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Why We're Obsessed With Wayne Shorter

The saxophonist and composer tends to inspire reverence. Biographer Michelle Mercer explains.

By Patrick Jarenwattananon/NPR Music


Wayne Shorter performs with his quartet at the 2008 Vitoria-Gasteiz Jazz Festival in Basque Country, Spain.

The saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter is one of the few jazz musicians who can without a doubt be called a living legend. Many of his compositions are jazz standards; many of his records are studied endlessly. He's one of the artists who both musicians and fans obsess over ? and even at age 77, he continues to reinvent his musical personality with every performance.

So what about Wayne Shorter gives him this towering, near-mythic profile? Why did people revere this man, and why do they continue to do so?

On Tuesday, Shorter starts a brief North American tour, stopping in Boston, New York, Durham, N.C. and Toronto. On the eve of this stint, I asked Michelle Mercer, author of the biography Footprints: The Life and Music of Wayne Shorter, to help explain and appraise the phenomenon that is Wayne Shorter, both then and now. (Mercer is also an occasional NPR contributor.) I sent her a few questions over e-mail:

Patrick Jarenwattananon: So if you've never heard of him, why is this Wayne Shorter dude worth paying attention to? I know you have a whole book on this, but ... give me the roughly 150 word version?

Michelle Mercer: Here's the encyclopedia entry: Wayne is as strong and distinctive a composer as he is a saxophonist. His storied career encompasses 50 years of jazz innovation. Wayne was weaned on bebop in the 40s and went on to break new ground in the genres of hard bop, post-bop, fusion and orchestral jazz.

But here's why he's really worth a listen: At 77, an age when many musicians have settled into nostalgia, Wayne is writing and playing music that can stir people up.


PJ: It seems like Wayne could have had a place for himself in the jazz canon based only on his work in the late '50s and the '60s. What was special about those years?

MM: In 1959, Wayne joined Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, a group that toured widely for its time, representing jazz and America around the world. Wayne became Blakey's musical director and with his compositions helped move the group from straightforward hard-bop to sophisticated post-bop. In 1964, Miles Davis recruited him for his quintet with Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams, which was sort of "the right stuff" of jazz groups. Miles loved Wayne's composing as much as Blakey had. On the '60s quintet albums Wayne has as many composition credits as Miles, if not more.

And there were Wayne's Blue Note recordings. In the '50s and '60s Blue Note was the Bell Labs of jazz, blessed with a lucky conjunction of plentiful funding, smart management and strong talent. Bell Labs produced dozens of breakthrough inventions; Blue Note produced dozens of classic recordings. A few spring to mind: Horace Silver's Song For My Father, Lee Morgan's The Sidewinder, Herbie Hancock's Maiden Voyage, Dexter Gordon's Our Man In Paris, Freddie Hubbard's Ready For Freddie. Even in such a remarkable catalog, Wayne's Blue Note recordings stand out for their harmonic complexity and memorable melodies. Wayne recorded six albums for Blue Note in one 18-month period, and these albums ? The All Seeing Eye, Speak No Evil, etc. ? included tunes that have become jazz standards.

PJ: I haven't read as much celebrating his music between the '60s and '00s. Did people write him off for many years in that span?

MM: My goodness, A Blog Supreme, what a leading question. I'm tempted to just say yes.

First, I'll look at Wayne's accomplishments during these years, since you asked about his achievements during previous decades. In the early '70s he and Joe Zawinul co-founded Weather Report, a group that did a lot to define the sound and structure of jazz fusion. Weather Report played to packed stadiums, and featured long, muscular solos by Wayne. For the fans who missed Wayne's acoustic playing, and they were many, there was VSOP in the late 70s, a reformation of Miles's '60s quintet, without Miles. (First Freddie Hubbard played trumpet in the group, then Wynton Marsalis.) On Native Dancer (1974) Wayne and Milton Nascimento invented the first new sound in Brazilian jazz since Getz/Gilberto's jazz bossa. In the '70s, '80s and '90s, Wayne contributed classic solos on recordings by Steely Dan and Joni Mitchell, and on soundtracks like Glengarry Glen Ross and The Fugitive.

But Wayne did suffer a compositional drought in the late '70s and '80s, especially compared to his fertile writing of the '50s and '60s. In the early '70s, with his conversion to Nicheren Buddhism, Wayne decided to "put life ahead of music," as he often says. Though he remained Weather Report's co-leader for all 14 years of the group's tenure, Wayne was much less active in the group than Zawinul.

After Weather Report disbanded in 1984, Wayne made three solo records for Columbia. These '80s albums, Atlantis, Phantom Navigator, and Joy Ryder, as well as his 1995 Verve debut, High Life, were synthesizer-heavy, with some programmed backbeats. Wayne and his producers went with the sound of the times. For many of Wayne's fans these production values were a big obstacle to their musical appreciation. As Joni Mitchell put it in one of her typically vivid metaphors, the backbeats on these albums "put fence posts through the music."

