Friday 10 March 2023

Gaia: Two Orchestral Works by Wayne Shorter

Two luminous orchestral works by the late, great Wayne Shorter: first, Dramatis Personae, a Lincoln Centre Commission from 1998 with Shorter on soprano, Jim Beard on piano, Christian McBride, bass, and Herlin Riley drums alongside orchestra conducted and arranged by Robert Sadin--the bridge between the monumental, and underrated, High Life (1995) and the orchestral collaborations of the Danilo Pérez/ John Patitucci/ Brian Blade acoustic quartet to come.

A decade-and-a-half on, the massive LA Philharmonic commission Gaia (2013), described by Richard S. Ginell in Variety as a “murky, thick-set monster of a piece [...] massive, slow-moving, opaque textures, sometimes tracking Wayne’s distinctive long, snaking melodic lines on soprano; treating the sections of the orchestra as blocs”. Varying in performance from 25 to 30 minutes, this version from Gdansk in 2014 veers toward the latter, with Shorter on soprano forming part of a quartet with Leo Genovese (piano) and Terri Lynn Carrington (drums); the solo vocal part and libretto are by Esperanza Spalding, who also doubles on bass as part of the quartet. 

Shorter first began work as a teenage student at NYU, and it’s to be hoped that Shorter’s Kennedy Center collaboration with Spalding on the opera Iphigenia--his final piece after he retired from performing in 2019--might appear in the future. For now, the serene drama of these orchestral works represent the majestic, achieved late blossoming of the compositional impulse Shorter had been building throughout his entire life, from his early work on that teenage opera through to the unreleased orchestral pieces Universe, Legend and Twin Dragon he wrote for Miles Davis in the 1960s and ’80s (later realised by Wallace Roney) and the misunderstood trilogy of post-Weather Report Afro-futurist epics Atlantis (1985), Phantom Navigator (1986), and Joy Ryder (1989), along with the aforementioned High Life.

I have a longer piece on Shorter in The Wire, with thanks to Meg Woof.

(Edited down from a 30,000 word draft--with plenty more to say on Shorter’s orchestral work, his status as composer, and the framing of ‘jazz’; more of that may see the light of day elsewhere.)


In other news:

My interview with composer Hannah Kendall is online at Bachtrack: Kendall is Composer-in-Residence at the Royal Academy of Music this March, and a couple of concerts are forthcoming the following week. Highly recommended if you’ve not heard her music in performance before.

On March 22nd the trio GUE will be making its delayed debut at waterintobeer in Brockley, South London. Jacken Elswyth on banjo, Laurel Uziell on electronics and myself on electronics and melodica. We’ll be joined by a saxophone trio of Alex McKenzie, Nat Philipps and Nicholas Hann, plus Tom Mills on theremin. Tickets £5, doors 6:30, to be wrapped up by 9pm. Eventbrite page here.

Finally, I’m delighted to reveal the cover for the Selected Poems of Calvin C. Hernton, co-edited by myself and Lauri Scheyer, and now available for pre-order from Wesleyan. The book includes material from across his career--including the long out-of-print The Coming of Chronos to the House of Nightsong--and a foreword from Hernton’s longtime friend, publisher and champion Ishmael Reed, along with notes, chronology, and index. It will be published this August.