[JPL] Listening to CD's With: Wayne Shorter: 'Happening,
' and Meandering, a Burst at a Time
rdurfee2003 at yahoo.com
Sun Dec 26 18:37:49 EST 2004
Listening to CD's With: Wayne Shorter: 'Happening,' and Meandering, a Burst at a Time
December 24, 2004
By BEN RATLIFF
THERE'S a classic story about Wayne Shorter in
"Footprints," a new biography by Michelle Mercer. It's told
by Hal Miller, a jazz historian who sometimes traveled on
tour with Weather Report, the band Mr. Shorter played with
from 1971 to 1985.
"I remember I asked Wayne for the time," Mr. Miller
recounts. "He started talking to me about the cosmos and
how time is relative." The band's keyboardist, Joe Zawinul,
advised Mr. Miller not to bother asking the saxophonist and
composer things like that. "It's 7:06 p.m.," he snapped.
Mr. Shorter, 71, may get oracular in his everyday
conversations, but jazz musicians are often this way, to
one degree or another. And while there is no better way to
find out what's going on in their music than to ask, you
have to find the right way in. Talking about music
objectively, while not listening to it, is to superimpose
one form over another: it pits the literary or critical
endeavor against the musical. Asking a creative musician
pointed questions about his discography can be dull, and
asking him about the implications of an interval that he
has written, or a solo he has improvised, can be nearly
rude: he didn't make it to talk about it, he made it to
After reading "Footprints," which may be the closest we
will come to an autobiography of one of the greatest
composers and improvisers in jazz, I contacted Mr. Shorter.
I proposed that we listen together to something that he
admired, as long as it wasn't his own, as a way into having
a conversation about music and, ultimately, about his own
work. ("Footprints," a new two-disc retrospective of Mr.
Shorter's music, was released by Sony to coincide with Ms.
Mercer's biography, which is being published by
Last month, when Mr. Shorter finished a European tour with
his quartet, we got together at his home in Aventura, Fla.,
a thicket of tall condominium towers near the ocean.
Since going back on the road with an acoustic jazz quartet
in 2001, Mr. Shorter has built up a consensus of awe seldom
encountered in the stylistically splintered world of jazz.
He has been playing his own compositions - from his days
with the mid-60's Miles Davis Quintet to his pieces from
later solo records - and reminding everyone that there is a
way of writing tunes for a hardcore jazz group that have a
much broader imagination. Many of his melodies, dressed in
odd phrase lengths and piquant harmonies, seem to come from
a rarefied place outside jazz and seem too fragile to be
bruised in a nightclub setting. But they have become part
of the current jazz musician's basic vocabulary.
"I've got something good for you," he said, shortly after
showing me the view from the living room and pointing out
where Whitney Houston and Sophia Loren had apartments. He
held up an EMI Classics boxed set of Ralph Vaughan
Williams, conducted by Sir Adrian Boult.
I had been expecting classical music; some of his recent
works have been rearrangements, for orchestra and jazz
quartet, of Villa Lobos and Sibelius. I thought he might
pick Stravinsky, the bebopper's idol. But this choice made
sense, too: the English composer Vaughan Williams, directly
or indirectly, influenced many postwar film composers, and
if there's one artistic stimulus that Mr. Shorter always
seems open to, it is the movies.
Small and cheery, dressed in I'm-not-going-outside-today
clothes and bedroom slippers, Mr. Shorter struggled to set
up his Krell home-theater pre-amp to play a CD. I was
forming a suspicion that he didn't often listen to music.
"Hey, man, the Krell: you ever see the movie 'Forbidden
Planet'?" he asked. "There was this planet full of people
called the Krells. The explorers from Earth didn't see
anybody when they arrived. But they all went to sleep one
night in their spacecraft, and you hear the first sound of
special effects that really came to the fore in movies -
this Chrrmmm! Chroooom! And you see the ground that's been
depressed by huge footprints. ..."
He first chose the opening of Vaughan Williams's Symphony
No. 1: "A Song for All Seas, All Ships" (1910), with
orchestra and choir singing lines taken from Walt Whitman.
After the fanfare, 20 seconds into the piece, as the
strings began to rise dramatically, Mr. Shorter smiled.
"Life, that's what he's saying," he said. "It's a metaphor
A Taste for the Heroic
It is superhero music, and Mr. Shorter is not cagey about
his enthusiasms: he was wearing a blue Superman T-shirt
that day. "Behold," the chorus sang out again: "the sea!"
The cymbals crashed, illustrating a wave, and then the
tempo fell off, the sound dispersing like spray.
"I like that," he said. "It's almost saying, 'Look at your
life.' If anybody wants to commit suicide, just take a look
at your life. Look in the mirror. Because we are the ship."