Happily, for everyone concerned, over the past decade or so Wayne has been commissioned to rework some of those '80s compositions for orchestra or chamber ensemble. When these pieces are rearranged for broader instrumentation and performed in an acoustic setting, their strengths are easier to hear. Many of these pieces have several intertwined melodies, for example ? and if you pull out any one melody, it's striking enough to serve as the primary one. Basically, the way I see it, in the '80s and '90s, Wayne was becoming a serious classical composer, but the style and sound of his records obscured it for most fans.

PJ: It seems like people "in the know" are still obsessed with him, even if they didn't like his electric recordings. Why are his performances still so anticipated? He's surely more than just a "legacy act," as they say.

MM: In the jazz world, the people most "in the know" are the musicians themselves. Early on, Wayne's unconventional character and original musicianship gave him a special cachet among musicians. Whether or not they've played with him, most musicians have a good Wayne story ? or five. With the growth of jazz degree programs, more young musicians began formal study of Wayne's solos and compositions. Appreciation spread and spilled over to the cognoscenti.

That doesn't really explain the obsession, though. Here are some thoughts:

As Wayne remembers it, his mother encouraged his creativity and protected his playtime from the rude incursions of the real world: e.g. his father asking him to take out the trash. Because of this maternal influence, or just because, Wayne lodged comfortably in his imagination, finding richness of experience there. Part of him has never stopped looking at the world through his mind's eye. Wayne's composition and improvisation are windows into this imagination.

And Wayne has a deep musical memory. As he lived music over the decades, he absorbed it all: the Beethoven he studied at NYU, the rhythmic fusillades of Art Blakey, the runic phrases of Miles, the soundtracks to the movies he's watched constantly since he was a kid. Add all this to his own vast catalog of compositions, and he's got a lot of music at his fingertips.

Finally, Wayne's now had a serious Buddhist practice for 40 years, which has made him very awake. Though it sounds simple, I don't know a better way to say it. He's awake. Watching a movie or eating dinner or sitting in an airport terminal, Wayne can be extraordinarily alert to the unfolding of the phenomenal world. On stage, this translates to a keen awareness of what his band mates are playing in every moment.

So Wayne's live shows offer up his unfettered imagination, sharp recall of 20th century music and committed wakefulness, which makes for an unusual combination. Fans never quite know what they're going to get when he picks up a saxophone.

PJ: Tell me about how this current band formed. As jazz fans surely know, Brian Blade, John Patitucci and Danilo Perez ? drums, bass and piano, respectively ? are some of the most incredibly talented musicians in jazz right now. How did they all meet for this group?

MM: John Patitucci had played and recorded off and on with Wayne since 1987. In the late '90s, when Wayne's symphonic performances began, he'd play with a jazz quartet alongside the orchestra. (He still does.) Wayne tried a few different musicians for this quartet, including John on bass, then added Danilo and Brian at the 2000 Monterey Jazz Festival. It just worked. These musicians had what Wayne wanted and needed: exceptional musical intelligence and a spirit of adventure.

PJ: So what might one see at one of these quartet shows? How else might you describe where Wayne seems to be going musically these days?

MM: You've heard the phrase "writing about music is like dancing about architecture." Describing this band's music is even more implausible: It's like swimming about brain surgery.

It's easier to start with what audiences won't hear. Even though this is an acoustic group, audiences won't hear tunes played in the style of Wayne's classic Blue Note recordings. They won't hear set compositions at all. The band will likely play a sort of stream-of-consciousness suite, seguing without break between musical ideas, which may even coalesce briefly into recognizable melodies.

Usually the leader of a jazz group is a protagonist, the central character in the music's story. Wayne rejects that role. This quartet is truly an ensemble cast, and makes good on Joe Zawinul's famous boast about Weather Report: "We always solo and we never solo." They are four equal players making it up as they go along.

There are some risks to this approach. While the band is casting about for an authentic idea, one worthy of development, a musical passage can lose tension or momentum. It may feel as if the band is stuck in quicksand. That's because the band is stuck in quicksand. But it doesn't last long.

Wayne's sound will probably be partly cloudy on tenor sax and mostly sunny on soprano. He may play slurred downward spirals of notes, or what the quartet's manager/engineer Rob Griffin calls "the Draino stuff." He'll lean into some ostinatos. If a distinct melody emerges, he'll probably improvise a counter melody. He'll leap around in wide intervals, lots of fifths and octaves, leaving plenty of space for the other guys to roam. He may whistle.

None of this explains the altered sense of time and space some fans, especially fellow musicians, experience during these shows.

The band's onstage demeanor is more elated than you might expect from a jazz quartet. Danilo and John will often shout out at a surprising musical gesture, especially if it's Wayne's gesture. Brian erupts into grooves with a force that would intimidate most rock bands. The guys are rarely out of eye contact. They laugh more often than jazz musicians usually do in performance, except maybe in New Orleans.

Something audiences won't see is how the band's pre-show conversation carries over into the night's music. Or how after the show, their banter picks up right where the music left off.

Related At NPR Music: Michelle Mercer speaks to All Things Considered about her Wayne Shorter biography in 2005.


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