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This feature was originally published in the Spring 2013 edition of JAZZIZ.
By Ted Panken
Six admirers salute the master.
Over the phone from his music room in Los Angeles, surrounded, he says, by manuscripts for various forthcoming, large-scale projects, Wayne Shorter, who turns 80 in August, was discussing Without a Net, his first release since 2005 and first for Blue Note since 1970. “I’m looking for the effort rather than the destination,” Shorter says of his criteria for culling the nine tracks — six new tunes and three reimagined pieces from his now-iconic canon — from a European tour by his quartet in November 2011.
The remark prefaces a circuitous explanation that feels not unlike the soliloquies Shorter uncorks when improvising with pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade, his bandmates since 2001. “What the hell does the word ‘jazz’ mean?” he asks rhetorically. “OK, being risky, taking chances. I wanted the music to have struggle, and ‘don’t hide behind your instrument.’ But I have to have something on the record that says you can’t take chances without studying. The phrase is, ‘Grasp the present, and you reach what you’re looking for.’ Find out what the real surprise is. Reach past the brass ring. That’s why we don’t have rehearsals. Our challenge is to compose, solo, and everything at the same time, on the spot, at different junctures, without sounding like Dixieland.
“In all actuality, I’m looking for the stuff that is not about playing music, where you’re going to demonstrate your lesson. To be admired and all that — it’s no longer about that. It’s about what’s going on inside the person. Play what you’re wishing for. What do you want the world to be like?”
The world that Shorter and company project throughout Without a Net is far removed, in regard to structure and time feel, from his first go-round with Blue Note, when he presented several dozen hip, insouciant, ferociously grooving AABA-format tunes for a slew of LPs by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers from 1959 through 1964. These set the stage for 11 extraordinarily influential leader recordings of original music over the next six years, a span that ran precisely parallel to his employment by Miles Davis, for whom Shorter conjured a string of customized songs, chock-a-block with vivid melodies and ambiguous harmonic changes that facilitated swinging narratives from all members. Also absent from Without a Net are the straight-eighth rhythmic environments that propelled much of Shorter’s elaborately rendered post-Blue Note corpus, both with Weather Report and on such end-of-millennium masterworks as Phantom Navigator, Atlantis and High Life. Still, 21st-century Shorter palpably draws upon and refracts his entire body of work, as well as examples set by early heroes Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. This imperative is never more apparent than on “S.S. Golden Mean,” on which Shorter periodically interpolates the nine-note refrain of “Manteca,” whose trumpet part he executed as a teenage clarinetist in a peer group band in Newark, New Jersey.
“I hadn’t heard anybody do what Dizzy as a young man was doing on the trumpet,” Shorter says. “It wasn’t about the technique, because that word meant nothing to me at 15. I was coming out of the comic book stage, and I saw somebody flying, leaping. I heard Charlie Parker then, too, and he’d quote Stravinsky — L’Histoire du Soldat or Petrushka. We said, ‘He’s listening to everything!’”
In honor of Shorter’s 80th birthday, we asked six musicians to comment on his impact. Three are pianists: Renee Rosnes played with Shorter in 1988, and most recently revisited his music as a member of the SFJAZZ Collective, as documented on the 2008 CD Original Compositions and Works by Wayne Shorter; Jim Beard toured and recorded frequently with Shorter between 1986 and 2000; and Danilo Perez is a galvanizing member of the Wayne Shorter Quartet. Bassist Ron Carter famously played with Shorter in the Miles Davis Quintet from 1964 to 1968, on various all-star projects during the ’70s and early ’80s, and in the Miles Davis Tribute Band in 1992. John Patitucci first played bass with Shorter in 1986, foreshadowing his dozen years with the current quartet. Although trumpeter Dave Douglas has never played with Shorter, he has explicitly explored his music and vocabulary on the 1997 recording Stargazer and, more recently, in a currently touring quintet project with Joe Lovano.
