“Why?”: The Parabolic New Music of Alan Shorter

David Grundy


Alan Shorter, New York, 1966, photographer unknown, first published in Jazz Hot, June 1967.

In June 1967, Jazz Hot magazine printed an interview with Alan Shorter recorded by Daniel Berger and Alain Corneau in New York. [i] Rather than following the linear, questions and answer format of the regular interview, the authors let Shorter’s words flow, apparently with a minimum of editing. One moment Shorter is describing switching from alto saxophone to trumpet after hearing a mysterious, “crackling” voice telling him to “Play Trumpet” when he stepped into a café, the next the plot of 1950s sci-fi B-Movie The Magnetic Monster, along the way dismissing Stravinsky as a “dirty motherfucker” (“All this dirt we’ve got inside! I prefer my dirt to Stravinsky’s”), blasting the American rage for “Legitimacy” (“I totally refuse. I can’t, that’s it”), and telling stories about Sunny Murray (at one point so broke he had to pawn his drums to feed his family) and Miles Davis (apparently not best pleased when Alan sat in for the absent leader at the Village Vanguard). Accompanying the piece are a series of photographs capturing Shorter in mid-flow, hands flying to illustrate his points (perhaps the description of the sonic boom). Arms raised wide above his head, Shorter looks like he’s either trying to contain, or letting escape, a mass of energy like that he describes in The Magnetic Monster.

“Some of these things I say, I don’t understand them myself, not completely. I don’t know why I say this or that”, Shorter exclaims at one point. Something escapes: Shorter’s movements, fixed and arrested by the camera; the context of his words, which seem like fragments cut out of a larger whole, each topic suggesting another, anecdote piling on anecdote, analogy on analogy. This elusiveness seems to encapsulate something of Shorter’s vexed history in general: the vivid impression he left scattered across a handful of records and articles in French-language jazz magazines, Shorter’s words and personality filtered through (mis-)translation and exilic framing. Critics never quite seemed to know what to do with Shorter. A distinctive figure in person, whose deliberately eccentric persona earned him the childhood nickname “Doc Strange”, Shorter was also a distinctive composer and improviser, whose solos would prompt responses such as: “Shorter sounded as if he was waiting for something/one to fill him up,” “Shorter has a problem – an obviously deficient horn technique which enforces a tentative, excessively careful quality on all his playing,” “a psychodrama,” “a stroke of genius, a hoax, or both.” [ii] He was also, of course, the elder brother of the legendary saxophonist Wayne Shorter, with whom he had grown up and played in bebop bands in Newark, New Jersey, and whose near-meteoric rise to fame with The Jazz Messengers, Miles Davis’ second great quintet and Weather Report contrasted with Alan’s own relative obscurity as a devoted practitioner of the New Music. As Val Wilmer wrote in the liner notes to Tes Esat – one of only two albums Shorter recorded as a leader – “there can be nothing more frustrating for any artist than to have a brother who ‘makes it’ while he has to stay in the background,” and Shorter’s own work too often faced up to this impossible and unnecessary stylistic comparison.

How, then, to reconstruct the enigma that is Alan Shorter – both the chosen enigma of his persona and his music, and the unwilled denial of opportunities to play and record? Do we read Shorter’s career as simply a footnote – albeit an interesting and tragic one – in the history of more fortunate, prolific or talented musicians? Or might Shorter’s case be a way of interrogating some of the assumptions that still undergird critical approaches to the New Music?  I think that it can, and in what follows, I’ll focus on his recorded appearances, as well the scattered publications of his writings, to suggest why. Beneath the article is a biblio-discography that is, as far as I can tell, the most complete so far assembled.

* * * *

Born in the working-class Ironbound District of Newark, New Jersey in 1932, Shorter was a year older than Wayne. The two were particularly close, sharing a love of cinema and music, with Wayne playing tenor and Alan alto saxophone. Sometime around high school, Shorter switched from alto saxophone to trumpet, prompted by an experience he recalls in a 1966 interview as if it were something from one of the paranormal films he loved.

I was in a little snack bar by myself and I was thinking very deeply. I heard something like a buzzing in my ears [...] Little by little it became sharper [...] And then, poof! I heard all at once in the distance ‘Pay-Tumpet’, ‘Pay-tumpet’. That turned into ‘Play-Tumpet’, ‘Play-Tumpet’ and then ‘Play Trumpet’ ... I looked at the waitress and I got out, completely thunderstruck. I bought a trumpet and started straight away. It came like that. Really simply ... [iii]

The Shorter Brothers, along their friend, trombonist-composer Grachan Moncur III, and pianist Walter Davis, Jr., played in the local bebop band led by Jackie Bland, competitors for popularity with the smooth, middle-class sounds of the Nat Phipps Big Band (which the Shorters disparagingly dubbed the “Pretty Boy” Band). [iv] Music was part of a shared ritual for the brothers, a closeness that paralleled their avid consumption of cinema, in which their telling and re-telling of the film’s plots would extend the story of the film well beyond its running time. [v] And their intense relationship as children and teenagers arguably shaped the quite different musics they’d make in their respective careers. Wayne would later lament that he’d not had a relationship on the bandstand akin to that he’d had with Alan until playing with Carlos Santana years later. Meanwhile, in his own work as leader, Alan seemed to seek a complementary and contrasting presence, perhaps occupying the role of the absent Wayne: hence the fiery tenors of Gato Barbieri and Gary Windo, whose playing tended towards speed, volume and “energy” playing.

As Michelle Mercer notes, “every night, Wayne and Alan would practice bebop charts for hours, until they couldn’t see straight.” Bebop appealed not only for its musical qualities, but for the social mystique which seemed inextricable from it, and from the occasionally revelatory strangeness of the movies they loved. Both musically and in terms of the hipster vocabulary exemplified by Lester Young, bebop gave the impression of a kind of in-group identity, the sharing of a secret that would be hinted at, but never explained or stated outright in the music. As teenagers, the brothers cultivated strangeness, Wayne painting “Mr Weird” and Alan “Doc Strange” on their instrument cases. Newark acquaintance Amiri Baraka recalls that, at parties, they’d stand to the side, their conversation based on pointing and grinning as much as words: “it was mostly gestures and signification ... almost like they didn’t want to say too much, didn’t want to let too much of themselves out free”. [vi] The Shorters also liked to play with questions of musical expertise, of bebop virtuosity – the performance of impossible technical feats at ridiculous speeds – with the notions of spontaneity, improvisation and vitalism present in both racist caricature and anti-racist tropes of strategic essentialism. At one gig, for example, Alan placed copies of the New York Daily News on music stands instead of sheet music: a gesture functioning both as a signifying act, to show that they were so good they didn’t need “real music,” and, in Michelle Mercer’s words, to show that “their sound was so fresh, it was taken from the day’s headlines.” These stories of weirdness or outness can tempt an approach based on anecdote and biographical sensationalism. Yet this kind of rebellion, connected to bebop’s musical innovations and to its social mystique, also had a class basis, as a challenge to the bourgeois culture of groups like the Nat Phipps band. This social basis is important: it gives a sense of how the rebellion of bebop led to the rebellion of free jazz, not so much in terms of the overt politicization, but in terms of a culture of dissidence and nonconformity in which, as Baraka notes, small group or individual weirdness was also an oblique socio-political statement.

