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By Michael Fagien
Zero Gravity, a film about Wayne Shorter, plumbs the depths of the man behind the legend. Terence Blanchard and Dorsay Alavi discuss the movie and the major role Wayne played in their lives.MICHAEL FAGIEN: Hello, everyone. We are here today with Terence Blanchard and Dorsay Alavi to talk about this incredible new film documentary, Zero Gravity. It’s all about Wayne Shorter and more.
The Amazon description tells part of the story: “Zero Gravity is a cinematic ode to jazz legend Wayne Shorter from executive producer Brad Pitt and directed by Dorsay Alavi, depicted in three portals. The viewer is transported into prolific periods of Shorter’s life and how, through adversity, he grew to greatness, shattered the limitations of jazz and became one of the most influential musicians and composers in American music.”
Dorsay, I know I’m gonna sound like a geek when I say this, and Terence, please don’t laugh. But I was watching it on a big computer screen with headphones so I could get the audio. And literally, after the third episode, when it was over, I’m by myself and I’m clapping. I mean, it was that moving and emotional. The one thing that Wayne said early in the movie that I thought was sort of an essential part of not only the movie, but of his being, was, and I quote, “There are two great events in one’s life. One is being born and the other is knowing why.”
DORSAY ALAVI: That’s actually a quote from Tennessee Williams that Wayne loved. He used it often. I think that encapsulated everything in his life and his pursuit of his spiritual life. So it made sense to start with that quote.
MICHAEL: Terence, one of the things that you commented on during the film is how you were introduced to Wayne initially through Weather Report and didn’t get it. I also loved Weather Report, but didn’t quite get Wayne. Obviously, he was a great saxophonist, and everyone in the band was just spectacular. It wasn’t until I started learning about Wayne, listening to music much before Weather Report and after Weather Report, that I really understood the essential role he had in Weather Report. But as you know, people were saying, “Why is Wayne doing this?” Because he’s not like the featured artist. And no one knows what songs he wrote and didn’t write.
TERENCE BLANCHARD: I think for me, what got me about that group was it points to Wayne’s interest in music in general. It’s not about him being the star, being the front man; it was really about the collaboration between all of those guys. Like he always said, “How do you practice the unknown?” But it showcased his willingness to go out there and step out there. Dr. Cornel West said something that I thought applies to Wayne specifically. He said, “Jazz musicians always stepped out on nothing, expecting something.”
And that’s what I felt throughout Wayne’s career, and when you see what happened with Wayne after Weather Report, and when he had his quartet, it makes it even more important to me. Because when he finally put the quartet together, where he was leading his own band finally after so many years — even though obviously he was the musical and spiritual leader of that group — you could tell even then it was still about the music. It was all about what was supposed to be conveyed to an audience and how the audience would relate to what they were doing.
MICHAEL: Dorsay, we all love Wayne, not only as a person, but as one of the greatest musicians of all time. But you don’t have to like jazz to love the movie. I think what happens is you’ll be brought into jazz and want to know the why question that we always ask. And Wayne so beautifully brings you into that. He reminds me of almost like a spiritual leader, that by getting people to understand the spirituality, you don’t have to hit them over the head. And as you guys know better than anyone — and in the few times that I was blessed to talk to Wayne — he’s a man of very few words, but listen to those words very carefully.
DORSAY: Absolutely, not a word wasted with Wayne. Real thought. And he’s so introspective. When he speaks, there’s always something profound that comes out of it. And sometimes you miss it the first time, and you have to really think about it and realize how profound it is later. And he wasn’t preachy and he wasn’t proselytizing at all. He lived by example.
MICHAEL: The production of this movie is also fascinating. It brings you into, for lack of a better phrase, “Wayne’s world,” in a way, with the kind of psychedelic [images] and animation that are such an essential part of this. And Wayne was very much an artistic and a visual person. Joni Mitchell talks about this in your movie. He was a visual artist, kind of like Beethoven, which is who she referenced. How was it working with him? Because I know you’ve been working on this project for several years. The fact that it’s out now, right after Wayne’s passing, this is something that you have been working on when he was very much, not only alive, but thriving as a musician.