Personally, I have been discovering a global attitude in Wayne’s music. If you look at the bridge of “Speak No Evil,” that’s the same rhythm, for example, that “Oye Como Va” has. He told me that he and Miles used to listen to all the bands at the Palladium, and he was influenced by the La Playa Sextet when he was younger. So, although I don’t think he intended to do that, it just came out that way. Wayne has given us the license and the mentorship, I think, to move forward with all these elements. There’s a futuristic, optimistic humanity in his music that’s inspired all of us to be better in what we want to do as leaders. He’s told us, “Play and write music the way you want the world to be like.” I find his music does that to me.
I think Wayne wants to make things that are invisible, visible. There’s a very strong desire to not be in the comfort zone, to be functioning at the highest creative mode that he can at every second and in every way. It’s almost like the spirit of a child. He lives constantly in that world of magic, I would say. But he also is very studious and philosophical, and he’s very interested in politics and in humanity. I think that Buddhism has given an incredible depth to this thoughts and philosophy in life.
There was a period of his life when he was into composing — wanting to reach that intersection between composing at home and composing in the moment. I think now he is in another period, which is decomposing! There’s a deep desire to create new rules, to go to the extreme and experiment to the fullest. He told us, “I’m 80 years old; I have nothing to lose.” He writes these tremendous ideas and motifs as he always did, but in a way that gives a lot more exit doors. That’s the sign of a truly great composer. His ideas, even a motivic cell, penetrate deep into your being; it makes you think about your own ideas, and you come up with an answer. The way he writes, it’s like: Where are you? Who are you? I hear an incredible level of commitment to form all the time. To me, that’s clear even in the free playing on the record, what he calls “zero gravity.” It’s almost like his saxophone turns into a huge pencil, and he’s just writing. Even at his age, he has incredible speed recognition for great melodic material that can be developed on the spot. This takes almost a photographic memory. He knows how to peel off all the layers and pick up the essence. I feel sometimes that he is not trying to play the saxophone, but maybe a trumpet section and a violin section. I don’t think anyone else does that level of spontaneous orchestration.
Jim Beard (via email)
I feel that Wayne’s writing approach during the time I played with him was very deeply rooted in a classical aesthetic, but also reflected his love of film and film scores — long forms with endless attention to detail and color. Getting his handwritten charts was like having the best composition lesson anybody could want. It was a great challenge to learn the entire Atlantis songbook — and High Life and Alegria — yet truly inspiring. He spent a great deal of time and energy working on the music of these records. Wayne liked to rehearse at his house sometimes before tours, and I stayed there for this on a couple of occasions. I remember coming into his music room one morning, maybe in the early ’90s, and Wayne was working with his manuscript. He’d white-out two measures, wait for it to dry and write something different over it. The next morning the same page was up, and he was whiting out the same two measures and rewriting music over them. This happened on the third day, as well.
I had the opportunity to play music live with him from all those records. It presented a unique challenge. As rich, radiant and intricate as his compositions would get, the soloing often would be on a one-chord vamp, so the need to dig deep and keep the composition going was always present. Wayne was tireless. I can’t remember a single night where he sounded unmotivated or uninspired. His style would morph and adapt to the immediate environment — the moods and personalities of the band members, the nature of the audience, the current politics (playing Germany when the Wall was coming down, for instance), what the day was like and what the next day might bring. If I had to describe Wayne’s bandleading methods with one word, that word would be “metaphor.” Rather than tell players what they should or shouldn’t play, he would describe a feeling, a situation, an evocative scenario that he remembered or imagined. One of his favorites was the telling of a movie scene: “Remember in such-and-such movie when so-and-so walked into the room and discovered that the charm had been there all along? I want it to sound like that!”
