Shorter had a sly, confiding style on the tenor saxophone, instantly identifiable by his low-gloss tone and elliptical sense of phrase. His sound was brighter on soprano, an instrument on which he left an incalculable influence; he could be inquisitive, teasing or elusive, but always with a pinpoint intonation and clarity of attack.
His career reached across more than half a century, largely inextricable from jazz’s complex evolution during that span. He emerged in the 1960s as a tenor saxophonist and in-house composer for pace-setting editions of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and the Miles Davis Quintet, two of the most celebrated small groups in jazz history. He then helped pioneer fusion, with Davis and as a leader of Weather Report, which amassed a legion of fans. He also forged a bond with popular music in marquee collaborations with the singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell, the guitarist Carlos Santana and the band Steely Dan, whose 1977 song “Aja” reaches a dynamic climax with his hide-and-seek tenor solo.
Shorter wrote his share of compositions that became jazz standards, like “Footprints,” a coolly ethereal waltz, and “Black Nile,” a driving anthem. Beyond his book of tunes, he was revered for developing and endlessly refining a modern harmonic language. His compositions, sleek and insinuating, can convey elegant ambiguities of mood. They adhere to an internal logic even when they break the rules. His recorded output as a leader, especially during a feverishly productive stretch on Blue Note Records in the mid-1960s – when he made “Night Dreamer,” “JuJu,” “Speak No Evil” and several others, all post-bop classics – compares favourably to the best winning streaks in jazz.
Shorter won 12 Grammy Awards, along with a lifetime achievement honour from the Recording Academy in 2015.