DORSAY: Well, we started in 2002, the conversations began. Then he had called me because he was so excited about his orchestral collaborations with his quartet. And I said, “You know, we really need to start documenting all of this.” So I actually started documenting in 2002, but I really delved into the documentary in 2013, and that’s when I started raising funds and putting the whole thing together. And it just grew and grew and grew. And so we completed it really in late 2018. And, as you know, it took a while to get it released, and COVID hit. But yeah, it’s been a very long process and I’ve had the privilege of being very close to him and his life. And I was able to observe his personal life, his music, and a spiritual life because I’m also a Buddhist.
MICHAEL: So you and I were in the Verve Group at the same time, doing very different things. I had a little boutique label with Lee Ritenour. And you were there doing some things in film or video back in the early ’90s.
DORSAY: I was a music video director then. And my agent called me and said, “Verve wants to hire you to do a video for Wayne Shorter.” At the time, I didn’t know who Wayne Shorter was. I listened to jazz, but I wasn’t that savvy. But when I met Wayne, I was like, “Wow, I really missed out on knowing who he was.” And so it was a great discovery, and our friendship developed at that point, as well. And he took me into his life. So I did the video, but I also gained such a deep friendship with Wayne for so many years from it.
MICHAEL: Great track selection for the soundtrack. Who made those choices?
DORSAY: Me. I just went with what spoke to me and what felt appropriate for what I was trying to convey. And I kind of understood where Wayne was historically, and I sort of aligned it to what he was creating musically. So that sort of led me, as well. And I also chose pieces that were more cinematic. I wanted things that I could actually visually translate. And then there were those of historical significance and things that we wanted to showcase, obviously the quartet being one of them. Some of those performances were mind-blowing. And I shot some of those myself, so I knew which ones I wanted to use, because I could feel the energy on the stage when I was shooting those performances. And I knew which ones really made an impact. And that’s how I chose everything.
MICHAEL: I don’t want to be a spoiler here, but the last performance that you show with esperanza spalding, tell me about that, because I hadn’t seen that before. It was done somewhere in Poland, with a Polish orchestra.
DORSAY: Yeah, at the Solidarity Arts Festival in Poland. It was difficult to get footage of Wayne with orchestras because there’s a whole licensing aspect of it. We needed to get permission. It’s very costly. So esperanza was working with them at the time, and she said, “They’re going to shoot this concert.” And I said, “Can we use it in the film?” Because this concert has cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. So they agreed, and they allowed me to use that performance. And because I wanted something that represented Wayne’s collaboration with esperanza, and “Gaia” was the perfect piece.
MICHAEL: Any time I would talk to esperanza, and Wayne’s name came up, she would just melt. There was this connection that they had that was incredible. But it also reminded me, and I think you allude to it in the film a bit, that he was a father figure to a lot of people, having lost a daughter and sort of taking on the role of fatherhood to so many people, not just as an iconic musician, but as a human being.
DORSAY: Absolutely. Wayne is a mentor to many people, and esperanza in particular, I think because she came in the latter part of his life, and they just clicked. They understood each other. She’s very much like him in some ways. So I think the music that they created together was very special. But I also think that he was her spiritual mentor. He was like a father and a collaborator.
MICHAEL: Terence, you knew Wayne very well. And he was also an inspiration to you. Could you tell us a little bit about that?
TERENCE: Wayne was a huge inspiration to me, man. I met him when I was playing with Art Blakey. And we would constantly have conversations whenever I would see him. And then when I started working with the Monk Institute, he became like a mentor to me, because I would see him all of the time. And like Dorsay said, when you talk to Wayne, it wasn’t that he was preaching. It wasn’t that he was just such a brilliant force. You know, he would talk to you about things he was interested in, and you’d wind up getting a lesson about life in the process. I mean, it’s just the way that he was. I’ll never forget, he really changed my life when we were in New Orleans at the Jazz Fest, and I was in his dressing room, and he told me a story about this woman who was having problems auditioning.
The basis of the story was her mother told her it takes courage to be happy, you know? And I’ll never forget, at the end of that conversation, he went on stage to play. And I was just sitting there like, “Wow.” That statement just resonated in my head. And I kept trying to find happiness through my career, through other things. And that really turned everything around for me.