Shorter was ill-suited to meet the expectations of success and upwardly-mobile class propriety that went along with attending Howard University, a prominent HCBU in then-segregated Washington D.C. Since 1934, E. Franklin Frazier, famous for coining the term “black bourgeoisie,” had been Chairman of the Department of Sociology. Yet the university, known as “the capstone of Negro Education” and supported by large endowments, tended towards precisely the conservative, black bourgeoisie ideology Frazier criticized in his writings. A firm promulgator of a “talented tenth,” “uplift” model of education, Howard was hardly a welcoming environment for Shorter’s cultivation of the far out and the weird. Shorter was particularly disturbed by the university’s hazing rituals, in which fraternity initiates were wrestled to the ground by seniors who attempted to imprint an ‘H’ for Howard on the back of their heads. Amiri Baraka, attending Howard at the same time, notes that both he and Alan were “‘blackballed’ out of the Sphinx, the pledge club of the Alpha phi Alpha fraternity, apparently for being ourselves at an early age.” Hanging around with a new friend by the improbable name of Pete Lonesome, the two flaunted a bebop style, dressing in hats and ostentatiously long coats, talking about Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk, and crashing parties. Meanwhile, Alan responded to teachers’ red-pen comments on his work which asked “what do you mean by this?” with the even larger, bold-face response “what do YOU mean by this?” [vii] While Baraka and classmate A. B. Spellman found a kindred spirit in poet Sterling Brown, whose lectures on Shakespeare, class struggle and the blues transformed their sense of the world, Shorter found no such outlet and dropped out. [viii] “I guess he didn’t want to stay in there very much,” Baraka wryly recalled.

Spending six months in the army – he was discharged for being “unable to adjust” – Shorter made his way, like his brother, to New York, completing his education at NYU. [ix] By this time, Wayne, who’d attended NYU before spending his own two years in the army, had begun his near-meteoric rise to fame, joining the Jazz Messengers in 1959. Alan, meanwhile, had moved on from bebop to the so-called New Music, which, as his available writings suggest, he saw as the logical extension of be-bop, and thus of jazz itself. In August 1964, Shorter made his debut on Archie Shepp’s breakthrough Four for Trane. Working to unenthusiastic producer Bob Thiele’s stipulations that only Coltrane compositions be recorded, Four for Trane is characterized by its intricate arrangements, in which the pieces become vehicles for ensemble-oriented writing and collective playing, rather than simply a series of heads and solos. Shorter’s features on “Mr. Syms” and “Cousin Mary” reject conventional solo development – well-wrought lines, storytelling, forward momentum – for a kind of stasis-in-motion. Throwing in elements of bebop lines and scales, he soon turns to high, pinched smears: the trumpet as pleading, crying voice rather than the assured, brassy vehicle of bebop virtuosity. Tending towards “pure sound” – as Amiri Baraka put it in the liner notes, “like it’s actually sound coming at you, sound and feeling” – Shorter’s otherworldly explorations are brought back to earth by Shepp’s bluesy countermelodies. Yet, like shards of weird light, briefly glimpsed, they deny the circling completion and the satisfaction of tension and release, of conventional chord change soloing. As in Shorter’s responses to his teachers at Howard, a question prompts another question, the answer left hanging.

In October 1965, following through the avant-garde proclivities of his own sideman appearances on Grachan Moncur’s Some Other Stuff (1964) and Tony Williams’ Spring (1965), Wayne asked his brother to appear on his record The All-Seeing Eye. As part of another four-horn line-up of Shorter on tenor, Newark bandmate Grachan Moncur III on trombone, and James Spaulding on alto, Alan replaced Hubbard on flugelhorn on the record’s final track, his own composition “Mephistopheles.” Suggesting his status as a composer of some singularity, the brooding piece is built on a simple, slow vamp over which sounds a lugubrious, low-toned melody. The vamp barely alters over the course of the piece: Herbie Hancock, normally a fount of melodic and harmonic invention, is reduced to repeating a single note at the lower end of the piano, and the slow, odd solos by Moncur and the Shorters promise to build to a climax that never comes. Sparse and haunting, the piece is a tone picture that resists genre and precedent.

The following month, Shorter re-recorded the piece for a self-titled session by the Marion Brown Quartet on the new ESP label. An alto player whose sound tended towards the abstrusely melodic, with a marked lyrical tendency offset by an astringent bite that could peel the paint off any wall, Brown shared with Shorter a composer’s vision that took as much care of arrangement, mood and written, rehearsed music, as of spontaneous improvisation and free blowing. In a piano-less quartet with Reggie Johnson and Sun Ra associate Ronnie Boykins on bass and Rashied Ali on drums, Shorter’s solo on the loping “Capricorn Moon” finds him worrying away at repeating figures, flurries and trills. Left off initial pressings of the record, the new version of “Mephistopheles” is twice the length of that on The All-Seeing Eye, increasing the tempo from a lugubrious dirge to a faster clip. Ali’s drums function like sparklers: they crackle and glow; Brown smears and drags high notes around careful, angular melodic figures, while Shorter is at first loud and declarative, before simmering to buzzing smears, as if someone were wailing with their hand over their mouth.

For Juba Lee, recorded in November 1966, Brown assembled a larger group, adding Grachan Moncur, Bennie Maupin on tenor, and, in his recording debut, pianist Dave Burrell. Opener “512e12” finds all four horns alternating high and low notes to dizzying, kaleidoscopic effect; Maupin and Brown burn, Moncur is anxiously woozy, while Shorter effectively steals the show through understatement. Particularly in the upper register, Shorter sometimes sounds as if he has to force the sound out, so that the final note seems both staccato and breathy whisper. When added to boiling rhythm section accompaniment, the effect is delirious, tremulous, insistent: it is as fine a solo as Shorter ever recorded. “The Visitor,” written for Burrell, is an extended feature for his ruminative-exploratory piano, while, to a crackling martial rhythm, “Juba Lee” incants the jubilatory promise of its title – a pun on the Biblical jubilee, with its promises of liberation for those in bondage, and the juba or hambone, a dance of West African origin involving the use of body as percussion to which Shepp had also paid homage on Fire Music. While Moncur’s opening solo is open and joyful, Shorter complicates the joyous melodic tinges picked up from Moncur’s solo and the principal melody with harmonic ambiguities, extended pauses that slow things right down, returning to his characteristic trills; as he and Brown collectively solo, they seem both to echo and contradict each other, imparting a wide-open feeling in keeping with the vernacular practice Brown’s piece celebrates.

The album once more concludes with a Shorter composition. “Iditus” is, if anything, even more brooding and menacing than “Mephistopheles.” The piece is constructed not so much on one chord as on one note, relentlessly restated by Burrell and bassist Reggie Johnson, and seeming to half-lope, half-march, half-creep through endless shadows. Shorter is the first to solo: as John Litweiler notes, “when he plays flugelhorn, it sounds like it was invented specifically for him.” [x] Exploiting the instrument’s timbral ambiguity, it’s not immediately clear which horn has entered: as his solo continues, Shorter, like Moncur, exploits the particular effect of straining within those lower registers, so that those notes become pinched. Phrases trail away into a breathy, upper register, or into silence: a question half-asked, an answer cut off, half-way through the telling. Rather than the well-rounded statement, the operative principle is that of the fragment, of sound in a constant dialogue with silence, which is both void (silencing) and potential. As Shorter would later write: “All the spaces I use without the voice of my trumpet are filled with a massive collective saturation of musical excretions and secretions. It’s not necessary for me to play a continuum of sound, I give the music a chance to breathe on its own, becaues the respiration of music in its self is alive.” [xi]

In 1967, Shorter worked with Sunny Murray’s Acoustical Swing Unit on a bill with Miles Davis and Milt Jackson at the Both/And in San Francisco (the group travelled on a bus with Amiri Baraka, then trying to organize a lecture tour of Californian universities), as well as Mike Armstrong’s Jazz Workshop in Montreal. [xii] Renamed the Spiritual Ensemble, another iteration of the group featuring altoist Arthur Jones, tenor player Quinn Lynch, as well as local percussionists known only as Jumba and Ali played for Amiri Baraka’s Committee for Unified Newark around 1968 or 1969. [xiii] Shorter also reportedly played with Carla Bley and Pharoah Sanders in a group led by drummer Charles Moffett. [xiv] So far, no recordings of these groups have surfaced. But Shorter’s definitive statement of this period – and likely of his entire career – came when he had the opportunity to record as a leader for Verve in 1968. The match between musician and label is an odd one: Verve recorded no other New Music players, and we can only speculate as to the circumstances which led to the date. On Orgasm, Shorter opted for a piano-less quartet, his own more muted tendencies as soloist offset by Leandro ‘Gato’ Barbieri on tenor. Barbieri’s solos swirl around iterations and reiterations of melody, along with overblown harmonics that sound like the chance meeting on a dissecting table, not so much of a sewing machine and an umbrella, as of a drill and a lyre bird. Shorter’s solos, on flugelhorn for all but one track, are brightly buzzing, less burnished and introspectively moody than on “Mephistopheles” or “Iditus.” Both the bright openness and the thinner buzzing around the edges of that sound recall Don Cherry, but the odd pauses are something else again. Shorter seems always to wait just that little bit too long before re-entering with another melodic variant or set of fast-repeating, trilled burrs: as though the solo, in moving from phrase to phrase, room to room, kept getting caught in an ante-chamber, a waiting room, a limbo space.

