There is a certain sense of irony that is always at play in the world of jazz critique. At any given moment, a member of the vanguard is preaching a fiery sermon against the ills of musical fusion—ostensibly a stance against innovation, itself. The laughable contradiction lies within the fact that jazz is a living, breathing organism, one whose progress is nothing short of unavoidable. Jazz is an art form that works only in open spaces, allowing for its constant interaction with other modes. This reality is something that has drawn the ire within the community historically, but at no greater moment than the 1970s. Donald Byrd received his fair share of criticism for playing with funk. Herbie Hancock, too, felt the burden of indignation weighed down upon his left-of-center work on Head Hunters. Even the incomparable Miles Davis was not above scrutiny with his polarizing work, Bitches Brew. This was the atmosphere in which Wayne Shorter crafted his Latin-fused classic, Native Dancer.
The liner notes read like a hall of fame ballot, incorporating the likes of Hancock, Airto Moreira, and most significantly Milton Nascimento. Before even pressing play, I was already sold on the album’s merit. Fortunately, the album and my subsequent analysis needn’t stop there. Compositionally, the project brings together a potent concoction of jazz themes and Brazilian sensibilities. The resulting product is a sound simply too smooth for words. While this abstract account may not be suitable to most, it best explains the nature of “Tarde,” one of the album’s earlier tracks. Written by Nascimento and Fernando Brant, the song is constructed through the lens of an organ and piano-based melody, creating the perfect backdrop for the latter’s emotional vocal display. Even with the introduction of Shorter’s powerful horn, the song maintains an effortless cool. Despite the elevated stature of those involved, the instrumentalists never seem to overextend themselves, providing the listener with an easy listening experience. This is a concept that flows throughout. This minimalist approach is played to perfection on Shorter’s “Diana,” in which Hancock carries much of the song. The composition never seems to quite reach its apex, taking a more leveled approach. While this may lead you to believe that you’ll be left wanting more, I can honestly say that its lack of excitement manages to enhance its satiability.
Wayne Shorter ft. Milton Nascimento – “Tarde”
Wayne Shorter ft. Milton Nascimento – “Ponta de Areia”
There are some moments in the album’s execution that find the musicians indulging their inner virtuosity, but even then, the music doesn’t seem too exaggerated. On “From the Lonely Afternoons,” the collective injects the album with a spritely overture, and yet, everyone seems to remain in their lane. This departure from the calm surprisingly never overwhelms its listeners—the perfect encapsulation of the album’s buoyancy. Native Dancer closes with a much darker tonality, using the haunting “Joanna’s Theme” as a bookend to a generally light project. Again we find Hancock taking the lead as Shorter cautiously steps into the fold past the midday point of the record. In its finale, redirects the mood, whilst maintaining a sense of musical continuity.
For many, this is one of the most important works of the Brazilian/jazz music exchange. It has influenced many in both fields and deserves credit for that alone. And while I am quick to recognize this project for its stellar music, it is important to place it in the proper framework, particularly for those who may attempt to pigeonhole its importance. Despite the reproach of his peers, Shorter helmed a project that was tailor made for widespread consumption. Some might say that the music is watered down; moving towards the shallowness of pop music. There is an undeniable accessibility in the music, yes. The melodies are quite palpable, even for the casual listener of jazz. But, this does not take away from the album’s credibility. Structurally, Native Dancer is another great project from the Wayne Shorter catalog. It’s a timeless lesson in both musical approachability and the marriage of variant sounds. To say anything else is simply shortsighted.
Words by Paul Pennington