During a 2015 interview with pianist Ethan Iverson, Wayne Shorter, the great tenor saxophonist and composer, was asked about the sound he helped create in the Miles Davis Quintet in the 1960s. Shorter has a penchant for giving oblique answers to straightforward questions; a lifelong science fiction fan, he responded by quoting the famous mission statement from “Star Trek”: “Boldly go where no man has gone before.”
“Like leaving what you know and not being afraid,” Shorter continued. “How’re you going to rehearse that? How do you rehearse the unknown?”
That is a pithy description of Shorter’s own musical journey, especially in the 21st century. In 2000, he shook off a string of lackluster, overly synthesized albums and formed a stellar acoustic quartet — with pianist Danilo Pérez, bassist John Patitucci, and drummer Brian Blade — that is renowned for the inner clairvoyance with which it operates. Songs from Shorter’s ’60s songbook were transfigured beyond recognition, and his recent tunes have titles (“As Far as the Eye Can See,” “Zero Gravity to the 10th Power”) that carry a sense of reaching ecstatically for the beyond.
Shorter turned 85 in August, and his birthday present to the world is a deluxe package titled “Emanon” (“no name” spelled backward), to be released Friday. It comprises three CDs, two of which are taken up with a typically exploratory live set by the quartet in London from 2016. The third disc contains a four-movement suite on which the quartet is joined by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. Also included is a graphic novel written by Shorter and Monica Sly, and illustrated by Randy DuBurke. Shorter seems uninterested in cashing in on his well-earned legacy; he has instead crafted the most ambitious release of his career.
Of course, ambition and excellence don’t always track exactly, and that’s the case with some of the music on “Emanon,” particularly the suite. Shorter’s orchestral writing — brightly colored, melodically driven, vaguely reminiscent of Copland and Bernstein — is impressive on its own terms, and when the two ensembles lock in, as in the opening “Pegasus,” they generate remarkable friction. Elsewhere, though, the orchestra is relegated to vamping behind the quartet, giving the music an oddly static feel.
Compare the orchestral version of “The Three Marias” (a tune from Shorter’s 1985 album “Atlantis”), where the orchestra’s interludes end up disrupting the music’s momentum, with the live quartet-only version, which opens with Shorter whistling the melody over a haunting improvised nocturne by Pérez and Patitucci. That performance stretches out to more than 27 minutes, the music achieving a rapt, mysterious lyricism that leaves the original composition a universe away. The closing tune, “Prometheus Unbound,” is punctuated by dagger-like statements from Shorter’s soprano saxophone against the backdrop of Blade’s ferocious, sneak-attack drumming.
Midway through the live set, the quartet takes two classic Shorter tunes from the ’60s — “Orbits” and “Lost” — fractures them, and reassembles the fragments into a medley guided and shaped by nothing other than the group’s collective ESP. At the end of the track there is joyous, audible laughter among the four musicians. (“Yeah!” one of them shouts.) It is the reaction of artists who, even after a decade and a half, are still surprised by what they can conjure, from the barest materials, on any given night. That is why this band is so prized.
As for the graphic novel, it has to do with multiverses and a hero named Emanon who sets out to liberate the dystopias he encounters. Each movement in the orchestral suite has a theme that’s central to the story; still, the connection between them, as well as the story arc itself, remained obscure to me, though the drawings themselves are gorgeous.
Even if the whole package doesn’t quite come together, it’s impossible not to admire the scope and ambition of “Emanon,” especially from a musician who could easily be riding out his career with nothing left to prove. “You scared of going out there?” Davis once asked Shorter. He never was, and even in his ninth decade, he’s still pursuing the unknown.David Weininger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @davidgweininger.