Bridges to Babylon track ‘How Can I Stop’. A raspy gospel ballad by Keith Richards, ‘How Can I Stop’, also gets its kicks from a killer soprano solo from Shorter, floating in after the track dives into its fifth minute. A shorter delicate layer of sax adds the perfect touch of heartbreak to Richards’ rousing performance.