Compositionally, the record has an utterly distinctive atmosphere. It’s a cliché to apply notions of threat or unease to avant-tonalities: nonetheless, “sinister” is the operative word, an atmosphere drawing, perhaps, from Alan’s love of the ambiguous spaces of horror and science-fiction movies – spaces of waiting, of threat, of tension and anticipation, or of sorrow (“Joseph” is a tribute to Shorter’s father, who’d died in a car accident on the way back from seeing Wayne perform with the Miles Davis Quintet. [xv]) The pieces all have some sense of expectation, but of something almost entirely uncertain: an expectation of expectation.  In the liner note essay he penned for the 1998 CD reissue, Baraka describes album opener “Parabolic” – a staple of Gil Evans’ book for decades – as “weird, thorny, stylishly tenuous,” marked by “the march or marked stride of something portentous, even dangerous.” This intuition, this half-knowledge, this inkling of a mood or a thought, may bring a forward “thrust” to the music, insistent drumbeats at times approaching backbeats, at others military taps; yet this “thrust” will always be belied by a sense of uncertainty, or possibility – “it could be this way, but then again ... who knows.” “Alan called this ‘new music’, as we all did then,” Baraka continues. “New, but relative to what? ... Aggressive and determined ... not altogether certain of what.” The music seems to “call for a ‘new dispensation,’ perhaps, of the whole order of things.” Baraka suggests that this music is a “warning”, a “short, fearsome message”, offering bursts of “proto-rational description”: not celebration, not ecstasy, but cryptic declamations, reports on a state of reality that, for those who mendaciously broker power and for those who do not stop to think on it, does not appear to actually exist. This is emphatically not mystical, but a rational report on states of collapse, of transfers to other states, other ways of being.

Yet, if much of the New Music seemed to mirror social unrest in its volume, energy and explosive nature, Shorter’s solos, for Baraka, seems more like a  series of “implosions,” “somehow removed, as a statement from the whole ... as if he is commenting on, rather than existing as part of the whole.” Baraka puts in a more circumspect fashion what others have stated more boldly. Reviewing the record for Jazz Digest, J.R. Taylor praises Shorter’s compositions, yet insists:

Shorter has a problem ... an obviously deficient horn technique which enforces a tentative, excessively careful quality on all his playing. His occasional strainings after excitement have little effect, and the listeners is left stranded between Shorter’s dry musings and [Barbieri’s] conniptions. [xvi]

The criteria established here – technique used to generate (paradoxically) the impression of a lack of care, of abandon, excitement, and so on, on the one hand, and the tentative, the excessively careful, the strained and the dryly thoughtful on the other – reinforce a binary which suffuses much writing on jazz. Anthony Braxton calls it the “logic of the sweating brow:” the white critical valorisation of a performance of musical and extra-musical labor on the part of black performers, which is gendered and racialised, and which is used as a standard to condemn any music which does not conform to it. [xvii] This view takes it that, while jazz performers can be composers, ultimately their principal function is as individual soloists with some measure of virtuoso display. As Fumi Okiji remarks: “the individual holds a problematic but central position in jazz narratives. The term ... has assisted the desire to bring jazz closer to the model provided by Western European concert music and the singularity of the composer and her or his composition. It is an abstraction that leads to the fetishization of the solo as the essence of jazz work”. [xviii] Okiji goes on to sketch a model, expressed in the ethos of the AACM, which stresses the importance of individual identity, but understands individuation as inseparable from collective being. For his part, Shorter proclaimed that “Everybody is a leader, there’s no sidemen anymore – sidemen are decadent. Free music has a kind of leadership of its own”. [xix] Yet the association of value within what Okiji calls the “jazz work” to particular technical expectations persists in the construction of the solo – and to the respective roles of leader and soloist in relation to accompanist and sideman.

According to such readings, Shorter’s solos fail on both fronts – the technical requirement and the construction of a leading narrative. Yet, more often than not, I can’t help but feel that the record explodes – or, to adopt Baraka’s phrasing, implodes – these categories from within. Take the moment, around 26 seconds into “Straits of Blagellan,” when Shorter sounds a double buzz – two separate parts of the lip vibrating at the same time within the mouthpiece. Technically a mistake, this nonetheless extends the range of the instrument beyond its normal capacity, producing a harmonic on an instrument that can generally only produce one note. Indeed, it’s precisely that ambiguity – between intention and mistake, between note and harmonic – that makes it effective and affecting. [xx]

Were justice to have been served, Orgasm would have cemented Shorter as a key figure in the New Music. As it was, tensions with producer Esmond Edwards at the first recording session led drummer Rashied Ali and bassist Reggie Jonson to walk out, the album being completed a few weeks later with the substitute duo of Rashied’s brother Muhammad and Charlie Haden. [xxi] Though the album as a whole was saved, it seems that it was almost impossible to find – certainly in Europe – until its release as Parabolic by Verve’s UK division a few years later. [xxii] Consequently, what should have been the announcement of Shorter’s arrival ended up a ghostly half-trace.

* * * *

Soon after the turmoil of May ’68, African American musicians began arriving in Paris. “With more or less impact, they dropped like a bomb, fizzin’ and fartin’ and making all kinds of seemingly senseless noises, like all death-dealing devices do,” according to poet Hart LeRoi Bibbs. [xxiii] Shorter was one of these musicians, departing for Europe at some point after the Orgasm sessions and spending around five to six years in France, doing radio, TV and club gigs, and, as Val Wilmer put it, “blowing whenever he gets the chance”. [xxiv] The social group in which Shorter found himself appears to have included the Reverend Frank Wright, Noah Howard, Muhammad Ali (the members of the Center of the World Quartet), along with Marion Brown, Bibbs and Sunny Murray. Extreme behavior and poverty were par for the course. In some senses liberated by the escape from American racism, problems of language and the continuing presence of the racial order persisted – Frank Wright’s diaries note not having enough money to buy food and witnessing the police stopping Algerians and Africans for identification. [xxv] Behavior could be wild and unpredictable: “Another vignette evokes Allen [sic] Shorter swinging a golf club in the middle of the Rue de Seine, stopping the traffic – horns tooting wildly and drivers swearing at the nuisance – until Muhammad Ali whispered something into his ear and he picked up a racing bike on the curb and wheeled it down toward the Seine”. [xxvi] But there were opportunities to work, and audiences were often engaged and enthused.

