Wayne Shorter – Music of the Spheres

Wayne Shorter

Mercurial and mysterious as ever, the saxophonist talks to Stuart Nicholson about how his deep past connections are now shaping his present, and future, conception of music, and what lies beyond!

Wayne Shorter Without A NetSaxophonist Wayne Shorter has long been acknowledged as a major figure in jazz. But since he has somehow eluded excesses of hyperbole that customarily swirl around those in the jazz pantheon, there have always been mutterings off-camera like, “Yes, we know he’s a jazz great, but how great?” by those who like their heroes to come plainly labelled. Well, they have their answer now. Shorter’s release Without A Net, hyperbole or not, is an album that marks a milestone in his career since it makes eloquent claim to be the finest recording yet by jazz’s greatest living musician.

Simply stated, there is no one else in the world today that has come close to matching the level of intense creativity displayed here by Shorter and his quartet – Danilo Pérez on piano, John Patitucci on bass and Brian Blade on drums – on this remarkable collection of 10 live tracks recorded on the band’s European tour in late 2011, and the 23-minute tone poem ‘Pegasus’, recorded live at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.

The album is also something of a milestone in another way – it’s his first album as a leader for the iconic Blue Note label in 43 years. Shorter first appeared on the label as a member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in 1959. But he is not much concerned with his past and the run of classic albums he made under his own name for the label between 1964-1970, including Night Dreamer, Juju, Speak No Evil, Adam’s Apple and Super Nova, deflecting talk of the past with one of his famous elliptical anecdotes: “To me, all those albums and all those tunes or pieces of music, they just incorporate the same thing – they all remind me of ‘Once Upon a Time’, and after once upon a time, what do you do? You say ‘Once Upon a Time’ and then what? Not only has it got to be more than just soloing, it has got to be more than what something used to be if there is a broader, more profound function. I look on those albums, or the music, as music not finished, nothing to me is ever finished in life, it’s up for evolution, to evolve. There is a lot of information in everything, nothing actually dies. I look for the constants instead of the temporary in everything, if there is a constant then that is a real eternal adventure, I call it ‘The Ultimate Eternal Adventure’ when one wakens to something that is constant.”

Like most jazz musicians with a distinguished past, he takes the view that what is done is done, and what Shorter seems to be suggesting is that what has been done could always have been done better. It is the here and now that concerns him, the next project, the next challenge. But if you are looking for the constants in Shorter’s music that he talks about – ‘The Ultimate Eternal Adventure’ – a trajectory from the past to the present and Without A Net, then perhaps there is a direct correlation to be made between his latest album and that of the music of Miles Davis between 1964-7. This was the period when Shorter was a member of the trumpeter’s legendary quintet along with Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass and Tony Williams on drums that produced the iconic Live at the Plugged Nickel from 1965.

The enormity of this album in the evolution of the small group in jazz was brought home in 1995 – to those who would listen – when Sony released a seven-CD set of the complete sessions that years earlier produced the single legendary album, released in 1966. “Ahhh! You hit on something,” responds Shorter with animation. “That was in my mind for quite a while and there is a 13 or 14 year period with Weather Report and to me that was a detour from the Plugged Nickel adventure. That period was a detour, and now I am continuing it.” Well, there was certainly a lot of information in Live at the Plugged Nickel, representing jazz at its highest level of creativity. “It’s kind of plain to see,” agrees Shorter, “but you are the first one who hit that [connection] right between the eyes.”