I think none of us in the Miles Davis Quintet thought that we had a specific job to do in that band, but having said that, Wayne’s job — and I use the term advisedly — was to be the composer-in-residence. He was the one who was most noted for his compositions in the band, and great compositions they were. Wayne is a real film buff, and he’s always looking for a way to represent the emotions that he saw on film through the expression of serious compositions and saxophone playing so that his music would be as important to the ear as film is to the eye. Miles’ job was to collect the technicians, to collect the members of the laboratory, Wayne brought in the chemicals which he thought could have some possibilities, and it was our job to find out if that was valid or not.
I saw Wayne as early as 1958 when he was playing with Maynard Ferguson’s Big Band. But we didn’t cross paths too often until the relationship with Miles. When we began to work together regularly, I became really aware of how quickly Wayne responded to ideas. He was the one who was experimenting with sounds on the saxophone that hadn’t been part of the Miles Davis Quintet’s I.D. Later, when we played in the Miles Davis Tribute Band, he seemed to be investigating shorter phrases with more space between the phrases. He was playing more half notes and quarter-note rests — and letting the band fill up the air he left — rather than a blur of 16th notes, playing as many notes as you could play in a measure, which was the style at that time. It seemed to me that this different approach gave him more of a chance to hear his environment, to let the band help him find a direction he might not find if he kept playing through forever and ever, and be able to respond to it more immediately. He had more space to listen to what we were doing, in particular with his solo.
Wayne has written some operas, and he’s always talked about working on symphonies and film scores. I’m sure he’s full of new ideas, and I’d like to hear those pieces. But how will we have a chance to hear them if no one allows him to document his directions? The industry is not geared toward writing that makes you sit down and think, “Well, why did this guy do this?” For Wayne to do it himself is kind of out of the question right now. He’s a performer, a player, and the process is long and arduous.
Renee Rosnes (via email)
What I hear in Wayne Shorter’s music is his humanity, an undeniable truth in his playing and writing that reaches out and grabs my imagination. I can hear the whole continuum of all the music and musicians that have inspired him. He might just as easily toss in a line from a bebop tune (Dizzy Gillespie’s “Woody’n You”), reference a phrase from an American popular song, quote a movie theme (Born Free and 2001: A Space Odyssey come to mind) or play a melody from a great symphony. He knows so much music, and he accesses it all the time. Wayne’s individuality was always integral to the group sound, whether as a young man with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers or with the Miles Davis Quintet or, later, with Weather Report or any band that he played with.
It’s no secret that he possesses an awe-inspiring gift for melody and structure, and it’s entirely possible to create new compositions directly from his improvisation. I remember an arrangement that trombonist and arranger Garnett Brown wrote about 20 years ago for the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band of Ron Carter’s classic composition for the Miles Davis Quintet, “Eighty-One.” Garnett transcribed the final chorus of Wayne’s solo and arranged it for the whole band as a shout chorus. It fully sounded as if it had been composed and not spontaneously improvised.
Sharing the bandstand with Wayne, I mostly learned about freedom. We played material from Atlantis, Phantom Navigator and Joy Ryder, and the scores and parts were beautifully written by hand — through-composed including the melody, chord voicings and bass lines. To study the manuscript was to take a peek inside Wayne’s genius mind. Remarkably, there were very few, if any, chord symbols indicated. This opened my mind up to consider other possibilities in terms of soloing. I’m not referring to simple, basic chords, but complex harmonies with moving bass lines. Of course, you could choose to analyze the notes and make decisions on the best way to “spell” the chord, but not having the symbols there on the page was very liberating.
I think this quartet is the only band Wayne has had that encapsulates his thing so strongly. He’s had the same people to work with, who believe in a direction of improvising lyrical, tonal, contrapuntal music that’s hopefully different every time you walk out there, and being daring and transparent enough and willing to take a lot of risks. He gives you great belief in your abilities as an improviser. He isn’t worried about whether you’ll be able to have that kind of connection and interdependence with each other. He’s given us the gift of time to experience over and over that demanding, sometimes reckless playing, and grow in it and get more comfortable. As we’ve become ever closer, on and off the bandstand, that organically has made the music grow. I feel he’s been very happy to deal with this platform, this workshop. He’s been writing all the time — orchestral music and everything. It’s great to see him so happy and inspired.
