Wayne Shorter: It’s time to go get a new body and come back to continue the mission.

Miguel Fernández | Cofundador de Sax On y responsable de compras/ventas
07/03/2023 | Actualizado: 07/03/2023 07/03/2023
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With great sadness, Wayne Shorter left us last week, on March 2, 2023. We just had a post to be published in a couple of days about his setups, and we do it today, just like this, unmodified, when we wrote it and he was still in this world with us. Now, as he believed, he will be inhabiting already in another body....

Wayne Shorter, one of the greats in the history of jazz, composer and saxophonist; with a genuine musical discourse like few others, unpredictable. His career unfolded through transcendental stylistic periods: be bop, hard bop, rock, bossa nova, fusion?

For some time we have been trying to write about Mr Shorter in the setups series, but his musical "unpredictability" was also exercised by the saxophones and mouthpieces he played with. To delimit periods where he clearly used a single saxophone and mouthpiece set-up is practically impossible. Let's go with a few small brushstrokes:

On tenor saxophone there have been three main models:

  • Selmer Bundy
  • Super Action, a 40xxx like the one used by Coltrane, which Dave Liebman, when he tried it, only told us marvels...
  • Mark VI 
  • Series III (solid silver bell), his 80th birthday present from the members of his last quartet: Danilo Perez, John Patitucci and Brian Blade.

...and in mouthpieces basically Otto Link Florida, metal and rubber, always in large openings, type 10 or 10*. The final combination with the Selmer Series III was with metallic Lebayle mouthpiece.

Bundy (by Selmer), used in the recording "Speak No Evil" for Blue Note

Selmer Mark VI, in a relaxed moment of the recording "JuJu". 

Selmer Super Action 40xxx

The soprano saxophone was incorporated in the mid 60's, to offer another color in the second quintet of Miles Davis, and at that time what was available on the market was clearly a Selmer Mark VI, which was replaced by different Yamaha models later. 

We would also like to point out that in 1969, man reached the moon, and so did Miles Davis, and poor Wayne was only allowed to perform with the soprano saxophone in his records and recordings, as his voice on this instrument was unique in concept and timbre to date: albums like Silent Way or Bitches Brew deserve a new listen in this sense.

He took advantage of his tours in Japan to get the latest soprano saxophones: the 62R that he started using with Weather Report was a mythical instrument (and still is), and later he used a YSS-675 or a YSS-875 with two tudels. Otto Link Slant Siganture 10 mouthpiece for most of his career.

Yamaha 62R, one-piece with curved bell.

Up to this point, the small conclusion is that Wayne Shorter does not seem to be a saxophonist who was always "up to date" in terms of new toys that the market had to offer. And now, reinforcing this idea, we will explain a facet of Wayne unknown to many: his paranoia with the first wind-controlled synthesizer (future MIDI saxophone) in history, being one of the first interpreters, both live and on recordings. We are talking about the lyricon.

It could not be otherwise: in a context where Weather Report felt the need to transgress, not only stylistically but with the new technological sets of synthesizers and programmers that his co-leader Joe Zawinul was experimenting (ARP 2600, Oberheim...) Wayne Shorter got a prototype of the LYRICON in 1975.

As the first commercially available wind-controlled synthesizer, it was a breakthrough in its own right and aroused great interest among saxophonists. It was played with a soprano-like body and a centerpiece equipped with sensors that detected air and lip pressure, giving it an expressive and dynamic quality that could not be achieved with a keyboard.

This early model of the Lyricon was awkward live because, like the other early synthesizers, it had no memory and no preset patches. It was very graphical, just a bunch of knobs, and adjustments were too tedious to make directly on stage. As a result, its use in concert was limited. On the Black Market recording, Wayne used the Lyricon so effectively that it integrated seamlessly into the overall soundscape constructed with Joe Zawinul. On the recording of his track "Three Clowns" Wayne explained that he turned some knobs in the middle of the session, and without quite knowing what each knob was for, BAM! magical sounds appeared that give "Three Clowns" a whole new and unfamiliar character that fits with the overall theme of Black Market. Less obvious is how the Lyricon appears on most of the album's other tracks, such as "Barbary Coast", "Herandnu" and even the album's title track. The sonic interweaving that Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter create together makes most of the time not knowing who is playing what, furthering the band's slogan/musical approach, "We never solo, we always solo".

In order to hear a Lyricon more clearly (and in a totally different context!), let's turn up the volume and click on "Billie Jean" (Michael Jackson). Hold on, Tom Scott at the controls of the Lyricon.

Wayne Shorter continued to use the Lyricon for part of the subsequent tour, but then put it aside. He reappeared to play it years later on his Phantom Navigator album (1986). Although some musicians continued to use the Lyricon -Roland Kirk or Tom Scott (Blues Brothers)-, it did not manage to go beyond being a very minority instrument, and in 1980 the company that manufactured it went bankrupt. The inventor of the instrument, Bill Bernardi, never gave up his dream, however, maintaining a repair shop in his basement and harboring hopes of making a modern version of his classic instrument until he succumbed to cancer in 2014.

After that, it was other wind players and controllers that kept popping up:

  • EWI (Electronic Wind Instrument) from the early 1980s. Michael Brecker, Bob Mintzer or Seamus Blake. Akai EWI 5000 or EWI SOLO today.
  • Yamaha: VX7 (1987), VX11 (1993), VX5 (1999) and its latest current version of the YDS-150 (2020).
  • Roland Aerophone
  • EMEO

and starting with a sketch of Wayne's setup, we conclude with a tour through the evolution of saxophone and MIDI related technology, what a descriptive way to establish that Wayne Shorter is a human being always looking ahead, transgressor, visionary, experimenter, non-conformist, intrepid...

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