When the legendary Blue Note Records releases a triple album of the latest three-album project from a jazz giant like Wayne Shorter, you’d better set aside a few days to enjoy it in its entirety. This is a project like no other and every track feeds the soul: it’s orchestral, symphonic and musically exploratory, while retaining moments of fine jazz quartet playing.
Shorter’s relationship with Blue Note goes back to the 1950s with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and since then he has 10 Grammy awards on his shelf. Emanon is his second release since his return to the label with Without a Net in 2013 and it features Shorter on soprano and tenor saxophone with Danilo Perez on piano, John Patitucci on bass, and Brian Blade on drums, plus the 34-piece Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.
No-one knows who first said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture, but this is one of those occasions that proves the saying true. You have to listen to this suite. No. Really. You have to listen to this suite.
If you went through school learning about classical music and never hearing so much as a 12-bar blues in class – as I did – then all that classical education will suddenly make sense. The way Shorter’s horns wander about, sitting nicely between the quartet and the orchestral strings is solo work at its finest.
Talking about how this extraordinary musical collection came about, Shorter talks about a conversation he had with Miles Davis, just before he died in 1991: “He said, ‘Wayne, I want you to write something for me with strings and an orchestra, but make sure you put a window in so I can get out of there.’ He definitely did not say, ‘Make the strings swing.’ Working with an orchestra is like crossing the street and talking to a neighbor you haven't talked to for 10 years. It's the thing the world needs now: joining forces.”
Emanon (no name, backwards, if you hadn’t already spotted that) is the title of this orchestral suite and the eponymous lead character in the graphic novel which accompanies the music. Shorter explains: “When Dizzy Gillespie had a piece of music in the late 40s called ‘Emanon,’ it hit me way back then as a teenager: ‘No name’ means a whole lot. The connection with Emanon and artists and other heroes is the quest to find originality, which is probably the closest thing you can get to creation. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and some comic heroes, they lose their power or identity and become something called human, so that a human being has to do the same thing that Superman and all of them do.”
Alternative realities are at the root of the novel and the music and there’s an eerie sense throughout of the unknown. For something so unnervingly ethereal, there’s an irony that this is a physical-only release. Probably because it’s going to rapidly become a collector’s item for most jazz lovers. There’s so much intricately woven into every track, it made me want to go out immediately and buy a turntable just to enjoy the three 180g vinyl LPs.