Between 1970 and 1971, Shorter appeared on as many albums in two years as he had in the previous six. In March 1970, he recorded his second and final date as a leader at the Decca Recording Studios with a group of players predominantly based in London: South African bassist extraordinaire Johnny Dyani, saxophonist Gary Windo, and drummer Rene Augustus. On Tes Esat (seemingly an anagram for “Estates”), the arrangements seem looser than Orgasm, with more space devoted to group improvisation. Val Wilmer’s liner notes quote Shorter as saying: “Everybody is a leader, there’s no sidemen any more – sidemen are decadent. Free music has a kind of leadership of its own”. As with Gato Barbieri on Orgasm, Shorter’s enigmatic, spacious approach contrasts with English saxophonist’s Gary Windo’s powerhouse solos. Windo’s tenor at times sounds as if it’s been put through some sort of electronic effect: it’s as tonally abrasive as any free playing I’ve heard, its screeches and smears sounding as if from another world. The musician who gets by far the most solo space, though, is Dyani, who, heard on piano, percussion and vocal interjections as well as bass, is extraordinarily active and varied throughout. On the opening, and longest track, ‘Disposition’, we hear several minutes of bass and drum improvisation before one of Shorter’s characteristic melodies is stated in unison by the horns. The improvisation serves as prelude, an abstract territory in which a lot is happening, in terms of notes and switches of register, but at the same time almost nothing seems to be happening as we expectantly wait for the head. When it comes, the composed melody is somehow both curt and extended, played always in unison by the horns, with long held, repeated notes that are stabbed out over a busy backdrop, their repetitive stasis all the more emphasized by the busyness of bass and drums. Windo’s solo is utterly ferocious, operating at peak intensity; following a flying-fingered turn on piano by Dyani, the music drops as Shorter takes a solo, each note carefully placed, his tone buzzed round the edges, cryptic melodic phrases over Dyani’s all-over harmonic scrabble. Shorter’s playing acts as a kind of punctuation, taking its time – 30 seconds might pass between phrases – unhurried yet tense. The record’s second track, “Beast of Bash” is essentially “Parabola” from Orgasm refigured as a feature for Dyani, with the horns sketching out just the ghosts of the melody, in alternating octave notes. It’s like we’re hearing one of Shorter’s pieces stripped to its bare bones: the effect is eerie in the extreme. Likewise, on “One Million Squared,” the horns slowly repeat the melody, stretched out over so much space that it can barely be called a melody. Evenly-placed single notes are obsessively reiterated as if accentuating a point that hasn’t yet been made, while Shorter’s brief solo sees buzzed low tones stretching the edge of what can be called notes, in querulously declarative half-fanfares. Shorter seems at once to have pared the music back to its bare essentials and to have created a thought puzzle, a piece of unsettling and telling ambiguity. If Tes Esat lacks the fierce clarity of Orgasm, it’s nonetheless fascinating and wholly distinctive.

That July, Shorter appeared on three Archie Shepp albums. The live dates with the Full Moon Ensemble at the Antibes Jazz Festival, released in two volumes on BYG/Actuel, are the best recorded of the bunch: thickly rendered combinations of electric guitar (Joseph Déjean) and piano (played alternately by Thornton and Shepp), which, along with Beb Guérin’s scrabbling bass and Claude Delcoo’s thundering drums, give the music a torrential yet sluggish quality. Clifford Thornton’s valve trombone and Shorter’s flugelhorn occupy similar registers, obsessing over repeated notes and phrases, sometimes climbing the scales to high notes in anxious swirls that never reach catharsis. At the close of “Huru” on Volume 2, Shepp recites his poem ‘Mama Rose’, joined by Shorter, reciting what sound like syllables in an invented language. A few days later, a single Paris studio session yielded the majority of Shepp’s albums Pitchin’ Can and Coral Rock. Shorter tends to get lost in the mix – it’s sometimes hard to tell if he’s there at all, especially given that the personnel information provided with the LPs is notoriously unreliable. But he is unmistakably present on the title track to Coral Rock, another of his characteristic compositions, built over chugging, repeated bass notes. The playing is somewhat ramshackle compared to the tightly-rehearsed performances on Orgasm, but what the performance lacks in precision it makes up for in timbral variety: Shepp’s boiling, declarative tenor, Bobby Few’s roiling sustain pedalled washes, Shorter’s insistent melodic stabs on flugehlhorn, matched in terms of spaciousness by Lester Bowie’s muted trumpet.

Shorter’s remaining appearances on record find him generally lost in the mix of collective improvisation – whether amongst the massive sound of Alan Silva’s Celestrial Communications Orchestra on Seasons, or, on Francois Tusques’ Intercommunal Music, Tusques’ affirmative piano vamps and what Eric Drott calls the “cacophonous halo” of Sunny Murray’s near-constant cymbal washes. [xxvii] A brief solo fanfare appears at the start of Jazz is My Religion, John Jeremy’s 1972 film constructed around Val Wilmer’s photographs. Intercut with shots of apartment buildings, absent of people, its trilled, alternating notes are matched by the visual editing. Both clarion-clear and oddly opaque, the solo – in what seems like an allegory for the end of Shorter’s recorded career – fades out almost as soon as it’s begun.

Shorter continued to play live for several more years, though the concerts appear to have been fraught affairs. Wayne Shorter recalls European gigs in which Alan stormed off stage, shouting “you’re not ready for me yet” to hostile audiences, and a report on a 1971 concert at the packed Vézelay Cinema in Paris depicts Shorter concentrating on “extra-musical juggling,” “stammering, rumbling” and suddenly “throw[ing] the microphones across the hall.” [xxviii] Critic Elisabeth Chandet depicts Shorter’s bandmates – saxophonist Joseph Jarman and drummer Don Moyé of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, alongside bassist Styves Holloway and the straight-ahead guitarist André Condouant – as hapless accomplices, vainly trying to shape or give meaning to his disconcerting theatrics.  [xxix]  It’s hard to affirm or deny any such judgement, but it is worth pointing out that Jarman and Moyé had plentiful experience of theatrical, “extra-musical” elements within the Art Ensemble – including the recent performance at the 1969 Actuel festival in Amougies, photographs of which show Jarman stripped naked, shouting and playing an electric guitar. The Art Ensemble’s play with cultural archetype or stereotype – Lester Bowie’s lab coat, the face paint, the vocal interjections and skits – might thus provide one paradigm for Shorter’s own work. For his part, Phillipe Carles described the Vézelay performance as a “psychodrama;” reviewing another gig by Shorter at the Théâtre de la Gaité-Montparnasse in December 1972, he argued that the performance “appeared like a negation of the very notion of the ‘concert.’” [xxx] Carles and Jean-Louis Comolli’s classic Free Jazz/Black Power had briefly mentioned Shorter and Shepp’s “aggressive yells” at the 1970 Antibes Jazz Festival gig in a discussion of the “vocal explosion” in free jazz which “actualize[s] the power of the word and the shout that is always at play in black history”. [xxxi] But, whereas those “yells” were legible within the context of Shepp’s political poem “Mama Rose/Poem for Malcolm,” which referenced African history, familial lineage, and imperialist atrocities in the Congo, Shorter’s “talks, mimes, grimaces, mouths, hums” in Montparnasse offered no such foothold. Thinking aloud, Carles wonders if Shorter’s performance is, if not a shout of liberation, a kind of radical anti-art gesture, a Brechtian alienation effect, revealing the (perhaps racialized) stakes of the jazz performance. On the other hand, it could simply be a chaotic, unrehearsed affair “suicidal” as much as it is “militant”. The language deployed by Chantlet and Carles – “psychodrama”, “a bad happening”, “spectacle” – might suggest a productive engagement with the expectations of jazz performance; but more so, it manifests bemused puzzlement as to Shorter’s intentions. For Carles, it was as if “[Shorter] has forgotten his trumpet, his musicians, his public, and perhaps his music.”

