Wayne Shorter’s Phantom Navigator: 30 Years Old Today

wayne shColumbia Records, released February 1987

Bought: Our Price Richmond 1987

9/10

In the late-’80s, Wayne was seemingly about as far away from ‘jazz’ as it’s possible for a jazz legend to get. His music hadn’t featured any tinging ride cymbals or walking acoustic basses for decades. Even Miles thought Wayne was getting a bit too ‘far-out’ – he reportedly told the saxophonist as much when they met backstage during Miles’s Paris tribute show in July 1991.

Which must have come as quite a shock to Wayne – after all, his ’80s music featured strong, ‘funky’ grooves and attractive, happy melodies. On the face of it, albums like ’87’s Phantom Navigator (apparently inspired by the ‘Other Worlds’ sci-fi comic series he drew in his teenage years) weren’t that different from Miles’s Tutu and Amandla. But of course they were completely different, and Phantom Navigator is probably the most ‘far-out’ collection of Wayne’s solo career.

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Many critics couldn’t see beyond the drum machines, bass vamps and synths, missing the complexity of the arrangements and incredible care and attention that went into making the album, though maybe Wayne was asking for trouble by recruiting legendary NY beat-maker Jimmy Bralower, who had recently featured on Steve Winwood’s ‘Higher Love’ and Nile Rodgers’ B Movie Matinee.

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But these elements were just ‘sweeteners’ – Phantom Navigator was designed to be lived with, devoured in long stretches as one would a classical piece. There were so many good melodic ideas packed into every tune but it wasn’t an album for short attention spans – not ideal in the MTV-flavoured, thrill-a-minute late-’80s.

‘Condition Red’ fairly bursts out of the speakers, with Wayne’s hair-raising soprano (I’d posit that Phantom Navigator features the best soprano tone of his career), sublime harmonies and witty scat vocals. Chick Corea’s crystalline piano features strongly on the intricate, beguiling ‘Mahogany Bird’, while ‘Remote Control’ taps into a go-go groove (though Bralower’s snare is way too big – where was Ricky Wellman when Wayne needed him?) underpinning rich, endlessly-flowing soprano harmonies.

Side two’s triptych of ‘Yamanja’ (named for a sea goddess of Brazilian legend), ‘Forbidden – Plan-It!’ and ‘Flagships’ are nothing less than mini concertos for soprano sax, electric bass and synths. All would work fine with a symphony orchestra with their endlessly intertwining lines and countermelodies.

Wayne toured a lot during this period (I think I saw him three times in London between ’85 and ’88) and to a certain extent the music was a hard sell, both for audiences and the musicians. His sci-fi fusion stuck out like a sore thumb during the late-’80s London jazz/rare-groove revival when he was sometimes put on the same bill as people like The James Taylor Quartet and Gilles Peterson! I remember a really weird such gig at the old Town & Country Club in the late ’80s.

It’s the same old story – the problem of marketing music that goes way beyond category. But, in the final analysis, Wayne doesn’t play jazz, rock, go-go, funk or soul on Phantom Navigator – he plays life. And hey – another mention for Jean-Francois Podevin’s wonderful cover artwork.

Wayne Shorter’s Atlantis: 30 Years Old Today

Wayne-Shorter-Atlantis--Press-K-486376Columbia Records, released 1985

9/10

It’s not easy to write about an album that’s so much part of your musical DNA that it haunts you in the middle of the night and yet reveals fresh nuances every time you listen to it.

But first of all, I have to declare an interest – Wayne is one of my all-time musical heroes and has been since I was a teenager when his sax playing and compositions with Weather Report and Miles Davis totally bewitched me.

It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that it took me 20 years to really appreciate Atlantis, and also to realise that it had to be listened to on CD and listened to loud. The recent remaster, as part of Wayne’s Complete Albums Collection, is the best I’ve ever heard it.

Wayne at The International, Manchester, 1989. Photo by William Ellis

Wayne at The International, Manchester, 1987. Photo by William Ellis

How to describe the magical though totally uncompromising music on Atlantis? It was Wayne’s first solo release after the official split of Weather Report and it’s fair to say it wasn’t the album many fans and critics were expecting. It surely remains Wayne’s least understood work.  It’s ostensibly an album of through-composed, acoustic ‘fusion’, but that barely covers it. Someone once described it as the soundtrack to an animated children’s book.

Wayne seems to be weaning listeners away from a more bombastic form of jazz/rock towards a new combination of jazz, R’n’B and Third Stream which utilises sophisticated counterpoint and pure composition. Shorter is the only player who gets any significant solo time. Acoustic piano, flute, vocals and multiple saxes supply the dense, challenging, sometimes dissonant harmonies.

Atlantis could hardly be described as a ‘jazz’ album at all; ensemble work and composition generally override individual expression, and none of the tracks ‘swing’ in a conventional sense. And yet it’s still an utterly melodic set, full of memorable, criss-crossing themes which jostle for your attention. It takes time to work its magic, but work its magic it does.

The phenomenal opener ‘Endangered Species’ (recently massacred by Esperanza Spalding) is somewhat of a  ‘sweetener’ at the top of the album, like Sirens luring sailors to their deaths, as Shorter biographer Michelle Mercer noted. Many people, me included, struggled to get very far past it since the remainder of Atlantis sounded somewhat prim and precious in comparison. I wanted to hear Zawinul and Jaco’s blistering lines, Omar Hakim‘s colourful drumming, some virtuosity.

But when I studied Atlantis more closely, there are many subtle displays of instrumental mastery. Ex-Weather Report drummer Alex Acuna plays a blinder throughout, blazing through the outro of ‘Who Goes There’, Larry Klein’s bass playing is nimble and impressive (try playing along to Wayne’s intricate written lines), Michiko Hill’s piano comping is inventive and Wayne plays some fantastic solos, particularly his Rollins-style tenor on calypso-flavoured ‘Criancas’.

I remember seeing Wayne playing much of this music live to a barely-half-full London Shaw Theatre in late 1985 – it seems that audiences, booking agents and press officers alike were finding his post-Weather Report music a hard sell at this point. Critics were generally puzzled too, although Robert Palmer noted in the New York Times that ‘it’s not an album one should listen to a few times and then knowledgeably evaluate… It is an album to learn from and live with.’

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But if Atlantis was misunderstood and less than commercially successful on its original release, it seems to be gaining fans in the 30 years since. A good yardstick is that several compositions from the album are still regularly played by Shorter’s esteemed current quartet, particularly the title track, an eerie, labyrinthine tango.

‘The Three Marias’, a treacherous tune in 6/4 inspired by press reports of three Portuguese woman being arrested for writing obscene literature, has even been the unlikely recipient of a few cover versions, perhaps most notably (though not wholly effectively) by ex-Police guitarist Andy Summers.

Shorter delivered two more albums of dense and beautiful compositions before the ’80s were out, and I’ll return to them very soon.

Thanks to William Ellis for use of his photo.

(P.S. I’m taking one mark off for ‘Shere Khan The Tiger’ which was far better rendered on Carlos Santana’s 1980 album The Swing Of Delight, a version which featured Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass and Harvey Mason on drums.)