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Impressions of Zero Gravity


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The texture of the film promotes illuminating insights into not only Shorter's improvisational and compositional processes, but also his enduring sense of wonder, his vast imagination, and his spiritual practice.
—Katharine Cartwright
We published Peter Jones's review of Zero Gravity the other week, but other staffers wanted to share their thoughts on the Wayne Shorter documentary, so we collected them and presented them here.

Ellen Johnson

Zero Gravity, the documentary chronicling the life and music of jazz icon Wayne Shorter, surpasses the boundaries of conventional biographical films. It explores the mystical and philosophical dimensions that shaped Shorter's extraordinary journey. His fusion of spiritual beliefs with an insatiable curiosity about the unknown, space, and the transformative power of frequencies forms the heart of the documentary, divided into three acts mirroring different phases of his life and music.

Shorter's motto, "Faith is to fear nothing," reflects his courage in crafting compositions from the formless, embracing freedom, and elevating the human spirit. He recounted, "We flew with Miles all the time," emphasizing his relentless pursuit of musical heights that kept his work innovative and challenging. He believed in authenticity, declaring, "When you really improvise, it's difficult to lie."

A poignant scene reveals Shorter composing "against the news," harnessing music's potency and intention to counterbalance the world's disharmony. He recognized music's capacity to influence emotions and collective consciousness, potentially spreading harmony and enlightenment.

The documentary highlights Wayne Shorter's musical genius, defined not only by his mastery of the saxophone but also by his profound ability to intuitively connect with other musicians, forging partnerships akin to the harmonious balance of yin and yang. His collaborations, such as the iconic one with Joe Zawinul, exemplified this unique dynamic. Joni Mitchell called him a "visual artist" who could "take metaphorical instruction." Danilo Pérez's recollection of Shorter's response to rehearsal inquiries encapsulates the essence of his approach: "You can't rehearse the unknown."

The film's visual aesthetics complement Shorter's boundless creativity, with each frame becoming a canvas to explore the interconnectedness of his life, relationships, music, and cosmic philosophy. It echoes Shorter's belief that life continues beyond death, emulating his conviction that our voyage can rise above oblivion, transitioning to another dimension.

In essence, Zero Gravity isn't merely a documentary, it's a philosophical and spiritual odyssey reflecting our quest for meaning. It affirms that the pursuit of the unknown is an eternal journey, transcending the constraints of time and space, much like the depth of Wayne Shorter's music.

Katharine (Katchie) Cartwright

The composer and saxophonist Wayne Shorter is a towering figure in jazz, a multi-faceted genius, a giant among giants. From childhood on, it was apparent that he was prodigiously creative visually, musically, and in terms of storytelling. By his teens he had written and illustrated a superhero-type comic book. He was fascinated by movies, and he and his brother Alan went to the cinema frequently as children. They stayed up late to play "say about," a game they invented in which they recounted film details and sang back as much of the score as they could remember. His creativity was nurtured by his teachers and his parents, who ensured that their children's education was broad and first rate, despite the fact that the family was not at all wealthy.

Zero Gravity is incredibly rich and layered visually. As a narrative filmmaker, Dorsay Alavi's approach was to make a movie, not a conventional documentary. She used animation, illustration, reenactment, and archival footage to compensate for a paucity of family photos and videos, invoking other senses in the process. Through the animation, one can almost smell what's cooking in his mother's kitchen as Wayne and his brother sit at the round table creating stories, drawing, and making worlds of clay. Archival footage allows us to hear the sound of trains howling through the Ironbound District of Newark, where he grew up, and snippets of the programs coming from his father's radio, dramas like Lights Out and live music broadcasts that gave him a taste of bebop, the refined and elegant new genre that would become a lasting social-political "cause" for the young brothers.

Alavi was well prepared to create the film. She met Shorter when Verve records engaged her to shoot a music video of High Life, his current release in 1995, and they remained in close contact thereafter as friends. Her research naturally included numerous interviews with Shorter and his impressive circle, including Herbie Hancock, Sonny Rollins, and the many other luminaries in his orbit who appear in the film. She also worked closely with Michelle Mercer, author of the well-researched and wonderfully written biography, Footprints: The Life and Work of Wayne Shorter (Penguin, 2004). It is worth noting that, in a field where women are still underrepresented on all fronts—from performance to journalism, production, and pretty much everything else, for Mercer and Alavi to be principal contributors to a project of this kind, chronicling the life and work an artist widely recognized as one of the great geniuses of jazz, is extraordinary. But Shorter loved working with "strong women," as his wife Carolina mentioned, and has performed and recorded with Terri Lyne Carrington, Joni Mitchell, and Renee Rosnes, among others. There is no dearth of tell-it-like-it-is honesty in Zero Gravity, however. Excesses, particularly concerning alcohol, are presented in some detail, along with a culture of misogyny promoted by some band leaders, including Art Blakey and Miles Davis. Girls and women may not be happy to hear that, but there it is.

Presented in three parts ("portals"), each focusing on a pivotal time in Shorter's life and career (1933-71, 1972-1999, and 2000-"infinity"), there is a whole lot of information for the viewer to contemplate and enjoy. The texture of the film promotes illuminating insights into not only Shorter's improvisational and compositional processes, but also his enduring sense of wonder, his vast imagination, and his spiritual practice. Each person who loved Shorter and his work will have their favorite stories and parts of the film, based on how they respond to his oeuvre. For producer and bassist Larry Klein and others, "Ponta de Areia" from Native Dancer with the great Brazilian singer and songwriter Milton Nascimento (Columbia, 1975) was a turning point. "The first time I heard it, it instantly took me somewhere new inside myself; I was changed," as he put it. Such is the power of Shorter's music, and also the strength of this excellent documentary.