Carles could be talking about his own review when, writing decades later in a sympathetic new essay for the reissue of Tes Esat, he notes that “everything happened as if Alan Shorter, dead or alive, had always been an embarrassment, even cumbersome”. [xxxii] And, indeed, the Montparnasse gig is virtually the last trace I can find of Shorter’s performing career: an enigmatic fade. Shorter returned to Newark sometime in 1974. In Fall 1976, along with fellow trumpeter Ted Daniel, he was a visiting artist (either holding workshops or a residency) at Bennington College, at the invitation of Bill Dixon. [xxxiiii] The same year, he addressed a moving letter to Cadence magazine from Newark, asserting the necessity of collective organization amongst musicians instead of “wait[ing] for an outlet of approval in order to move creatively”, and describing the New Music as a “necessary” and “authentic step in the history of Jazz”. Noting that “I’m back in the states since two years”, Shorter insists that “the music must be done here where it was first conceived and I will do all I can to make this exposure. My music is strong and my energy is unbending ... Your article of me has awakened a challenging reality that fills me with a gigantic piece of hope”. [xxxiv] Stray anecdotes suggest that he was at least part of a musical milieu, even if he appears not to have had chances to play his music. Calling him “one of the most colourful and interesting human beings–musicians–composers–improvisers in the mystery of music,” William Parker recalls: “I met and hung out with Alan several times in the early 1970s: it was always an inspired and stimulating experience. If you never met him, don’t believe what you might have read or heard through the grapevine.” [xxxv] At some point, Shorter moved to the West Coast: Keystone Korner owner Todd Barkan notes that he frequented the San Francisco jazz club, where he would read from an autobiographical manuscript entitled Spilled Guts. [xxxxvi] Parker recalls last seeing Shorter on the West Coast in 1985, hanging out with the equally obscure saxophonist Byron Allen and poet-painter Carl Lombard. Engaged to Herbie Hancock’s cousin, Ruth Ann Hancock, Shorter died of a ruptured aorta in Los Angeles in April, 1988. He was just 55. “[Ruth Ann] said that in the ambulance on the way to the hospital, he was still arguing a point”, writes Michelle Mercer. “Trying to make a point. Saying, ‘You dig?’” [xxxxvii]

* * * *

The mystery of the Alan Shorter’s final decade remains. It would seem, from educated guesswork, that life circumstances precluded further artistic explorations: anecdotal hints of mental illness, the transparent difficulty of making a living from the New Music, the double-bind of exilic living or neglect in America. But there’s one final piece of the puzzle remains: Shorter’s neglected corpus as a writer. Interviewed by Amiri Baraka in the ’90s, Wayne Shorter noted that his brother wrote novels, plays and other manuscripts: a play called The Innkeeper, featuring characters named “Chance” and “Sentinel” in a subterranean labyrinth, and apparently “full of cuss words”, and a manuscript some several hundred pages in length, read and admired by actor Roscoe Lee Brown and by the legendary Maya Angelou, and for which the Shorters’ mother at one point sought a publisher. [xxxviii] In the public absence of these manuscripts, Shorter’s published writings give some hint as to how these works might have read, and it’s to these that I turn now.

“It’s impossible to express this progression in writing, only partially,” wrote Shorter, “like it’s impossible to describe certain phrases from personal life”. [xxxix] In “Distension,” published in French translation in Actuel magazine in 1969, Shorter’s language operates through paradox. Shorter opens with the image of transcription and translation: of expressing the idiosyncratic, interior elements of individual, emotional experience, on the one hand, and of speaking “in the accents of this ‘we’ ... who, to my knowledge, continue to live in these ‘Ghetto’ dwellings”, on the other. In contrast, “Long Live the New Music,” published bi-lingually in Jazz Magazine five years later, opens with a kind of Creation myth:

First there was Jazz Music, which was confined to the stage to entertain the orgasms of those who mistakenly thought that the experience would nourish their unrealities, for they reasoned that Jazz was a ‘freak of nature’ and this was their rationale. Then there were those who looked at this music with honest curiosity.

Following this era was Black Jazz Music, in which the current generation participates. This phase of Jazz demanded extension beyond the fixed periphery of the past, and for that it was necessary that Jazz plunged forcefully into the Black Experience and into the long-buried consciousness of the ‘self’ or the ego. As far as I’m concerned, at my current level of existence, I find the term ‘Black Jazz Music’ insufficient for the hunger of my personal curiosity. For me, it is the New Music. I have directed my vision not towards Black Jazz, for I am already Black, but towards the Transcendent and Universal Music, that is to say the music of my being inspired by God [...]

There is actually a mistake which mainly people make: they call the New Music ‘free jazz’ or, even worse, universal music. [xl]

While the New Music was often seen to alternately betray or embody various expectations of Blackness, Shorter rejects both the designators ‘Black’ – as too racially specific or confining – and ‘universal’ – as too often an apologist cover for the continuing, structural presence of white supremacy, as a designator which would erase the specificity of the music’s racialised origins. Shorter can be seen here to negotiate critical placement as ‘either’ in the jazz tradition (signifying improvisation, spontaneity, convention, America, Africa, Blackness) ‘or’ the Europan classical tradition (sophistication, the avant-garde, composition, Europe, Whitenes. Neither an Afrocentric jazz musician (“...and we ain’t Africans either!” Shorter is reported to have said from the stage in a Sunny Murray gig for Amiri Baraka’s determinedly Afro-centric Committee for a Unified Newark), nor a European-influenced avant-gardist, nor a believer in ‘universal’ music, Shorter implicitly demands that we invent new categories to understand the music that he and his comrades produce. This isn’t simply an example of individual exceptionalism, but of overturning the whole value system by which jazz is still often judged, categorised, criticised, consumed, written into and out of the history books. “I have directed my vision not towards Black Jazz, for I am already Black...” Shorter seems to suggest that : (a) Blackness is a given; (b) the ‘universal’ is not the negation or synthesis of Blackness; and (c) the aim is towards something which is not (yet) known under the sign of Blackness.

These are not simple conclusions. Perhaps it’s hardly surprising then that, as Wayne recalls, publishers impressed by Alan’s manuscripts, refused to publish them for being “too ahead of their time.” [xli] When, then, is Alan Shorter’s time? Have we caught up with his apparently future-originating work? What happens to the mass of energy that, as in The Magnetic Monster, threatens to alter the earth’s gravitational pull, once it’s been made to ‘eat itself’ and explode? Baraka says of Shorter that his “suddenly widening eyes and linguistic half-chuckle ... resisted American speech”. [xlii] Or, as poet-critic Ron Welburn put it in a rare review of his work for Black World: “Listening to Alan Shorter gives one the impression of being felled by a feather duster ... an open night, with things flying around in it”. [xlii]

Something like that night is suggested in Gilbert Moreau’s cover photo to Tes Etat, which depicts musicians caught in a spotlight against a dark background. Though we see Shorter relaxed and laughing in a studio shot on the back of the LP sleeve, the light’s harsh glare here on the front seems designed to appear intimidating, capturing the musicians in tis glare, catching them out. Yet rather than looking caught – whether in cop-headlights, military searchlights, the spotlights of an often hostile ‘entertainment’ business – they stand, even sit, their ground. They’re not going anywhere, and they refuse the imposition of interpellative legibility. So too Shorter’s music, its insistent (un)availability, its plentiful absences, the dip and curve of parabolic reverie or nightmare; even, of some kind of detached rest, if not peace. As Wayne Shorter notes: “Teachers would mark his papers, and he would ask ‘Why?’ on top of the teacher’s marks.” In these times that “why” is needed perhaps more than ever. Alan Shorter’s music continues to ask vital questions – of us, the world, itself.


Thanks are due to those who’ve provided assistance with this piece: Gabriel Bristow, Pierre Crépon (who provided invaluable access to French-language resources on Shorter), Michael Klaussman, Alan Saul, and Bertrand Uberall.




