Shorter at Great Heights

| 11 Nov 2014 | 02:13

      JAZZ LEGEND WAYNE SHORTER does not give your standard interview.

    Rather than talking at length about his storied career or current musical projects, the tenor and soprano saxophonist offers an in-depth discussion about religion, particularly his strong devotion to Buddhism, which he has practiced for over 30 years.

    He says what amazes him about the philosophy is that there is a part of us that can never be touched by good or evil, and that even the worst person in history has a chance to become enlightened.

    “If Miles Davis heard me talking like this,” Shorter says, “he would say, ‘Why don’t you play that? Write that down.’ And that’s the challenge of working on music. Enlightenment is something that you don’t get it—‘Now I’m enlightened!’ It’s a work in progress.”

    Shorter has continued to enlighten fans of jazz music in a career that has spanned 50 years starting with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in the late 1950s.Then he made his mark as both player and composer in Miles Davis’ classic quintet from the mid to late ‘60s. Later, Shorter and key-  

    boardist Joe Zawinul co-founded the hugely successful Weather Report, a group that pioneered jazz-fusion throughout the ‘70s. Most recently he is the leader of his own band consisting of pianist Danilo Perez, drummer Brian Blade and bassist John Patitucci.

    “Wayne is the most important composer of the past several decades,” says Michelle Mercer, who wrote the 2004 book Footprints:The Life and Work of Wayne Shorter.

    “From tunes for small groups to orchestral projects, his body of work is staggering when you look at it as a whole. And he is of course one of the few musicians who has made a major contribution in so many genres: Hard bop, post-bop, world music, fusion [and] symphonic stuff.”

    Shorter’s contributions to jazz music are being spotlighted in a concert on Dec. 2 at Carnegie Hall in honor of his recently passed 75 th birthday. In addition to featuring music from Shorter and his band, the concert will also mark the New York debut of his “Terra Incognita,” a composition to be performed by the wind quintet Imani

    Winds. For that particular event Shorter has a very high-minded goal. “I’m gonna play music that has to do something with the constant,” he says, “something that’s always there in the human psyche, spirit or entity.

    I’m gonna do something that transcends all the words that are used to lift up and anything that’s negative.That’s the challenge [of] doing a performance.”

    He emphasizes that he wants to perform music that tells a story without feeling like he owes anybody anything. “When people wrote certain kinds of music like very banal, below the bar stuff,” he says, “I used to wonder if the music itself has feeling, as if the music is saying, ‘We’re being tortured again! I don’t want to do this again!’” Having a conversation with Shorter will sometimes include side anecdotes, whether about the late actress Anne Baxter, who was also the granddaughter of Frank Lloyd Wright, or William Shakespeare, whose works remind Shorter of writing chamber music. He tells a story about Ludwig van Beethoven, who once walked the streets writing down material in a music notepad that he wanted to work on. “At the same time he’s supposed to be working on something else. He takes a year to finish what he is supposed to do, but he’s still jotting down other stuff. “ His biographer Mercer explains: “Wayne can talk straight, but chooses not to. He’d rather conduct himself eccentrically, even if that means people assume he’s a little strange, than conduct himself more normally and get the same old boring results.”

    The musician acknowledges that Buddhism has not only impacted his life but also his music. “I started practicing Buddhism when I was 40,” he says. “Usually when you’re 40 you’re kind of set in your ways and it’s hard to break the mold because the mold


    Talking in circles, Wayne Shorter.