Thursday, October 18, 2018

Wayne Shorter Inspires a Graphic Novel

courtesy of Play MPE

About a month ago I became aware of a fascinating multimedia project released by Blue Note Records. At the heart of the project was long-time Blue Note saxophonist Wayne Shorter, one of the featured interviewees on Sophie Huber’s documentary Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes, discussed on this site this past July. Blue Note President Don Was suggested to Shorter the idea of creating a graphic novel inspired by Shorter’s music. Shorter then approached Randy DuBurke to be his partner in the project, having been familiar with the graphic novel that DuBurke had created about Malcolm X. The results were eventually released by Blue Note this past September 14 as a hardbound volume of DuBurke’s graphics with holders for three CDs at the back. The title of this package was Emanon.

That title amounts to a rather distinguished nod to jazz history. The word itself is “no name” spelled backward. Back in the Forties, Dizzy Gillespie came up with a new piece and had a lot of trouble figuring out what to call it. He settled on “Emanon,” remarking, “‘No name’ means a whole lot.”

Shorter’s Emanon goes beyond Gillespie’s struggling with a single new piece. In Shorter’s case the result was a four-movement suite. When it was first performed at Carnegie Hall, it was a major project. Playing both tenor and soprano saxophone, Shorter led his long-running quartet, whose other members were pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Patitucci, and drummer Brian Blade. They were then joined by the 34-piece Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. Founded in 1972, this was a pioneering ensemble that performed without a conductor, working instead with a collaborative leadership style. The day after the Carnegie performance, studio recordings were made of the four movements: “Pegasus,” “Lotus,” “The Three Marias,” and “Prometheus Unbound.” Shorter gave these recordings to DuBurke, along with a narrative framework he created with Monica Sly, and told him he could get to work.

At this stage I must confess that I have been so wrapped up in the music that I am just beginning to explore DuBurke’s graphic novel. The fact is that I was throughly fascinated by the idea of bringing an improvising jazz quartet into conjunction with a conductor-free chamber orchestra. This was definitely in a league different from the Charlie Parker with Strings arrangements by Jimmy Carroll and Joe Lipman or the large ensemble arrangements that Gil Evans created first for Parker and subsequently for Miles Davis. There is clearly a score behind Orpheus’ role in the partnership; but it is also clear that the relationship between that group and Shorter’s quartet has not been reduced to a matter of “taking turns.”

Fortunately, the Emanon “package” provides the curious listener with ways to get to know just what that relationship is. The four tracks that motivated DuBurke’s work occupy the first CD in the collection. The tracks on the other two CDs come from a later concert that Shorter’s quartet gave at the Barbican in London. Those tracks include three of the pieces that were played at Carnegie Hall, “The Three Marias,” “Lotus,” and “Prometheus Unbound.” This allows the attentive listener to get a better idea of how Orpheus contributed to these pieces and how Shorter’s quartet could exercise their improvisation skills. The Barbican recordings also include three briefer tracks, “Lost and Orbits Medley,” “She Moves Through the Fair,” and “Adventures Aboard the Golden Mean.”

All of this makes for an adventurous, and frequently challenging, approach to listening. Don’t expect the conventions of jamming to prevail; but, at the same time, don’t expect some grand symphonic design that constrains all of the players. Emanon deserves to be taken as a genre unto itself, which may be why the playful logic behind the title is entirely apposite.

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