Michelle Mercer Footprints: The Life and Work of Wayne Shorter Tarcher/Penguin
Saxophonist Wayne Shorter has often appeared to be something of an enigma. From his early days with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers through his tenure with Miles Davis' second quintet, and from his years with the ground-breaking fusion group Weather Report to his current acoustic group with pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Pattituci and drummer Brian Blade, Shorter's writing has been characterized by a complex and cerebral harmonic nature while his playing, occasionally appearing deceptively tentative, at other times powerful and intense, has sometimes been like a riddle where the listener is expected to find the answer. Now, with Michelle Mercer's in-depth and informative book Footprints: The Life and Work of Wayne Shorter , some of the questions about Shorter's sometimes mysterious character are resolved while, at the same time, posing new ones for the reader to consider.
With the same sense of economy as Shorter often displays in his soloing, Mercer's book is concise at 272 pages (not including notes and index) and asserts that many of the interests that drive Shorter have existed since childhood - in particular film. In fact, one of the remarkable revelations about Shorter as a child was his ability, along with his brother Alan, to recall complete film soundtracks from memory. Clearly, from a very early age, Shorter demonstrated a rich musical potential. In one instance, Shorter completed a high school music examination in a matter of minutes; the teacher told him, when he got up, that "if you get up you're finished." Shorter handed in the examination; the teacher marked it immediately, telling the class "this is an example of a perfect exam," giving him 100% and telling him to go home.
Detailing Shorter's rise to attention with Blakey, his first solo work for Blue Note and his ultimate ascension to Miles Davis' quintet, where he became Miles' de facto in-house composer, Mercer paints a portrait of a serious and introspective man who was more content to go to his room after a gig, enjoy a bottle of wine and work on composition. When he did get out and associate with Miles and the rest of the group, his conversation was often filled with oblique references and odd non sequiturs that took Herbie Hancock, ultimately one of Shorter's closest friends, a long time to figure out.
Mercer details specific important events; when, for example, Miles' group decided, before the celebrated Plugged Nickel performances, to play anti-music , where instead of following their instincts the group would do the exact opposite. It was a daring choice, one which ultimately created some of the most vibrant and adventurous music of Miles' career; and Mercer communicates the excitement and risk of the situation, making it almost palpable.
Mercer also spends significant time with Shorter's ultimate conversion to Buddhism, something that has guided his life for over 30 years. In fact, during periods where fans were wondering where he was - in the latter days of Weather Report, where he seemed to be subsumed by Joe Zawinul's approach - Shorter was spending more time pursuing spiritual matters. In fact, while Shorter did have a drinking problem at one time, one of the most prominent qualities of his life has been that of balance. Music is an essential part of his being, but so are many other things, including his spiritual pursuits.
Other notable watersheds in Shorter's life are given detailed examination. His meeting the Brazilian singer Milton Nascimento and their ultimate collaboration on Shorter's Native Dancer , is brought to life as Shorter absorbs the culture and then reinterprets it through his own harmonically innovative style. But the largest portion of the book is, not surprisingly, committed to his experiences with Weather Report, the group that, lasting 15 years, occupied the largest portion of Shorter's career.
Elsewhere the book details the creation of Shorter's misunderstood album, High Life , and the difficulties he had of taking this complex work on the road. But perhaps most importantly, Mercer gets to the essence of Shorter's current quartet, where it's almost as if Shorter has taken on the role of Miles Davis, encouraging a group of younger players to, as Miles used to say, "Play what you don't know." The difference with Shorter, however, is that while Miles was completely democratic musically, his role as leader was always clear; Shorter prefers to consider himself an equal amongst the group rather than a leader.
Throughout Shorter's life there has been tragedy, including the brain damage of his daughter Iska and the loss of his wife Ana Maria and their niece on the infamous TWA Flight 800 crash of '96. Shorter's resilience, in large part due to his Buddhist faith, turned loss into triumph, and discord into ascendance. Following the death of Ana Maria, in fact, and following his marriage to family friend Carolina Dos Santos in '99, Shorter began a serious and concerted return to the public eye, collaborating with orchestras and ultimately forming his current quartet where, for the first time he is revisiting some of his earlier composed works. But what distinguishes Shorter is his ability to reinvent his material. Rather than simply reproducing songs like "Footprints," "JuJu" and "Water Babies," he, Perez, Pattituci and Blade take them to completely new places. And in the same way that Miles would provide pithy and sometimes on the surface unfathomable instructions, so Shorter gives his band mates directions like "We'd rather go for elusiveness than clarification."
The idea of writing a book on an artist who is not only still alive but in the midst of a musical renaissance and, therefore, still a work in progress, may seem premature; but Mercer gives it all sense even as it ends on an open-ended note. How many writers have the opportunity to not only interview people who have been associated with the subject, but to spend significant time with the artist himself, getting a clear picture of his life from his perspective?
In some respects Footprints: The Life and Work of Wayne Shorter is more autobiography than biography. Mercer's clear and concise prose reflects Shorter's own personality in a way that would be impossible had she not had such deep exposure to Shorter himself. Mercer has delivered a book that, by having the luxury of involving the artist himself, is arguably be one of the most thorough, enlightening and entertaining biographies written of a jazz artist to date.