[i] ‘allan [sic] shorter et le monstre magnétique’ [‘Alan Shorter and The Magnetic Monster’], Jazz Hot, June 1967: 24-5.  [Interviewed conducted 1966]
[ii]Quotations from ‘The Crickets’ (likely Amiri Baraka, Larry Neal and/or A.B. Spellman), J.R. Taylor, Phillipe Carles and Elisabeth Chandet. Full citation provided in Biblio-Discography below.
[iii]Jazz Hot, June 1967 (Op.Cit.) [My translation)] The original French relies on sonic patterns around the phrase ‘Joue-Trompette’ for which I’ve tried to find English equivalents.
[iv]Michelle Mercer, Footprints: The Life and Music of Wayne Shorter (London: Penguin, 2007)
[v] Jazz Hot (Op. Cit.)
[vi] Amiri Baraka, ‘Reissuing Orgasm’ (Liner Notes, Alan Shorter, Orgasm, 1998 CD Re-issue).
[vii] Mercer (Op. Cit.)
[viii] On Sterling Brown at Howard, see Baraka, Blues People (New York: William Morrow, 1999 (1963)), viii.
[ix] Baraka, ‘Wayne Shorter on his brother, Alan (from interview with Amiri Baraka)’. (Liner Notes, Alan Shorter, Orgasm, 1998 CD Re-issue).
[x] John Litweiler, [Rev. of Marion Brown, Capricorn Moon to Juba Lee Revisited]. Point of Departure No.69, Online: http://pointofdeparture.org/PoD69/PoD69MoreMoments2.html
[xi] Alan Shorter, ‘Vivre la New Musique’, Jazz Magazine, Februaary 1974: 11.
[xii] The Both/And group consisted of Murray, Shorter, Pharoah Sanders (with Dewey Redman subbing) and Henry Grimes (See Dan Warburton, ‘Sunny Murray Interview’, Paris Transatlantic, 2000. Online: http://www.paristransatlantic.com/magazine/interviews/murray.html). For the Montreal gig, Shorter and Murray were joined by Grachan Moncur, Carlos Ward and Alan Silva  (Coda, Oct-Nov 1967: 22)).
[xiii] ‘The Crickets’ [probably one or all of the editorial team: Amiri Baraka, Larry Neal and A.B. Spellman], ‘Gossip’. The Cricket: Black Music in Evolution!!!!, No.4 (1969): 62-64.
[xiv] Mention of the Moffett group comes from the Grove Dictionary of Music entry on Shorter.
[xv] See Mercer (op. cit.)
[xvi]  J.R. Taylor, ‘Album Briefs’ [Rev. of Parabolic], Jazz Digest, Vol. 3, no. 1 (January 1974): 19.
[xvii] Graham Lock, Forces in Motion: Forces in Motion: Anthony Braxton and the Meta-reality of Creative Music (30th Anniversary Edition) (Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 2018 (1985)), p.144.
[xviii] Fumi Okiji, Jazz as Critique: Adorno and Black Expression Revisited (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2018),7
[xix] Quoted in Val Wilmer, [Liner notes], Alan Shorter, Tes Esat (1971).
[xx] Many thanks to Gabriel Bristow for discussions of Shorter’s technique which have significantly informed my readings of his soloing style.
[xxi] See Rashied Ali’s discussion in the 1998 Orgasmliner notes. Muhammad Ali suggests a further angle in an interview with Clifford Allen for All About Jazz. Online: https://www.allaboutjazz.com/muhammad-ali-from-a-family-of-percussionists-muhammad-ali-by-clifford-allen.php
[xxii] Further details, as far as I know them, are provided in the discography below.
[xxiii] Quoted in Michel Fabre, From Harlem to Paris: Black American Writers in France, 1840-1980 (Champagin, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1993),), 259.
[xxiv] Wilmer, Tes Esat liner notes (op. cit.). Exact dates for Shorter’s time in Europe are hard to determine with precision. The Orgasm sessions were recorded in New York in late 1968, and a report in The Cricket (op. cit.) suggests that Shorter may have played with Sunny Murray’s group in Newark around late 1968 or 1969. Murray himself toured Europe with Max Roach and Art Blakey in October 1968, recording in Paris in December and travelling to the PanAfrican Festival in Algiers with Archie Shepp in July 1969. Shorter does not seem to have been a part of Murray’s band (now renamed the ‘Spiritual Ensemble’), though he did record with Murray on Francois Tusques’ Intercommunal Music in 1971. It seems likely that Shorter returned to America in 1974: in a 1976 letter to Cadence, Shorter writes that he has been back in the States for two years. See further Pierre Crépon, ‘Playing the theory of relativity: Sunny Murray in Europe 1968–72’, The Wire, December 2018 (Online: https://www.thewire.co.uk/in-writing/essays/playing-the-theory-of-relativity-sunny-murray-europe-1968-72) and George Scala, ‘Sunny Murray Discograhy’ (Online: http://www.mindspring.com/~scala/murray.htm)
[xxv] Fabre (Op. Cit.), 260
[xxvi] Ibid
[xxvii] Drott,  Music and the Elusive Revolution: Cultural Politics and Political Culture in France, 1968-1981 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2011), 144.
[xxviii] Mercer (Op. Cit.) and Elisabeth Chandet, ‘Jazz En Direct: Les Nuits du Vézelay’, Jazz Magazine, April 1971: 10-11 [my translation].
[xxix] See too Condouant’s brief account (André Condouant, ‘Biography’, André Condouant: The Official Site. Online: http://andrecondouant.de/inhalt/bio3.html)
[xxx] Shorter appeared with the ‘Tes Esat’ trio – Jean [Saheb] Sarbib on bass and reeds, and Joseph Kelly on drums. (Chandet, Op. Cit.)
[xxxi] Phillipe Carles and Jean-Louis Comolli, Free Jazz/Black Power, trans. Gregory Pierrot (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2015 (1971)).
[xxxii] Philippe Carles, [Liner notes], Tes Esat CD re-issue, 2004.
[xxxiii] Ben Young, Dixonia: A Bio-Discography of Bill Dixon (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press), 235.
[xxxiv] Alan Shorter, [Letter], Cadence, Vol. 2, no. 1 (November 1976): 8
[xxxv] William Parker [Liner Notes], Petit Oiseau (AUM Fidelity, 2008)
[xxxvi] See https://twitter.com/ToddBarkan1/status/829767823882854402
[xxxvii] Mercer (Op. Cit.)
[xxxviii] Baraka, ‘Wayne Shorter on his brother’ (Op. Cit.). It seems likely that the manuscript in question may have been the entitled ‘Spilled Guts’ mentioned by Todd Barkan.
[xxxix] Alan Shorter, ‘Distension.’ Actuel, May 1969: 36–38. [My translation]
[xl] Alan Shorter, ‘Vivre La New Musique’ [Op. Cit] [My translation]
[xli] Mercer (Op. Ci.)
[xlii] Baraka, ‘Reissuing Orgasm’ (Op. Cit.)
[xliii]  Ron Welburn, ‘Alan Shorter’. [Rev. of Parabolic and Tes Esat] Black World, October 1973: 48, 67 (67).


Alan Shorter Discography


New York (1964 – 1968)

Archie Shepp, Four for Trane (Impulse A-71, 1965)
Tracklist: Syeeda’s Song Flute, Mr. Syms, Cousin Mary, Niema [sic], Rufus (Swung His Face At Last to The Wind, Then His Neck Snapped). Personnel: Alan Shorter (flugelhorn), Roswell Rudd (trombone), John Tchicai (alto saxophone), Archie Shepp (tenor saxophone), Reggie Workman (bass), Charles Moffett (drums). Recording details: Recorded Van Gelder Studio, Engelwood Cliffs, NJ, August 10th, 1964. Additional Information: All compositions by John Coltrane. Shorter solos on ‘Mr. Syms’ and ‘Cousin Mary’.

New York Art Quartet, Call It Art (Triple Point Records, TPR 161, 2013)
Tracklist: Uh-Oh, Ballad Theta.  Personnel: Alan Shorter (trumpet), Roswell Rudd (trombone), John Tchicai (alto saxophone), Lewis Worrell (bass), J.C. Moses (drums on ‘Ballad Theta’), Milford Graves (conga, drums). Recording details: Recorded October 31st, 1964, loft of Marzette Watts, New York. Additional information: 5 LP boxset of previously unissued recordings by the New York Art Quartet from a variety of live and studio sessions. These are the only tracks on which Shorter appears.

Wayne Shorter, The All-Seeing Eye (Blue Note BLP 4219, 1966)
Tracklist: Mephistopheles. Personnel: Alan Shorter (flugelhorn, composition), Grachan Moncur III (trombone), James Spaulding (alto saxophone), Wayne Shorter (tenor saxophone), Herbie Hancock (piano), Ron Carter (bass), Joe Chambers (drums). Recording details: Recorded Van Gelder Studio, Engelwood Cliffs, NJ, October 15th, 1965. Additional Information: The soloists are Wayne and Alan Shorter. Alan Shorter does not play on the other pieces on the record.

