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This feature originally published in the Fall 2018 edition of JAZZIZ.
By Larry Blumenfeld
With Emanon, Wayne Shorter realizes his dream of exploring nameless reaches.
When Wayne Shorter was in his early teens, living with his parents in the Ironbound section of Newark, New Jersey, he was fascinated by science-fiction and comic books. He drew incessantly, displaying exceptional talent. He’d fallen in love with storytelling, particularly through films. At 15, he was especially taken with Rocket Ship XM, a 1950 black-and-white movie about a moon expedition gone awry, that travels instead to Mars.
Now 84, Shorter remembers that film well. “I’ll never forget how it ended,” he says over the phone from his Los Angeles home. “The mission control guy said, ‘Tomorrow, we start construction on Rocket Ship XM2.’ I went home and said, ‘I’m going to make Number 2.’ I got some papers, and I started drawing every night for a month. I drew with an indelible pen, drawing the way you live life; if you make a mistake, too late, you can’t change your mind. I just kept going, wondering what would happen when I started drawing again.” He called the 54-page comic book full of pen drawings that he’d created Other Worlds.
Soon after, while listening to his father’s favorite radio program, Make Believe Ballroom, Shorter heard some seminal bebop recordings. As Michelle Mercer described in Footprints, her astute biography of Shorter, “Wayne’s interest in film and the visual arts was replaced by a deeper calling. He discovered a style of music that captured the velocity and mystery of those ‘other worlds’ through sheer sound.” He began clarinet lessons and, not long after, gravitated to the tenor saxophone, the instrument with which he’d ultimately carve out his own indelible place within jazz.
As a young Shorter heard more music, his ears and mind opened further. “Emanon,” recorded by trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie’s big band, captured his attention. With its angular melody and layers of harmonic contrasts, the song used the language of bebop to modernize jazz’s big-band sound. “It’s not a complex composition,” Shorter says, “but I could hear that it was leaning forward, and that’s where I wanted to go.”
And he loved the title — “Emanon” — once he realized that it was really “no name” spelled backwards. “I understood much later in my life that people get in trouble when they name things,” Shorter says. “They limit themselves and others. The names start to outweigh the meanings and intents, which are usually open. I liked the idea of ‘no name,’ like planets, waiting to be discovered.” Throughout his long and storied career — in his 1960s work with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and especially in Miles Davis’ quintet, through his sessions as a leader for Blue Note Records and ever since — Shorter has sounded like a musician leaning forward. By now, he is considered perhaps jazz’s greatest living composer. His works are played widely and prized for their enigmatic blend of complex structure and memorable melody.
In a 1985 profile of Shorter in The New York Times, pegged to the release of his Atlantis album, critic Robert Palmer reported that Shorter’s next album would “be based on a comic book called Other Worlds that he drew when he was 15.” Indeed, Shorter said that his next album Phantom Navigator, released in 1986, did relate to Other Worlds, though not overtly. By then, Shorter was also playing soprano saxophone, employing synthesizers, electric bass and guitar along with acoustic instruments; his compositions were more like expansive expeditions than songs. Some critics were derisive, but Palmer, in his Times piece, got it, and expressed it well. He called Atlantis “an album of tunes in which everything — texture, color, mood, meter, tempo, instrumentation, density, you name it — seems to be in perpetual transformation.”
“This is it,” Shorter told Palmer then. “This is my main move.”
That main move began a path that continues today, born of his instinct for unbound exploration, bolstered by a practice of Nichiren Buddhism and inspired by the notion of not naming things. “For a long time now, I’ve been focused on finding other doorways to what jazz means if we just forget about that word for a minute and think about the meaning of the music,” he says. For Shorter, the idea of jazz is less a style or form than simply a challenge. “It’s ‘I dare you!’ or ‘How dare you!’”
Cut to 2013. Shorter’s quartet, with pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade, by then a dozen years running, had become one of modern music’s great stories and singular pleasures. With this group, Shorter sometimes employed his classic works as mere springboards toward collective improvisation, to foster what he calls “self-actualized communal leadership.” The music focused on motion, dynamics and mood, without concern for style. It combined Shorter’s late-in-life ambitions and the spirit with which, at 15, he’d drawn Other Worlds.
“Wayne wants to hear us struggle and even mess up,” Patitucci told me a decade ago. “And if we mess up, we keep going. He wants us to find something that’s uncharted.” Shorter’s album Without a Net, recorded in 2010 and released in 2013, featured the woodwind quintet Imani Winds on a 23-minute piece, “Pegasus.”
In February 2013, Shorter upped his own ante. The day after a performance at Carnegie Hall that combined his quartet with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, Shorter brought the combined ensembles into a recording studio for orchestrated versions of “Pegasus” and “The Three Marias” (which first appeared on Atlantis) as well as two new compositions, “Prometheus Unbound” and “Lotus.” These recordings form the first disc, the musical core of a gorgeous and unusual new package that includes three CDs and a 48-page graphic novel created by Shorter in collaboration with artist Randy DuBurke and writer Monica Sly (Discs One and Two feature quartet performances recorded at The Barbican in London, in 2015). The name — of Disc One’s four-piece orchestral suite, the graphic novel’s protagonist and the overall package — is “Emanon.”
