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Wayne Shorter: Portrait Of A Visionary

R.J. DeLuke By

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Play a Story. What do you play after you play 'Once upon a time?' What comes next? —Wayne Shorter
To speak with Wayne Shorter can feel like an exercise in the mystical. At times, it's stream of consciousness, ideas flowing that can reach the profound; but the direction can switch suddenly. There are frequent references to films (Shorter is a lifelong movie buff), as well as books whose subject matter run from science to philosophy. The discourse is never delivered in holier-than-thou fashion, nor is it deliberate obfuscation. Its always congenial and conversational. And witty.

Shorter looks at life with a sparkle in his eye. He's pretty much completed the special year of his 80th birthday, with celebrations in concerts around the globe, though there may be more before he turns 81 in August. Over all those years, he still has a child-like curiosity. Things that come out of his mouth are without pretense and uttered freely. Shorter, in addition to be a creative artist of the highest order, is just a nice guy.

"He's one of the most creative artists of all time," says trumpeter Wallace Roney.

"The nicest genius you'll ever meet, but he's nevertheless a genius," says John Patitucci, the bassist in the Wayne Shorter Quartet for more than a decade in an All About Jazz interview a few years back. "He's a musician of the highest level. I've learned a lot from being around him. I feel like I've been very blessed to be around him... Wayne is a beautiful person. He's very generous, kind, very encouraging."

"He's one of the great masters," says the great drummer Jack DeJohnette who first played with the saxophonist when Miles Davis was going electric in 1969. "He has such imagination on his instrument. And he writes exciting pieces. He's fantastic."

Shorter's quintet—with Patitucci, pianist Danilo Pérez and drummer Brian Blade is one of the finest working units in jazz and the focus of Shorter's work for years now, the first time in his blessed career that he has held the same configuration and personnel for so long. Their concerts are examples of four people in conversation. The topics change. There might be inside references. There can be confusion as well as great unity. They play as in-the-moment as any group, and the joy of their labor is obvious on their faces. They get lost. They discover. Their 2013 release, Without A Net (Blue Note), is a great example of their work and the title is an accurate description of their on-stage adventures. Shorter does not want a well-oiled presentation.

The meaning of the often-debated word "jazz," to Shorter, is "I dare you." He exemplifies it.

"Don't play music lessons, Art Blakey would say," says Shorter, who then effects a dead-on Blakey voice impersonation. "'I don't wanna hear that. Tell me a story.' When I talked with Miles [Davis], we kind of talked like this, like we're talking now, and Miles would say a couple of times [in perfect Miles raspy voice:] 'Why don't you play that.' In other words: play what you're thinking. Don't play music. Play a story.' What do you play after you play 'Once upon a time?' What comes next?"

That outlook makes Shorter's playing what it is today. Darting. Shifting. Sometimes complex. Not always furious like his days with Davis' Second Great Quintet, or in long serpentine layers like on his 1960s Blue Note records. It's not the same style he brandished in his hometown of Newark, N.J., when he was known as "The Jersey Flash" because of his quicksilver runs on the saxophone.

"There's no real approach anymore," he says of his playing. "The challenge is to be in the moment and the thought of playing or writing what you wish for. What you wish the world to be like. Or playing what you see. What condition the world is in today. A lot of loose ends. And also playing music that you can't anticipate. Uncertainty? Play that. We have to learn to deal with uncertainty and dialogue with the unexpected and dialogue with the unknown. Because the unknown can not be rehearsed. How do you rehearse the unknown? It's something that's coming out of the human existence that's making us evolve and grow. On a humanistic level, we're pulling out of ourselves what we didn't know was there. That should be telling us a whole lot about eternity. No such thing as beginning or end in life."

He adds, "The mission of an artist, or a human being, is to celebrate the artistry in every human being. There's a phrase Esperanza [Spalding] wrote: 'Wake up and dream' [for the Shorter composition "Gaia."] As opposed to, "I Wake Up Screaming," That first movie [1941] with Betty Grable and Carole Landis."

Many musicians study hard, bury themselves in acquiring technique, listen to all the masters, then come as if they're reading a book—albeit a really good one—but not writing their own stories. Not Shorter. He's had the benefit of experience and went through growing stages like anyone else. Yet he was always an off-the-path thinker. He skipped school as a youngster, but wasn't idle. He wasn't up to mischief. He slipped away to movies houses or caught bands playing matinees. He was learning. He didn't follow the crowd then, and his career choices, his playing and his composing are the same. As different as the movies to which he's so attracted.

"I say sometimes I'm writing music for movies that will never be made. Or that won't be made right now," he says. "Life is the ultimate movie, to me. Life is the ultimate adventure. Why not be curious enough to have fun studying it. Live while you're studying it. Don't think that studying is going to put a damper on your ideas... That's a lie." The study Shorter refers to is one of life and what goes on around people. Technique, he notes, allows musicians to play something that relates to the moment. "Then you don't have to worry about a final exam."

"The fact that somebody doesn't want to investigate life, investigate what somebody's talking about on TV, investigate for themselves, is an indication that they failed the final exam already. They are final. [They are] to be walked on and used and led and anesthetized. So they can't wake up and dream."
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