Marion Brown, Marion Brown Quartet (ESP Disk 1022, 1966)
Tracklist: Capricorn Moon, ‘27 Cooper Square, ‘Exhibition, [Mephistopheles]. Personnel: Alan Shorter (trumpet – omit on ‘27 Cooper Square’ and ‘Exhibition’), Marion Brown (alto saxophone), Benne Maupin (tenor saxophone on ‘Exhibition’) Reggie Johnson (bass), Ronnie Boykins (bass on ‘Capricorn Moon’), Rashied Ali (drums). Recording Details: Recorded November 1965, New York. Additional Information: According to Karl-Michael Schneider’s Marion Brown discography, this new recording of Shorter’s ‘Mephistopheles’ was omitted from initial pressings of the LP because it was thought to be Wayne Shorter’s composition. The original release thus ends with ‘Exhibition’, featuring Bennie Maupin on tenor saxophone and omitting Shorter. Later reissues, such as the 1975 Japanese ESP reissue substitute ‘Mephistopheles’ for ‘Exhibition’, but mistakenly mislabel it as ‘Exhibition’. The current CD reissue includes both ‘Exhibition’ and ‘Mephistopheles’.

Marion Brown Septet, Juba-Lee (Fontana 881 012, 1967)
Tracklist: 512E12, The Visitor, Juba-Lee, Iditus. Personnel: Alan Shorter (trumpet, flugelhorn), Grachan Moncur III (trombone), Marion Brown (alto saxophone), Bennie Maupin (tenor saxophone), Dave Burrell (piano), Reggie Johnson (bass), Beaver Harris (drums). Recording Details: Recorded November 1966, New York. Additional Information: ‘Iditus’ is a Shorter composition. The record was initially released in the Netherlands and Japan. This was Dave Burrell’s recording debut.

Alan Shorter, Orgasm (Verve V6-8768, 1969) / Parabolic (Verve 2304060 (UK), c.1973)
Tracklist: Parabola, Joseph, Straits of Blagellan, Rapids, Outeroids, Orgasm. Personnel: Alan Shorter (flugelhorn, composition; trumpet and tambourine on ‘Rapids’), Leandro ‘Gato’ Barbieri (tenor saxophone), Charlie Haden (bass on ‘Parabola’ and ‘Orgasm’), Reggie Johnson (bass on all other tracks), Muhammad Ali (drums on ‘Parabola’ and ‘Orgasm’), Rashied Ali (drums on all other tracks). Recording Information: Recorded November 6th, 1968 (‘Parabola’ and ‘Orgasm’) and September 23rd-27th, 1968 (all other tracks tracks) at A&R Recording, New York City. Additional Information: All compositions by Alan Shorter. CD re-issued as a ‘Verve Elite Edition’ in 1998 with liner notes by Amiri Baraka (including an interview with Wayne Shorter) and Rashied Ali. There is some ambiguity about the release of the album: Ron Welburn’s October, 1973 review of the Parabolic issue claims that Verve earlier suppressed the release, while Richard Williams’ liner notes to Parabolic (a UK release) claim that “the existence of this album, recorded for the Verve label at the end of the Sixties, has long been a topic of discussion among discographers. This [is] its first appearance anywhere”. Val Wilmer’s liner notes to Tes Esat (1971, below) also suggest that the album had not yet been released, in Europe at least. Welburn and J.R. Taylor in their October 1973 and January 1974 reviews both mention Parabolic as a recent issue and the difficulties in getting hold of the American release; combined with Williams’ claim that the album had been recorded “at the end of the Sixties”, it seems that Parabolic was released around 1973.

Paris (1970 – 1971)

Alan Shorter, Tes Esat (America 30 AM 6118, 1971)
Tracklist: Disposition (Parts 1 & 2), Beast of Bash, One Million Squared. Personnel: Alan Shorter (trumpet, flugelhorn, voice), Gary Windo (tenor saxophone), Johnny Dyani (bass, piano, voice, flute, bamboo flute, bells), Rene Augustus (drums, bells). Recording Details: Recorded March 11th, 1970, Studio Decca (Rue Beaujon), Paris.

Archie Shepp and the Full Moon Ensemble, Live at Antibes, Vol. 1 and 2 (BYG 529 338/339, 1971)
Tracklist: Volume 1 – The Early Bird (Parts 1 and 2); Volume 2 – Huru (Parts 1 & 2) Personnel: Clifford Thornton (trumpet, piano – Vol.1, valve trombone, shenai, piano – Vol.2); Alan Shorter (flugelhorn, voice); Archie Shepp (tenor saxophone, piano, voice); Joseph Dejean, (guitar), Beb Guérin  (bass), Claude Delcloo (drums). Recording Details: Live at Antibes Juan-les-Pins Jazz Festival, Antibes France, July 18th, 1970 (Vol.1), July 20th, 1970 (Vol.2). Originally released as two separate LPs: reissued as a 2-CD set.

Archie Shepp, Pitchin’ Can (America 30 AM 6106, 1970)
Tracklist: Uhuru (Dawn of Freedom) (Parts 1 and 2). Personnel: Alan Shorter (flugelhorn), Lester Bowie (trumpet), Clifford Thornton (valve trombone), Arche Shepp (tenor saxophone), Bobby Few (piano), Bob Reid (bass), Muhammad Ali (drums), Djibril (congas), Ostaine Blue Warner (percussion). Recording Details: Recorded Paris, July 23rd, 1970. Additional Information: Shorter does not feature on the third, title track to Pitchin’ Can, recorded Paris, November 1969 at the sessions for Black Gipsy.

Archie Shepp, Coral Rock (America 30 AM 6103; Prestige P-10066, 1970)
Tracklist: Coral Rock; I Should Care. Personnel: Alan Shorter (flugelhorn, composition), Lester Bowie (trumpet), Clifford Thornton (valve trombone), Arche Shepp (tenor saxophone; piano on ‘I Should Care’), Bobby Few (piano on ‘Coral Rock’), Bob Reid (bass), Muhammad Ali (drums), Djibril (congas), Ostaine Blue Warner (percussion). Recording Details: Recorded in Paris, Frances, July 23rd, 1970 (same session as ‘Uhuru’ from Pitchin’ Can). Additional Information: ‘Coral Rock’ is Shorter’s composition. Shepp plays piano on ‘I Should Care’. Joseph Jarman is incorrectly listed as playing trumpet.

Archie Shepp, Doodlin’ (Carson UPS-570; Inner City IC 1001, 1976)
Tracklist: Worried About You. Personnel: Alan Shorter (flugelhorn), Archie Shepp (piano), Bob Reid (bass), Muhammad Ali (drums). Recording Details: Recorded Paris, France, November, 1970. Additional Information: Shorter does not appear on other tracks.

Alan Silva’s Celestrial Communication Orchestra, Seasons (BYG 529 342/343/344 [3 LP set], 1971)
Tracklist: Seasons. Personnel:  Alan Shorter (trumpet), Lester Bowie, Bernard Vitet (trumpet, flugelhorn), Steve Lacy (soprano saxophone), Ronnie Beer (soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone, flute), Robin Kenyatta (alto saxophone, flute), Roscoe Mitchell (alto saxophone, tenor saxophone, flute, oboe), Joseph Jarman (saxophone, flute, bassoon) Michel Portal (alto saxophone, clarinet), Dave Burrell, Bobby Few, Joachim Kuhn (piano), Dieter Gewissler (electric violin), Jouck Minor (electric viola), Irene Aebi (cello, celeste), Kent Carter (cello), Malachi Favors, Beb Guérin (bass), Alan Silva (bass, electric violin, sarangi, electro-acoustical spring, conductor) Jerome Cooper, Don Moyé (drums, percussion), Oliver Johnson (tympani). Recording Details: Recorded Studio 104, Maison de L’O.R.T.F, December 29th, 1970. Additional Information: Shorter’s solo is featured on Side III (3:40-6:40) according to the ‘Stereophonic Picture printed on the sleeve to the original LP (track divisions not present on CD reissue).