Wayne ShorterShorter’s period with Miles Davis in the 1960s roughly approximated his finest work on the Blue Note label during this period, and Davis was keen that Shorter write in similar vein for his band. Quite what Shorter brought to the Davis band can be illustrated by the title track of his album Speak No Evil, recorded for the Blue Note label three months after he had joined Davis in September 1964. A 50-bar AABA composition, Shorter’s theme stated in the 14th bar A section is simplicity itself, essentially one note, the sub-dominant in the home key of C minor, which occupies the first eight bars, followed by a two bar modulation and a return to the minimalistic theme, now in the dominant, for the next four bars. The 14-bar theme is then repeated, followed by a B section, a true ‘middle Photos eight’ of eight bars of broken phrases, followed by a return again to the 14-bar A theme. The middle eight aside, we have 42 bars using essentially two notes that was the complete antithesis of the typical jagged, jumpy bop and hard bop themes. However, even though the burden of complexity was removed from the front-line, it was transferred to the rhythm section where drummer Elvin Jones’ polyrhythms assume central interest, framed, as it were, by the static melody line.

Much of the revolution that took place in the music of Miles Davis in the latter half of the 1960s was sparked by the compositions of Shorter. Up to that point Davis had predominantly favoured traditional songforms and jazz standards. Through Shorter’s influence, he began using themes with relatively static melody lines, often of smooth, sustained tones and slow harmonic movement (as opposed to the twists and turns of bop and hardbop) contrasted by an interactive role for the rhythm section (as opposed to fairly static, timekeeping role of the rhythm section previously). This approach – as in ‘Speak No Evil’ – with an interactive role for the rhythm section and Tony Williams’ drums – Shorter’s piece ‘Nefertiti’ from the Nefertiti album is virtually a feature for Williams – became widely influential in jazz and jazz rock, and can be heard in bands such as Weather Report (of which Shorter was co-leader). These changes are usually attributed to Davis, yet it was Shorter who was the modest, self-effacing quiet revolutionary contributing more than his fair share to the evolution and redefinition of music of the period.


“We’re going to destroy the feudal system and get rid of Lords and Serfs and then we’ll be ready to greet the alien – that’s what that this music is about!”


With his own quartet, which made its debut on record in 2002 with Footprints Live!, Shorter wanted to translate the ideas at play in the Davis quintet into a contemporary context, sometimes even dispensing with compositions.

“When we got together it was one rehearsal and it was so short, the rehearsal was ‘not playing the way we used to play!’” explained Shorter. “If you have time to think about that, the testing time is when you’re in the moment, which is one of the chief components of playing jazz. There is a large amount of ear training that comes into play, hearing immediately what someone else is doing and you comment on it, and when you’re doing it you are in the world of composition, you in the world of ‘in the moment composing’, so when you are composing in that medium – in that manner – you’re might be on the way to be qualified to be called a de-composer! I’m a decomposer! The group now go on stage not knowing what we’re going to do. This aspect, or this characteristic, we have developed, and use attributes that people have but don’t use. I think it might be called the development of trust. To trust and really know there is no such thing as a coincidence or mistake, that you are not going to be self judged, or judged by, externally from the audience, and also we remove ego from the stage – showing off, trying to prove your educational credentials of your craft, your musical credentials – but instead go out there and how do you rehearse the unknown? No rehearsal – that’s going to be part of this new singularity, the inhibitors of this planet will be subjected to negotiating the unexpected these days and onwards, and we have to become more human to do that!”

On Without a Net, Shorter has selected six of his latest compositions plus new versions of his original ‘Orbits’, that first appeared on the Miles Davis album Miles Smiles from 1967, when Shorter’s composing methods had begun to take hold in Davis’ group, and ‘Plaza Real’ from the album Procession by Weather Report, which he co-led with Joe Zawinul in the 1970s and 1980s. Shorter is the film-buff-to- end-all-film-buffs, and thus includes the title song of the 1933 film Flying Down to Rio that marked the first on-screen pairing of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers while the album’s centrepiece is a 23-minute tone poem written for his quartet plus the Imani Winds quintet, reflecting his growing interest in writing for strings and trying to locate a place that is equidistant between jazz, classical and the popular.

