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Happy 80th, Wayne Shorter: The jazz world gears up to celebrate a legend

Shorter in 2006: His latest quartet takes improvisation even further. – walking onstage each night without a set list or even a plan of action.

SIMON HAYTER/The Globe and Mail

On Aug. 25, saxophonist Wayne Shorter turns 80, and already the jazz world is breaking out the candles and party favours.

A string of "birthday" concerts are being held at major jazz festivals across the United States and Europe, as well as stops in Montreal (Saturday), Ottawa (Sunday) and Toronto (Nov. 22).

Here are some of the reasons Shorter is a jazz man worth celebrating.

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He's always played with the best

In 1959, trumpeter Lee Morgan saw the young Shorter at the Toronto Jazz Festival, playing in Maynard Ferguson's big band. Morgan convinced Shorter to join him in Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, which was then the hottest hard-bop combo in jazz.

He stayed with the group until 1964, at which point he joined Miles Davis's legendary "second quintet," with pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams.

Davis had been trying to lure the saxophonist away for years and wrote in his autobiography that when Shorter finally joined them for a performance at the Hollywood Bowl, "the music just started happening."

After leaving Davis's band in 1970, Shorter and keyboardist Joe Zawinul co-founded the group Weather Report.

One of the most successful and influential fusion groups, the band is probably best known for the track Birdland, from its 1977 million-selling album Heavy Weather.

Weather Report broke up in 1986, as Shorter decided to focus on his solo career.

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He's a master improviser

Shorter has always been known as an exceptional soloist, someone who can make a moment's silence seem as eloquent as a torrent of notes, and who always seems to understand exactly how, and where, to turn a phrase. As the critic Gary Giddins put it, Shorter's playing style is "at once authoritative and evasive – bold, pensive, not entirely of this world."

As his career progressed, he became increasingly interested in the spontaneity of improvisation. Zawinul once boasted that the original concept behind Weather Report was a musical collectivism like that of the early New Orleans bands – "We always solo, we never solo," was the way he put it – and certainly Shorter's best work with the group tended to bubble up through collective improvisation.

His current quartet, which was formed in 2001, takes the approach even further, walking onstage each night without a set list or even a plan of action. "With the quartet, we want to do the drama of struggle and victory, but to show that those things are temporary, short-lived," he said in 2008. "We're going to be taking a lot of chances, and we're not worried about being picture-perfect."

He's a great composer

While a music student at New York University, Shorter stood out because of his ambition – he composed an opera, The Singing Lesson, while an undergraduate – and his deep, adventurous approach to harmony.

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In the jazz world, his writing was noteworthy both for its melodic beauty and its precise approach to harmony. Where most jazz composers would simply write down a chord name for the accompaniment, Shorter often specified the notes and voicings he wanted, giving each a specific harmonic vocabulary. He wrote some of the Davis group's most memorable material, including such now-standard fare as Nefertiti, Footprints, Pinocchio and E.S.P.

Shorter's latest album, Without a Net, includes a 23-minute composition called Pegasus, a fusion of jazz and classical music featuring the woodwind quintet Imani Winds (which debuted at the Montreal Jazz Festival in 2007). He and his quartet have also done orchestral performances with the Royal Concertgebouw in the Netherlands, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

You've probably heard him even if you don't listen to jazz

You know that majestic, slowly unfolding solo in the middle of the Steely Dan song Aja? That's Wayne Shorter.

The same year he made that cameo, Shorter was invited by Weather Report bassist Jaco Pastorius to play on the sessions for the Joni Mitchell album Don Juan's Reckless Daughter. Mitchell had been a fan of Shorter's music since hearing Nefertiti – "It's a very unusual piece of music," she told journalist Michelle Mercer – and went on to use his playing on a dozen subsequent albums.

He provided the soprano-sax solo on Don Henley's The End of the Innocence; sat in with Santana for several albums, most notably Dance of the Rainbow Serpent; and contributed heavily to Herbie Hancock's Grammy-winning Mitchell tribute, River: The Joni Letters. He even jammed with the Rolling Stones, providing a memorable solo on How Can I Stop (from the otherwise forgettable Bridges to Babylon).

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