And then later, when I became a Buddhist too, working with Herbie [Hancock], that was a whole other level of communication that we had. Because then it became about the eternal vibration, the things that we always try to lock into every day, and how do we manifest that into something positive to help other people grow and heal? And all of that came from Wayne, I mean, Wayne and Herbie, but Wayne, man … I’ll tell you a funny story. When we were auditioning the Monk [competition] kids, the auditioners were Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and myself, and I was glad I was their auditioner and not the auditioning [laughs]. Because Wayne would ask the kids questions. And Herbie and myself were like, “Damn.”
He had us thinking, man. And we couldn’t hide it, because that’s just how profound he is. But he’s always been that person for a lot of us. And it was one of the reasons why, on my last record, I wanted to do an album dedicated to him. I wanted to show him how much we loved him, how much of an influence he had on all of us. And we had a beautiful moment where I’d taken my band and the Turtle Island String Quartet to his home to kind of get his blessing about the project before we went into the studio. And to a man, everybody, when we left Wayne’s home, they all came up to me and said, “Thank you.” And that’s not something most people say, you know? But the experience of being around him was so profound and had such an impact on everybody that they were grateful for the experience. That’s the type of guy Wayne was.
MICHAEL: You bring up something very funny in the movie, and I’ve witnessed it: Whenever Wayne and Herbie are together, it’s like we’re all in the conversation, but they are having their own conversation, their own understanding.
TERENCE: Yes, yes, yes. Listen, man, I’m telling you, when those kids were auditioning that day, I felt bad for each and every one of them, ’cause Wayne would ask a question and they would sit down and go, “Oh, OK, let me see [laughs]. How do I deal with that?” But at the same time, he wasn’t trying to really test anybody. He wasn’t trying to trick anybody or do anything like that. That’s just the way he operated and the way he vibrated in the world.
MICHAEL: Dorsay, you do such a beautiful job in bringing him from a young boy all the way through his life. And then, as things got sad and dark with the death of his daughter, you see how this very special human deals with infirmity, adversity, tragedy.
DORSAY: He endured enough tragedy in a decade that gave him enough emotional intelligence for a lifetime, I think.
TERENCE: All of us as musicians, we analyze Wayne analytically, you know, all of his compositions. We took him apart, you know, structurally — he did this harmonically, he did this rhythmically, he did this. But one of the things that I took from this documentary, more so than anything, was all of those compositions that we looked at intellectually were statements of love and affection for somebody he cared about. It just so happened that that was the level of genius that he operated at.
They never felt like musical exercises. And when I started to understand the level of tragedy that he had in his life, and how that started to manifest itself into how his Buddhist philosophy was still about, like, “Go further, continue, try to find your highest potential,” that man that turned me around and changed my life, too. Because the technique and the theory is there to serve a higher purpose. It’s not there for the sake of itself, of “let me see what complicated thing I can do.” It’s totally the other way around. The more and more you develop your craft and develop all of the tools you have at your disposal, the more you can speak on a profound level without even thinking about it, without even making that your purpose.
DORSAY: Well, he always said the human being behind the instrument was of the utmost importance. And the instrument is the vehicle. It’s the vessel. It’s the tool that you use to communicate. And so, by raising people’s frequency through sound, he got messages through beyond the five senses. And that’s why sometimes people had a transcendent experience when they listened to his music. And I think a lot of that came through in [the film’s] Portal Three, after the tragedy. His powerful wisdom came through in the sounds that he was creating and the compositions that he wrote. And so, in many ways, he found ways to heal himself, but as a result, he created sounds that healed others. And that’s what I found really remarkable.
TERENCE: When you speak about healing people, I have to tell you this one story. I’m the artistic director at the Paradise Jazz Series in Detroit, and we brought Wayne in — it was one of his last concerts there. And I’ll never forget it, it was a packed house. And he came out on stage and Wayne was notorious for never looking back at all, right? And he came out on stage and he played the little quote from the blues that recorded with Miles Davis [scats the riff]. He just played that phrase, and the crowd went crazy. They screamed, they cheered. It was one of the most miraculous moments I’ve ever seen in that hall.
But it harkens back to me about what we were just talking about. That was Wayne trying to heal people and relate to people on a level way past music. He knew what that phrase would do and the power that it would bring to the moment, and then it allowed him to go further into his own music and have the audience right there with him at every turn. It was a miraculous thing to witness.
MICHAEL: One of the things that really was very moving in the movie: Herbie — and I could tell he was a little tearful when he was saying this — said that when Wayne was hurting the most, what he cared most about is how everyone else was feeling.
