Aside from John Coltrane, probably the most admired of Miles Davis’s essential sidemen is Wayne Shorter. Certainly among other musicians and absolutely among jazz geeks, the saxophonist has claimed an Olympian mantle without ever having become a household name. We’ve never seen an iconic Shorter T-shirt or heard him namechecked in a rap song. Trane, assisted by early mortality and epic ambition, became mythically larger than the music he played; Shorter, who wrote beautifully complex tunes, was contained within his sound. Yet that sound grew universal: What pickup combo doesn’t know 'Footsteps', now only the clichéd artifact of a vastly more pervasive and profound influence?
Shorter became a pop artist – always a dangerous thing for a 'serious' musician – in the 1970s with Weather Report, as well as in alliances with Joni Mitchell and Steely Dan. Things got spotty after that, and it took him until the late ’90s to find his equilibrium again. His latter-day quartet, with John Patitucci (bass), Danilo Perez (piano) and Brian Blade (drums), is the kind of killer ensemble in which everyone’s a star in his own right, nimbly navigating the most liquid of improvisatory forms. Together a decade, the group has restored much of its leader’s confidence, sparking a fourth-quarter surge.