He is intent on growing spiritually, and I think his arc as a person has been mirrored by the depth of his playing. His sound has always been amazing to me — and, obviously, to many — on both tenor and soprano. It’s very personal, very vocal, very transparent. There seems to be no barrier between his internal voice — who he is — and his instrument. Although many couldn’t imagine it, I think his soprano has gotten deeper with age and time. It’s huge-sounding. Once we were on the bus somewhere in Europe, and he played us a live recording somebody had given him of Miles somewhere in France, with Jack and Chick and Dave, where Miles played in his catalytic way, but also with this really thick sound and completely nailing everything he went for. To me, more than anyone else, Wayne has followed that path, that conception, and does that thing that Miles was able to do.
He helped me to have more courage in my playing, to take chances. When I was with him in the late ’80s and early ’90s, we were playing the music from Atlantis, which was very evolved, with beautiful bass parts, but often the blowing would be on one chord. It’s easier for many musicians to play over a bunch of changes than to create something beautiful without devices or licks on one chord. But every night he’d carve this monstrous solo, unique and different, and look at me and say, “You want some?” At first I thought, “No, I don’t want to play after that!” I had played with a lot of people by then, and I thought I was an improviser. I’d learned to play certain things, learned to deal with harmony in a certain way, learned a certain amount of language in the tradition. But I realized I was still bound to my trick bag, a little too dependent on certain things. Wayne challenged that in the kindest way, but nonetheless it was powerful and unmistakable. He encouraged me to let go of those things and really improvise.
Dave Douglas (via email)
Wayne Shorter’s music is so vibrant and evolving. He’s always in search of the elusive present moment, the “now,” as opposed to the “then.” His earlier music had that same spirit of surprise, discovery and change. Because Wayne’s music is so intent on constant re-imagination, it has resisted simple categorization. A lot of musicians search for that freedom from being put in a box, and a lot of us look to Wayne for the guidance on how to do it.
To play Wayne’s music requires a sense of exploration and unknowingness — beginner’s mind. It means being willing to truly improvise with the themes and forms, to encounter a piece fresh each time you play it. Wayne’s current band plays with that fearlessness, and I feel that they, along with Wayne himself, have illuminated new perspectives on his music that give us a deeper understanding. It’s like with all great jazz — you have to make it your own, never play it the same way twice and bring your own true self to each moment.
Transcribing a piece like “On the Milky Way Express,” from the album High Life, was a view into a rich world of melody, harmony and rhythm. It was also a lesson on how flexible the material can be; beyond the finite recorded version, there is infinite music to explore and re-imagine. When we began playing the piece, we realized that, as elaborate as it is, there was an enormous sense of freedom emanating from all the parts.
Wayne Shorter is a unique figure in the history of music, first of all, because as a player he crosses so many musical boundaries so successfully. It’s not that he crosses the borders, it’s that he makes them irrelevant. Maybe more important, as a composer he manages to inhabit both the language of completely notated music and the practice of complete freedom through improvisation. He is one of the few composers to so successfully meld these two perspectives. In his hands they become a whole. Some of this has to do with his gift for the musico-visual; so many of his musical ideas seem to come from cinematic or extra-musical inspirations.
It would be missing a major point not to mention Wayne’s perspective as a Buddhist. I think the practice of Buddhism has an all-encompassing impact on his work as a musician. You can’t separate his brilliance in making music for the concrete present moment from the practice of complete awareness and compassion found in Buddhism. Wayne Shorter’s music has come to demand that kind of heightened awareness and complete immersion, and that is a profound influence on all of us.
Photos courtesy of Brave World Pictures.