François Tusques, Intercommunal Music (Shandar 10.010; Victor RCA 6097, 1971)
Tracklist: Intercommunal Music, Song for Erika Huggins. Personnel: Alan Shorter (trumpet), Steve Potts (alto sax), François Tusques (piano, saw, percussion), Alan Silva (cello), Bob Reid, Beb Guérin (bass), Sunny Murray (drums), Louis Armfield (percussion). Recording Details: Recorded May 11th, 1971, Paris, France.

Jazz is Our Religion (1972 film, dir. John Jeremy)
Brief solo by Shorter used as part of the soundtrack. Video available at: link.


Alan Shorter Bibliography

‘allan [sic] shorter et le monstre magnétique’ [‘Alan Shorter and The Magnetic Monster’], Jazz Hot, June 1967: 24-5.

French language. ‘Propos recueillis au magnétophone par Daniel Berger et Alain Courneau, le 18 mai 1966 a New York’. [‘Interviewed with tape recorder by Daniel Berger and Alain Corneau, 18th May 1966, New York’.]

Alan Shorter, [Liner Notes] Orgasm (see above). c.1968.

Alan Shorter, ‘Distension.’ Actuel, May 1969: 36–38.

Prose piece, translated to French and printed alongside Steve Hugh’s poem ‘Al Shorter’.

‘The Crickets’ [probably one or all of the editorial team: Amiri Baraka, Larry Neal and A.B. Spellman], ‘Gossip’. The Cricket: Black Music in Evolution!!!!, No.4 (1969): 62-64.

Rev. of gig by Sunny Murray and his Spiritual Sextet [Shorter (trumpet), Arthur Jones (alto saxophone), Quinn Lynch (tenor saxophone), Sunny Murray (drums), Jumba (congas), Ali [not Rashied or Muhammad Ali] (bassoon, flute and congas)]. Committee for Unified Newark, Black Arts/Soul Culture series, c.1968/9.

Val Wilmer, [Liner Notes] Tes Esat, 1970.

Richard Williams, [Liner Notes] Parabolic. c.1969.

Interview by Richard Williams. Melody Maker, May 1, 1971: 18.

Elisabeth Chandet, ‘Jazz En Direct: Les Nuits du Vézelay’, Jazz Magazine, April 1971: 10-11.

French-language review of concert by [Shorter (trumpet, voice), Joseph Jarman (alto saxophone), André Condouant (guitar), Styves Holloway (bass), Don Moyé (drums)], Cinéma du Vezelay, Paris, 3rd March 1971.

Philippe Carles, ‘Jazz En Direct: Alan Shorter Tes Esat’, Jazz Magazine, January 1973: 8-9.

French-language review of concert by Alan Shorter Tes Esat [Shorter (trumpet, voice), Jean Sarbib [Saheb Sarbib] (bass, reeds), Joseph Kelly (drums], Théâtre de la Gaité-Montparnasse, 2nd December, 1972.

Ron Welburn, ‘Alan Shorter’. [Rev. of Parabolic and Tes Esat] Black World, October 1973: 48, 67.

Alan Shorter, ‘Vivre la New Musique’, Jazz Magazine, Februrary 1974: 11.

Prose piece by Shorter presented in French and English versions. (The English version appears to have been translated from the French and contains occasional errors.) Shorter features on the cover of this issue alongside Bill Dixon and BB King.

J.R. Taylor, ‘Album Briefs’ [Rev. of Parabolic], Jazz Digest, Vol. 3, no. 1 (January 1974): 19

Alan Shorter, [Letter], Cadence, Vol. 2, no. 1 (November 1976): 8

Shorter is responding to a sympathetic review of Orgasm in Cadence, Vol.1, no.10 (September 1976): 10.

Philippe Carles, [Liner notes], Tes Esat CD re-issue, 2004.

Presented in French and in English translation. Val Wilmer’s original liner notes are also reprinted.

Amiri Baraka, ‘Reissuing Orgasm’ [December, 1997], ‘Wayne Shorter on his brother, Alan (from interview with Amiri Baraka)’. Orgasm CD re-issue, 1998.

Both texts reprinted in Baraka, Digging: The Afro-American Soul of American Classical Music (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2009). CD booklet also contains ‘A Word from Rashied Ali’.

Philippe Robert, ‘Schizophonia’. [French language] In Philippe Robert and Guillaume Belhomme, Free Fight: This Is Our (New) Thing (Rosières-en-Haye, France: Camion Blanc, 2012)

‘vorgarten’, ‘for me it’s NEW music! – alan shorter (1932-1987)’. [German language]. Online, Rolling Stone Forum, 2012: http://forum.rollingstone.de/foren/topic/alan-shorter/

Tributes / performances of Shorter’s compositions by others

Gil Evans, Arrangement of ‘Parabola’.
Shorter’s composition ‘Parabola’ (recorded on Orgasm) was in Evans’ book for a number of years. The first recorded performance appears as the title track to Parabola (Horo, 1978) [Lew Soloff (trumpet), Earl McIntyre (trombone), Steve Lacy (soprano saxophone), Arthur Blythe (alto and soprano saxophone), Gil Evans (piano, electric piano, arranger, conductor), Pete Levin (keyboards), Don Pate (electric bass), Noel McGhee (drums)]. The arrangement was also recorded on Gil Evans with the Monday Night Orchestra, Live at Sweet Basil (Electric Bird, 1985) [recorded August 1984] and Gil Evans/ Laurent Cugny/ Big Band Lumiere, Golden Hair (EmArcy, 1989) [Recorded 1987]. As of May 2020, footage of the Gil Evans Orchestra performing the piece at Sweet Basil, New York, on January 11th, 1988 (reportedly Shorter’s last gig) is available on Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eTseXiCUW9M.

William Parker, ‘Shorter for Alan’. Petit Oiseau (AUM Fidelity, 2007).
Lewis Barnes (trumpet), Rob Brown (alto saxophone), William Parker (bass, composition), Hamid Drake (drums).

François Tusques, ‘L’Acrobat (pour Alan Shorter)’. Avants-Derniers Blues (Improvising Beings, 2017).
François Tusques (piano). Also recorded by François Tusques (piano) and Sunny Murray (drums), Intercommunal Dialogue (Ni-Vu-Ni-Connu, 2019 [recorded September 2007]), where it is performed as part of a medley.

Amor Amok, ‘Alan Shorter’. We Know Not What We Do (Intakt Records, 2017).
Peter Evans (trumpet, composer), Wanja Slavin (saxophone), Petter Eldh (bass), Christian Lillinger (drums).

Chicago Underground Duo, ‘Orgasm’. Good Days (Astral Spirits, 2020).
Rob Mazurek (piccolo trumpet, electronics), Josh Johnson (organ, synthesizer), Chad Taylor (drums, percussion)

In November 2017, trumpeter J.S. Williams’s Quartet performed re-arrangements of pieces from Orgasm as Orgasm: Redux – Modern Interpretations of the Orgasm Album as part of the Take-5 Series at the Smithsonian American Art Music, Washington, D.C organised by Bertrand Uberall. [J.S. Williams (trumpet, leader), Dobie Godbee (piano), Wardell Howell (bass), Eric Haskins (drums).]


Sources consulted: Andrey Herkins, ‘Alan Shorter discography ‘(http://andreyhenkin.com/discographies.htm/shorter.htm/shorter%20discography.htm), Karl-Michael Schneider, Georgia Reccollecttions: The Marion Brown Discopgraphy (http://discog.piezoelektric.org/marionbrown/) and Nobuaki Togashi, Kohji ‘Shaolin’ Matsubayashi and Masayuki Hatta, ‘Archie Shepp Discography’, The Jazz Discography Project (https://www.jazzdisco.org/archie-shepp/), as well as album sleeves. Both discographies and album sleeves sometimes contain inaccuracies, which have been cross-checked and corrected to the best of my knowledge.


© David Grundy

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