DORSAY: Well, it goes back to his Buddhist philosophy, that we’re all connected. We’re all one organism in a way. And so [his wife’s] passing affected so many people, and they were all in it together. And he took it upon himself to be present for all of them, to help heal them, as well.
MICHAEL: And that one clip that you found of him talking about his wife’s passing in the tragic airplane explosion, that he was going to be the widower. And that it was almost planned that way, where someone with strength, like Wayne, needed to be the one to deal with this and deal with his pain and everyone else’s pain.
TERENCE: He was a miraculous man. One of the things that those guys have taught me, because of our Buddhist practice, is that Wayne was a great musician, but that’s not all of who he was. The music was a part of a bigger story, and we’re talking about that now, him as a person and how he could really affect others’ lives … .
Listen, man, I’m a jazz musician, and I, I was a jazz geek from the time I was 16 years old. So sometimes we could get caught up in the celebrity and the fame of these guys. But the thing that was always great about Wayne was he broke all of that down. And he wanted people to understand it. We’re no different. We’re all the same. Like Dorsay said, we’re all part of the same vibration, you know? And it was his mantra. That was the thing he talked about to me a lot. And he made me realize the music was just a portion of that. It wasn’t the entirety, it was just a portion of who he was as a person.
MICHAEL: So [astrophysicist] Neil deGrasse Tyson’s in the movie multiple times. I didn’t understand the relationship that they had. Do you know more about that?
DORSAY: Well, Wayne was a huge fan of Neil’s, and he always wanted to meet Neil. And when I found out that Neil actually liked Wayne’s music, I thought, I need to bring them together. So I arranged an interview with Neil first, and then when we started talking about Wayne, he realized he knew much more than he thought he did.
He was a big fan of Bitches Brew, and he didn’t know that some of those compositions that he really revered were Wayne’s. And they said, can we do [deGrasse Tyson’s radio show] StarTalk with Wayne? And I said, absolutely! And then we invited Herbie. And the first scene that you see when he was looking at Wayne’s comic book is truly that. I had just shown him Wayne’s comic book, and he couldn’t believe that Wayne was drawing rocket ships in the ’50s. And that’s where his head was back then. And he was really excited about sharing it on StarTalk. And that’s how it all started.
MICHAEL: The interesting thing about the comic book is it’s not just any comic book. The illustrations were so beautiful and perfect. He could’ve been a comic book illustrator, no question about his talent there. He had this visual ability to see things and then turn them into music.
TERENCE: Wayne was such a visual guy, man. When I was at the Monk Institute, we got him to come in and work with the kids for a week. And I’ll never forget it, because there was one statement Wayne made to the kids, and we talk about it to this day. Now this gives you an idea about his visual prowess. He told the band, “I want you to sound like a wounded tiger walking through the woods.” [laughs]
MICHAEL: And you capture that in the film with the Joni Mitchell tune, where he says, “Play like you’re a bird.” And he does it.
DORSAY: That’s the kind of direction that great directors give actors. So Wayne was an innate filmmaker. He made movies without pictures, is what he always said. So I think that’s the kind of direction a great director will say to an actor; rather than telling them how to say the line, they’ll tell them, “Give me this feeling.” And it’ll be an analogy to something else.
TERENCE: And he was not only a great film director, but a great film fan. I mean, you could talk to him about all of these old movies. As a matter of fact, you had to keep up, because sometimes Wayne would tell you a story and he’d be talking about a movie you’d never seen before.
MICHAEL: You illustrate that beautifully in the movie, that no doubt he’s a cinema nut. And, and of course, as a visual guy, this all makes sense.
DORSAY: That’s how he found out about music, through pictures. And he kept that alive throughout his life. It was what inspired him most.
MICHAEL: So, Dorsay, tell us how Brad Pitt got involved. The way I understand it, he was impressed with not only what you did in the early stages of the film, but with Wayne.
DORSAY: Brad came in after I had finished the film. We had a private screening for some of our donors. And he was invited, and he said to me — because he knew it was three hours’ long — “I can only stay for the first one. Um, I have an appointment.” So he watched the first one, and then he came over to me and just kept saying, “This is great.” And then he stayed for the second one, and then he stayed for the third one. And he said, “This is so incredible.”