“Currently, I am working on some orchestral things,” he explains “We’re going to do something at Disney Hall, I’m working on a piece – an extended piece – with the band and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and Esperanza Spalding, and we’re going to do this with three more orchestras; the Detroit Symphony Orchestra where Terence Blanchard is the director now; and the Nashville Tennessee Orchestra and the Washing D.C. National Orchestra. There are some orchestras in and around Massachusetts and Boston, some young conductors, young players talking about orchestra improvising, playing music and reading their repertoire and then included in the repertoire, sections of improvisation.

“I think this idea is spreading, everyone wants to get on it, we don’t hear that same, ‘I only read music, I don’t improvise’, ‘I don’t do this and I don’t do that’ – you know? People like Nigel Kennedy, he’s a mother, and there’s Lang Lang with Herbie and there’s some young, adventurous conductors – not just young – there’s gonna be something amazing come out of this. The Mayan calendar is correct, the end of the world will happen at Christmas (2012), to me meaning ‘the end of the world as we know it’. We’re heading towards a new singularity, which is going to come from the individual taking the lead in life instead of following. We’re going to destroy the feudal system and get rid of Lords and Serfs and then we’ll be ready to greet the alien – that’s what that this music is about!”

Shorter lives in a big white house in Los Angeles, festooned with Doric columns and a row of cypress trees in an upper-middle class suburban neighbourhood from where, in the 1970s and 80s, he would drive across town to participate in a Joni Mitchell recording session, a Steely Dan session or the occasional movie soundtrack. Today he is actively involved in jazz education at the UCLA, where he is Visiting Professor, and with the Thelonious Monk Institute. So how does he introduce students to the advanced improvisation techniques of his quartet on Without A Net?


Don’t repeat any of the other fairy tales, tell me a new story, tell me about yourself, tell me what you think life is, what is life, what is it?


“I would say don’t throw away everything you’ve learned,” he says after pausing to consider his answer. “Because if you are going to talk about flying into the unknown you’re going to need a flashlight, and that might be the skills you have acquired in the past, you have got to have a flashlight! Herbie, myself, Jimmy Heath, Ron Carter, there’s a few of us teaching at UCLA and we spend like two days out of a month each teaching along with Kenny Burrell, he’s been there a long time, he’s with the jazz portion of UCLA. The Thelonious Monk Institute is there now and they have seven students who have been auditioned and they qualify for the two-year programme that the Monk Institute provides. This two-year programme – they also have other courses at UCLA – but they can only do this programme when they have completed four years of college prior to all this, four years under grad studies. So, these seven musicians, they are g-o-o-d, I’m telling you, one from Chile – on xylophone, one of the best, and they all write too, so it’s not telling them not to do this or not to do that, but it’s being there and supporting and contributing what little tidbits you have – there’s a lot of wisdom here – to contribute whatever you can using the same unscripted dialogue and action we use when we play on stage as a quartet. We can’t change into a teacher, like a classical teacher, ‘I want you to do this…’ that’s not me, but the other musicians have different expertise and different teaching methods too.”

Shorter has been sufficiently impressed with the current intake of seven students at the Thelonious Monk Institute that he used them to perform as members of his own ensemble, “I was honoured somewhere in Los Angeles and they wanted me to do a 20 minute performance,” he says. “So I got the Thelonious Monk Institute’s seven musicians and we gave a little performance at the end of the award ceremony, there were other people getting awards, Johnny Mandel was one, and we did a little something and that was part of their voyage through UCLA and real life, and all that. Supporting this was Herb Alpert and some other people associated with him, so it’s all coming out to be, ‘What do you say after you say Once Upon a Time?’ Don’t repeat any of the other fairy tales, tell me a new story, tell me about yourself, tell me what you think life is, what is life, what is it?”

Suddenly Shorter breaks off to greet his music copyist who has just arrived to work on the music he is preparing for his upcoming concert with his quartet, Esperanza Spalding and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. “I have to go,” he says, adding with a chuckle, “This is like building a space craft here, we will be ready to greet the UFOs!” And with that he was gone.

This article originally appeared in the February 2013 issue of Jazzwise. Subscribe to Jazzwise


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