Wayne Shorter Quartet, 'Footprints Live!' (2002)

At the end of Playing Changes is a list: The 129 Essential Albums of the Twenty-First Century (So Far). I organized these by year, and then alphabetically by artist name. I'll be running them down here, in that order. (No one appears more than once as a leader, though there’s ample overlap in personnel.)

The postmillennial Wayne Shorter Quartet — Shorter on saxophones, Danilo Pérez on piano, John Patitucci on bass, Brian Blade on drums — receives a fair amount of attention in Playing Changes. To my mind it's one of the most influential working bands of the last 20 years, for the way that it bridges the eternal verities of jazz with a heady sense of unfolding possibility in the here and now. And now. And now. And... now. 

Perhaps you recall the seismic impact of this band when it first emerged. Shorter hadn't led an acoustic combo of this sort in years, even decades. His fusionesque output in the 1990s had been divisive, both heralded and disparaged. So now here comes a new configuration, featuring the grand master backed by a younger rhythm team fresh off its success on Pérez's Motherland (which has already turned up here).


The 129 Essential Albums list is precisely that, a tally of recordings. And Footprints Live! — the first official release by this magical quartet, culled from several European concerts — fits that bill. But for many observers of the scene, this band left its impression well before releasing any product. If you saw the new Wayne Shorter Quartet on tour in 2001, you probably remember the thrill of hearing familiar material turned inside out, or outside in. Shorter wasn't playing, as some folks say. Yet he most definitely came to play.

In a sense, I could have selected one of the band's later albums — like Without a Net, from 2013 — and felt satisfied with my choice. But the importance of Footprints Live! as a historical document, a statement in and of its time, can hardly be overlooked. It was a dispatch from enigmatic coordinates, but also evidence of "the jazz tradition" in brilliant, destabilizing flux.

Because I see the album as a harbinger of the band, I'm going to break from my custom here and post footage of a live performance, rather than a track off the release. Here is a version of "Footprints" captured at the 2001 Newport Jazz Festival, a couple of weeks after the concerts chronicled on the record.

From the top of the clip, this is music full of pointed challenge: listen for how the first atonal fillip by Pérez provokes an "Uh-oh!" just a few seconds in. Listen, too, for how much elasticity and license Shorter brings to an articulation of the theme. This is one of his most iconic compositions, and he's pulling it apart like taffy. The rest of the band follows his lead, edging out onto precarious territory, without ever missing a step.

Purchase Footprints Live! at Amazon, or stream it on Spotify or Apple Music.