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JAZZ SPOTLIGHT

Shorter follows a wandering muse

His new album is marked by a bristling, imaginative freedom.

April 20, 2003|Don Heckman | Special to The Times

The multiplicity of paths facing jazz in the new millennium still hasn't coalesced into anything resembling a single direction. Bebop continues to be excavated for its undiscovered lodes of riches. Slam bands bring dancing feet back to the music. Globalists reach for compatibility with other cultures. Fusionists conjure up brews simmering with electronics, rap and hip-hop. And nostalgia seekers assiduously revive the sounds of eras reaching back to ragtime and New Orleans.

There's nothing wrong with this sort of diversity, of course. The notion that jazz has progressed with one genre at a time has always been somewhat illusory.

The truth is that jazz, like any art, grows and changes in a decidedly nonlinear fashion.

No jazz artist represents that truth more convincingly than Wayne Shorter. In a career that spans more than four decades, the one certainty about his choices of musical directions has been their unpredictability. Here is a look at his latest, as well as current releases from a few other established jazz artists who continue to respond to the calls of their own muses:

Wayne Shorter

"Alegria" (Verve)

****

"Alegria" is Shorter's first studio album since 1994's Grammy-winning "High Life," which was atmospheric enough to serve as a series of cinematic underscores. In the interim, Shorter has tried several other artistic directions, most notably a series of stunning duets with old friend Herbie Hancock, as well as the establishment of his current, highly praised quartet.

Elements from both those directions spark many of the high points in "Alegria." Shorter's playing, especially on soprano saxophone, bristles with the sort of imaginative, high-flying freedom present in the Hancock sessions. And most tracks are aided by the dependable work of pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade.

Three pieces are quartet outings, and the balance of the program adds different acoustic combinations of horns and strings, with occasional spirited contributions from percussionist Alex Acuna and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington.

Shorter employs all these textural components in a program of startling diversity. The album kicks off with a new item, "Sacajawea," in which he multitracks layers of his saxophone playing (with his trio), producing a hornet's nest of interlaced sounds. Three other tracks -- "Capricorn II," "Orbits" and "Angola" -- are reevaluations (in some cases, virtual transformations) of earlier works.

As an added fillip to a recording that offers convincing testimony to Shorter's undiminished creativity, there is a marvelous interfacing between his tenor saxophone and Villa-Lobos' classic "Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5" (in an arrangement by producer Robert Sadin).

Randy Brecker

"34th N Lex" (ESC)

***

With his all-star saxophonist brother Michael at his side, Brecker has produced an album with calculatedly contemporary qualities -- funk grooves, R&B vocals and foot-tapping accessibility. Fortunately for his more mainstream-oriented fans, there is also some of the first-rate trumpet soloing that has characterized Brecker's work since his days with Blood, Sweat & Tears.

Steve Turre

"One4J" (Telarc)

***

The presence of J.J. Johnson still looms over most contemporary jazz trombonists. Choosing to embrace it in a celebratory manner, Turre, who has built his engaging style from a Johnson foundation, has put together a five-trombone and rhythm ensemble to perform a program largely dedicated to Johnson originals. The album's most intriguing aspect is Johnson's marvelously melodic compositions, from the groovy blues of "Wee Dot" and the drama of "El Camino Real" to the poignantly touching "Lament."

At the album's core is a minimalist rendering by Turre and pianist Renee Rosnes (a member of one of Johnson's last groups) of a rarely heard Johnson ballad, "Enigma."

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent). The albums are already released unless otherwise noted.

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