What does it say about the current state of jazz that its best composer/bandleader/player is 69-year-old saxophonist Wayne Shorter? Might make for an intriguing diatribe, but the better question is this: What does it say about Shorter? The man's a phenomenon. Last year's terrific Footprints Live (Verve), his first acoustic album in an absurdly long time, seemed to re-energize the legend who boasts memorable tenures with Art Blakey, Miles Davis and Weather Report, not to mention a splendid solo career that dates back 40 years. With such a staggering resume, it's hard to make the case that Shorter is now reaching the height of his powers. It is readily apparent, however, that they have not diminished, that the creative light still burns hot.
What makes Alegria so good? Just about everything. Melody, improvisation, savvy instrumentation, ensemble chemistry, fabulous arrangements, an array of moods and textures. The disc includes just one new Shorter composition: the smoothly boogaloo-flavored opener "Sacajawea," where his sublime quartet that includes pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade deftly communes for some telepathic playing.
None of the rest sounds the least retreaded, though. A few of Shorter's older tunes are rendered anew. 1965's "Angola" struts over a jaunty African groove and is ornamented with the labyrinthine parts of a four-man horn section. Shorter turns in provocative statements on tenor and soprano. "Orbits" begins with a delicate swell of flutes and woodwinds, then evolves into a contemplative ensemble melody, punctuated by Shorter's pointed tenor comments. The tune gradually picks up a swirling dissonance and more rhythmic urgency. A remarkable transformation of mood in just six minutes. The closing "Capricorn II" returns to quartet mode and is a model of open-ended exploration.
Shorter made innovative choices in outside material. The 1930's flamenco piece "Vendiendo Alegria," is outfitted with a creamy horn ensemble and initially calls to mind Shorter's motionless ballads with Weather Report. It then gives way to a sprightly Latin groove over which his soprano solo shadow boxes with a darting horn arrangement. "Bachianas Brasilerias No. 5," by Brazilian classical master Heitor Vila Lobos, radiates a stately melancholy with its cello ensemble and pensive melody.
Shorter delves even further back with "12th Century Carol," its medieval melody splayed over a loping Brazilian rhythm, fattened by luxuriant horn arrangement that at turns both punches and massages.
Shorter's tenor playing is not as robust as it once was, although it still feints and jabs and skitters at oblique angles. His soprano work, to these ears the most accomplished in jazz history (Coltrane and Bechet included), retains its full-bodied tone and unmatched vocal quality. Let's hope that Alegria does not represent the pinnacle of late-period Wayne Shorter. If it does end up that way, though, we could hardly complain.
To Whom It May Concern
LISA MARIE PRESLEY
Let me get this out of the way, right up front: I did not listen to this album in its entirety. Now, having disclosed that, I will add two qualifiers. 1. I listened to nine tracks, which was more than enough to discern the fact that, while there are 11 cuts listed, the disc actually contains only two songs, the "I'm a cool, dangerous chick with attitude" song and the "no I'm not, I lied, I'm really vulnerable and crumbling on the inside" song. 2. YOU try to get through the whole miserable thing. Go ahead. I dare you. To Whom It May Concern is exactly what you'd expect out of the debut full-length album from a pop-culture figure known far more for her relationships to people inside the entertainment industry than for working in it. The songs were all written with the help of well-known template application engineers like Glen Ballard, and are all huge, amorphous archetypes of what a hypothetical producer who only reads magazines published by producers for other producers (Producer Magazine, I'm guessing, or maybe Knob Hits) seems to think people want to hear. They're the kind of anonymously assaulting pastiches that try to hit every genre at just the right moment, coming off as hollowly overwrought in the process — let's say, the aural equivalent of Michael Bay movies. Presley is credited, dubiously, as a co-songwriter and contributes lyrics so awkwardly self-conscious in their effort to be "real" that, ironically, they end up matching the music's insubstantial tsunami perfectly. In addition, she might be an average vocalist, but insists on making up for what she lacks in real talent with attitude. Sometimes that works. Here it doesn't. There are some interesting instrumental tracks and catchy melodic accoutrements here and there amid the mess. But in the end, they're too few and far between to amount to much more than Dumpster diving in the world's shiniest, most expensive trash-bin.
1/2-Planet —Scott Harrell
KING SUNNY ADÉ
In 1982, Island Records sought a new international artist who could fill the void of the late Bob Marley. The label turned to King Sunny Ade of Lagos, Nigeria, one of the prime purveyors of ju-ju music. The style, while clearly distinct from reggae, had a similar easy-going lope, although with a more buoyant, open-ended feel. Island released three Ade albums, which, although not commercial blockbusters, did garner heaps of critical praise (including much from this wide-eyed scribe) and effectively launched what would be called the World Music movement. Ade protected his stardom on the homefront by continuing to release records to the Nigerian market. This CD combines two LPs from that period, Gbe Kini Ohun De and Synchro Series, and serves as a vivid reminder that King Sunny Ade's cult ascendancy in the U.S. was refreshing and important. Gbe Kini Ohun De represents Ade's lighter style, all ringing, interlocked guitars and percolating beats, driven by the swooping melodicism of talking drums, energized by call-and-response vocals (sung in Yoruban) and punctuated with the whining smears of pedal steel guitar. Synchro Series has a more progressive feel, with bolder bass and urgent drums. The real find here, though, is a seven-minute dub mix of Ja Fun Mi (heard in its original form on his first Island disc, Ju-Ju Music), outfitted with a fat, throbbing bass line and spacey echo effects. If you missed the onset of world beat the first time around, Synchro Series is the perfect way to catch up. www.indigedisc.com —Eric Snider