He loved the film, because for him it was more cinematic. He’s not a big doc fan, but he said, “This felt like a movie to me. I love everything Wayne said.” And he knew Wayne’s music, but not as much. So I think he was impressed with the story and Wayne and so many things, and offered to help us. And so we got in touch later and I said, “Well, what do you think about coming on board as a producer?” And he said, “I’d be honored.” And then he asked me if I wanted [his production company] Plan B to come on board. And I said, sure. And they watched it and they loved it. And that’s how that began.
MICHAEL: Terence, how did you, how did you and Dorsay get together?
TERENCE: She called me. I heard about the documentary and I wasn’t trying to overstep, but I kept saying, “It’d be an honor to be a part of it.” And next thing I know, I got a call and I’m in California sitting in the house with a microphone and a camera in front of my face talking about Wayne Shorter [laughs]. And it was a great experience, because I always viewed Wayne as one of the most unsung heroes in American culture. In the jazz world, we had crowned Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk as our great composers. And I think Wayne was the next iteration of that, that type of power that he’d had in his music in terms of reaching out well beyond the realms of jazz. So to be a part of this for me was just an extreme pleasure and a huge honor.
DORSAY: You’re wonderful, Terence. Some of my favorite lines come from you. I mean, I couldn’t fit everything in there, but I think you made a wonderful contribution and you understood Wayne’s music, but you also understood Wayne as a human being and as a mentor. And that was really valuable to have.
MICHAEL: I could ditto that. It’s what I loved about your part in the film — you covered a lot. You covered his humor, his artistic mastery and his humanity. And that you just come full circle.
I tell everyone I know, this is a must-see. You don’t have to love jazz. But like I said in the beginning, after you see this, you’ll not only love Wayne Shorter, you’re gonna want to know more about everything he touched and jazz in general.
TERENCE: I’ll tell you one thing that happened at a screening when Dorsay had just finished the project and there was a bunch of us there, musicians and stuff. And [Blue Note president] Don Was was sitting right next to me, and we watched all three portals. And I’ll never forget, man, because I know how affected I was watching it. And I was sitting there just trying to take it all in at the end. And Don Was looked at me and said, “Man, what did we just experience?” That’s the type of power that the project had on us, and I think you’re correct: I don’t think you have to be a Wayne Shorter fan to really be impacted by this documentary, because it goes well beyond music.
Like we’ve been saying, music is a portion of it. And that was the manifestation of his love for humanity. But the entire documentary is about him, about who he was as an entire person. Because the stuff that you see in the beginning from his childhood is stuff that I didn’t really know that you can tell really had an impact on who he became as a person. And then, as you just move along throughout the documentary, there’s just countless examples for anyone in life to understand how to deal with tragedy, how to deal with tough circumstances, and still find beauty in the world throughout all of those experiences. It’s just a phenomenal thing to experience.
MICHAEL: So what’s next? Let’s start with you, Terence. What’s on the horizon for you?
TERENCE: I’m not working on much right now because the strike is going on [laughs]. But I’ve been on tour with Herbie Hancock — man, I’m loving that. And then I just became the artistic director at SFJAZZ. So that’s taking up a good chunk of my time. And I’m still touring. I’ll be in Europe later on with my group. And then we’re gonna start working on another project for the E-Collective.
MICHAEL: Dorsay, how about you?
DORSAY: Well, first, I want to comment on the film itself. The reason we focused on Wayne as a human being is because his impact on so many people has been vast. And I did, I feel, a man’s life story. It’s that rich. Everybody needs to see it, not just music fans. So that was the intention. I am a narrative filmmaker. I’m not a documentary filmmaker, so I am going back to my narrative roots and I’ve been working on a series that I’ve written, and I’m gonna start developing that. That’s my next one, although I keep getting asked to do other music docs, so I might get tempted. We’ll see.
TERENCE: You know, we are actually gonna do a screening of the film at SFJAZZ. I’m really excited about that.
MICHAEL: Well, we look forward to all your future endeavors. First and foremost, right now, you gotta go watch this film. I have an identical twin brother who I told, “You gotta stop what you’re doing tonight and watch this.” He literally called me and said, “This film will change people’s lives.”
TERENCE: Yes, I believe that. I do.
MICHAEL: Thank you very much, both of you. Pleasure to have you.
Photos courtesy of Brave World Pictures.