Rob Garratt

It's hard to imagine a more fitting marriage of form and subject—the five-act arc of Mr. Shorter's peerless musical career, and the rare abundance of contemporary footage, both uniquely suited to the mini-series format. Could that run-time have been better employed? Doubtlessly—in the early chapters especially, there's a distracting over reliance on interstellar animations, stock footage and earnest reconstructions. As the film constantly reminds us, Wayne's music paints its own pictures in the mind—so let us wonder, and wander, alone occasionally.

Coupled with an (often) familiar cast of talking heads, a lot of the mammoth runtime is sucked up in worthy reverence, and more studious (read: nerdier) jazz fans might find themselves learning nothing new. Little that wasn't covered in Michelle Mercer's (definitive?) biography Footprints: The Life and Work of Wayne Shorter. The beauty then, is in the form—in what the camera can bring—which is why the third, final, chapter is such a joy; overflowing with candid footage of the ageing, sage-like, legendary Wayne hunched over manuscript paper on his cluttered desk, holding court in front of adoring students—and onstage. I've long believed that the Wayne Shorter Quartet of 2000-2017 is the most thrillingly intuitive group working in decades, possibly ever—and every second of music and insight is a joy to behold (even if it could have been mixed rather louder!) Beneath the spellbound platitudes, mind, there's little to no technical contextualization of what made the group so thrilling—nothing approaching the insight of the 2013 documentary Language of the Unknown, freely available on YouTube.

It's too easy, too tempting to crown Zero Gravity the greatest project of its kind—a temptation that says more about the length of Shorter's shadow, the wealth of living contemporaries, and, yes, the unique conditions of a home-streaming runtime. But perhaps it says more about the seventh art's recent (dis)interest in America's only home- grown art-form, which has favoured dramatic myth-making imagery over the insight of the documentary form. Let's hope Zero Gravity's success paves the way for more serious celluloid studies to come.

Jason Innocent

The documentary does an excellent job of contextualizing Shorter's contributions to jazz. It explores his time as a member of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers and his influential role in the legendary Miles Davis Quintet. Through interviews with fellow musicians, critics, and scholars, the film sheds light on the impact of Shorter's compositions and improvisations, highlighting his unique approach to harmony and his ability to push the boundaries of jazz.

Moreover, Wayne Shorter: Zero Gravity delves into Shorter's journey and challenges throughout his life. The documentary touches on his mental health struggles and their profound impact on his music. It also explores his spiritual beliefs and how they influenced his creative process. By delving into the personal aspects of Shorter's life, the film adds depth and nuance to the narrative, allowing the viewers to connect with the artist on a deeper level.

The direction and editing of the documentary are perfectly executed. The pacing is well-balanced, and the narrative unfolds cohesively and engagingly. Archival footage is particularly effective, providing a glimpse into Shorter's early years and his evolution as an artist. The interviews with Shorter himself, as well as with his contemporaries and collaborators, offer valuable insights and anecdotes that enhance the overall storytelling.

Regarding production value, Zero Gravity is visually stunning. The cinematography beautifully captures the energy and emotion of Shorter's live performances, while the editing seamlessly blends different visual elements to create a captivating experience. The attention to detail in the sound design and the quality of the music recordings further contribute to the immersive nature of the documentary.

Overall, Zero Gravity is a remarkable documentary that celebrates the life and music of a jazz legend. It captures the essence of Wayne Shorter's artistry while shedding light on the man behind the music. Whether you are a jazz enthusiast or simply someone who appreciates great storytelling, this documentary is a must-watch. It offers a profound exploration of the creative process, the power of music, and the enduring legacy of one of the greatest saxophonists of our time.

William H. Snyder

Seventy-five thousand people on the streets of New York protested against fossil fuels. The week two NFL games weren't watched by them. At the very least, one NFL owner I can think of was unhappy about that. On the flip side, if there is a Nirvana and Wayne Shorter is there, he would have been smiling. If anything he believed in people's dreams.

Zero Gravity was done before Wayne's energy transformed. I found it interesting that a mainstream celebrity like Brad Pitt had a part to play in the production— good for him and others. We need to keep America's best and original art in the forefront of our minds. I found the use of animation to tell the story fit well with a man fond of "The Red Shoes" and old scary movies. Animation was also appropriate given Wayne's genius, simplicity, unpretentious personality, and love for superheroes.

A long time listener (my favorite works are Native Dancer and Speak No Evil—his first wife Teruko on the cover—(a Japanese Audrey Hepburn" per Mr. Shorter) I knew little about his life. The Newark Flash's out-of-the-mainstream POV on what life is all about is a feel-good moment in a time when feel-good moments are necessary.

It's also necessary that jazz artists are portrayed as extraordinary and ordinary Americans. Wayne is part of our DNA in a real and special way. We are better as a country and a world for the gift of his art, talent, and generosity to young musicians. Hopefully, Zero Gravity will be seen by those Americans who need to be made aware (in another word "woke") that the jazz way of life can be normal, abnormal, and exceptional.


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