Blue Note president Don Was had suggested creating a graphic novel in connection with Shorter’s new music. “He mentioned it casually,” Shorter says, “but the wheels in my head started turning right away.” Was suggested DuBurke as the man for the job. Shorter liked what he saw in DuBurke’s graphic novel about Malcolm X and his version of Deadwood Dick, a character first introduced in 19th-century dime novels. “When I saw his drawings,” Shorter says, “there was something about the way the characters moved and the action developed that reminded me of my own music.” On St. Nick’s Day in Switzerland, where DuBurke, who was born in Brooklyn, now lives, he received an email from Shorter’s agent: “Wayne Shorter is a fan of your work and would like to commission you to do a graphic novel.” DuBurke had just wrapped up the holiday gifts for his children and now here was an unexpected and nearly unbelievable one for himself. He looked at the Shorter recordings in his collection — Speak No Evil and Beyond the Sound Barrier, among others. He shot an email back: “That Wayne Shorter?”
Yes, it was. DuBurke met Shorter in London in late 2014, after attending the very quartet performances documented on Discs Two and Three of the new Blue Note set. They talked about science-fiction and real science, quantum mechanics and such. (DuBurke calls himself a “science geek.”) Shorter mentioned the cover illustration of a sci-fi book by Anne McCaffery, of Pegasus, the white-winged horse of Greek mythology. With the four tracks of Shorter’s orchestral suite as his soundtrack and guide, DuBurke returned to his studio and began drawing. He discovered that Pegasus originated in Ethiopian mythology. The first thing he showed Shorter when they met again in Lyon, France, in 2014 was his painting of an Ethiopian Pegasus, a brown horse with white wings and horns. He wasn’t sure about Shorter’s reaction until that night’s concert: On Shorter’s music stand throughout the performance, alongside the sheet music, had been DuBurke’s rendering of Pegasus.
Still, Shorter thought the story the two were developing was too literal, too rooted in science-fiction. He enlisted the help of Monica Sly, a screenwriter who had met Shorter through the Nichiren community in Los Angeles. Sly had collaborated with Shorter and pianist Herbie Hancock on an open letter that was widely distributed online in 2016, addressed to “the next generation of artists” and imploring readers not to grow dismayed or complacent during turbulent and unpredictable times. “Whether from sadness, prolonged struggle, or social conditioning, somewhere along the way people forget how to tap into the inherent magic that exists within our minds,” the letter explained. “Don’t let that part of your imagination fade away.”
Sly describes her work with Shorter in terms similar to that of his quartet members. “Wayne will never tell you exactly what he wants you to do,” Sly says. “He wants you to figure it out, like it’s a game.” Shorter provided some clues. He instructed her to research the CERN Large Haldron Collider in Geneva, Switzerland, which, among other things searches for miniature black holes, which are key to an advancing theory of a “multiverse,” in which ours is merely one of several universes. In one climactic frame of the Emanon graphic novel, people look excitedly at a newspaper headline that reads: “The Multiverse Exists.”
From her conversations with Shorter, Sly grasped that the four universes he conveyed through his musical suite related to overcoming four distinct fears: In “Pegasus,” the fear of complacency, of living within prescribed boxes; in “Lotus,” the fear of the Other and of the divisiveness that often leads to war; in “The Three Marias,” of censorship and the suppression of free thought and will; and in “Prometheus Unbound,” of the unknown and of the natural vicissitudes of life.
The story of Emanon opens with the suffering of “complacent citizens” who are “numb to their life of degradation” and “blaming all but themselves for their depraved condition.” Emanon is a reluctant hero who engages in a righteous battle that is both physically violent and bent on spiritual renewal. There is clear symbolism: The lotus, the flower that represents purification and enlightenment in Buddhism, blooms at a key moment in the graphic novel, as a promise of peace and harmony. There is delicious irony: “The Three Marias” — a title Shorter first used in 1985, in reference to three Portuguese women who were arrested for writing supposedly obscene literature — becomes the fictional name of a powerful and censorious media empire. The story can be read on many levels — as a statement about the hostility and danger posed by our current political and media landscape, for instance, or a reflection of Shorter’s career-long quest for unbound expression within a cultural marketplace dominated by inhibiting categories. Most of all, the graphic novel seems an allegory for the principles of the Nichiren Buddhism that have liberated Shorter’s life and art. The story ends by invoking “the courage of a Pegasus,” explaining that, “the means to become the producer, director and actor in one’s life lies within one’s self potential.”
Musically, “Emanon” creates a liberating multiverse of a different sort. Shorter’s compositions exist in somewhat parallel worlds. In the previous recorded version of “Pegasus,” the woodwinds of Imani Winds framed Shorter’s soprano saxophone statements or voiced counterpoint to his quartet. Here, the piece begins a with long duet played on soprano sax and piano, and gives way to an entirely fresh set of harmonies, lush and dramatic but free of orchestral conventions. As played with the Orpheus Orchestra on Disc One, “Lotus” is glorious and grand. It sounds fully flowered. The quartet version, on Disc Three, is playful and full of promise, like a seed being planted. It’s no coincidence that Shorter aligned himself with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, which has no conductor and for which the musicians shape their sound cooperatively as a group. In classical terms, they embody the “self-actualized communal leadership” Shorter preaches to his quartet’s members. “This whole thing — the story and the music — is about the potential human beings have but don’t talk about,” Shorter says. “It’s about not leaning on something or somebody else.”
Emanon is a large package that physically won’t fit well on a shelf alongside Shorter’s large catalog of previous releases. It’s not a typical book-and-music set in that neither the book nor music is subservient to the other. It’s the manifestation of childhood dreams along with the wisdom of a celebrated musical elder. In that sense, it supports something Shorter has told me in more than one interview, about his music but also about life in general. “There is no such thing as a beginning and no such thing as an end.”
Does Shorter identify with Emanon, the hero of his story? He laughs. “No,” he says. “I think he identifies with me.”
Photos courtesy of Universal Music. Illustrations by Randy DuBurke.