The brass lines overlapped and grew denser. "I like that,
the little line in the bass going down, the contrary
motion," he said. The chorus came back again. "Power!" he
"I only heard this piece eight or nine months ago," he
explained, motioning to the boxed set we were listening to,
which he had just unwrapped. "But Ralph Vaughan Williams,
I've been tracking him since I was about 16 or 17. I used
to listen to a program called 'New Ideas in Music,' which
came on every Saturday at noon on the radio."
Mr. Shorter grew up in Newark. His mother worked for a
local furrier; his father was a welder at the Singer sewing
machine factory in Elizabeth, N.J. As the biography
"Footprints" tells it, Wayne Shorter and his older brother
Alan had fairly radical artistic temperaments, encouraged
by their parents. (Disclosure: Ms. Mercer met Wayne Shorter
while reporting an article for this newspaper.) By Wayne
and Alan's teenage years, they had formed their own clique
of jazz surrealists, pushing their artistic temperaments to
the edge of reason. In 1950, when bebop was well
established but still largely a thing of mystery to
high-schoolers outside of the big city, Wayne and Alan
performed Dizzy Gillespie tunes at a high-school concert,
dressed in wrinkled suits and galoshes, pretending to
sight-read what were actually newspapers on their music
Shades of 'Nefertiti'
In those days, Mr. Shorter painted "Mr. Weird" on his
saxophone case, and it's still fairly true: he speaks in
disjunctive bursts, frequently lapsing into silence halfway
through a sentence. Sometimes you think you get his meaning
and then, sadly, discover that you couldn't have been
following a colder trail.
But in many ways his youth was quite normal for America in
the 1940's: filled with the radio, comic books and the
movies. His study, where he composes at a small desk with
score paper, pen, white-out and a half-size keyboard, is
filled not with CD's but with videocassettes and laser
discs - everything from the Dean Martin celebrity roasts to
"For the Love of Ivy," "The Bad Seed," "Quilombo" and "The
What he wanted me to hear next was "The Lark Ascending,"
which he performed both in the concert band at New York
University, when he was a music-education major, and then
later in the Army band during his service, from 1956 to
1958. (He was stationed in Fort Dix, N.J.)
But as I found out later, when I bought my own copy of the
boxed set, there is a manufacturer's mistake in the track
numbering for that particular disc. We couldn't find the
"Lark," so settled instead for "Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1"
(1905-6), which Mr. Shorter also likes.
A clarinet bubbles up with a little tendril of a line,
following a violin line; they are complementary versions of
the same melodic idea. The strings simmer quietly
underneath. As the clarinet and violin gestures keep
repeating, a tense feeling of stasis begins to take over.
"Happening," he muttered.
Especially later in the piece, when further iterations of
the line move higher, through different keys, it reminded
me a little bit of his own "Nefertiti," from 1967, with the
Miles Davis Quintet, which tensely repeats the same line
through different keys, without a solo ever actually coming
to pass. ("Nefertiti" is included on "Footprints," the new
two-disc retrospective of Mr. Shorter's work.)
'You Know, the Unknown!'
"We're going to get into some
Symphony No. 4 next," he said. He put on the opening of the
first movement, a dramatically brooding thing. "I guess
some of the early writers of movie music got this," he
said, as a noirish romantic theme emerged from a thunder of
kettledrums and bass trombones. "Like the John Williams
music in the film of Hemingway's 'The Killers.' "
Asked if he particularly liked music that suggested
something about human temperament, he responded: "Yeah! And
also going" - he made a pushing-out-into-the-universe
gesture - "you know, the unknown! I'll put on the scherzo."
The gremlin music of the scherzo heated up, turning into a
passage of gnarled, menacing little three-note
jabs-and-parries in the strings and brass. "You know that
Coltrane got some of that stuff," he said, mimicking
hands-on-the-saxophone and growling little phrases. "
'Duhdeluh... duhdeluh... duhdeluh.' "
Mr. Shorter and Coltrane were close; Mr. Shorter was
Coltrane's first significant long-term replacement in the
Davis band and he was an early and fervent Coltrane
admirer, one of the first saxophonists in the early 1960's
to emulate where Coltrane was going rather than where he
had just been.
"It's like something from a movie! 'Titanius! Agamemnon!' "
he cried, assuming an actorly baritone. "It's like Errol
Flynn fighting with Basil Rathbone: chik-chik-chik!" He
mimicked the clinking of swords. "This is happening,
though," he said.
The music changed again, becoming less agitated and more
hopeful. "And here's the seafaring stuff, the sailor thing.
Or it could be astronauts. 'We need a large vehicle to get
beyond this gravity and away from our decadent thinking,' "
Mr. Shorter intoned.
Coltrane and Parker
When he moved to Los Angeles 31 years ago, Mr. Shorter
became a Nichiren Buddhist, the sect that chants,
"Nam-myoho-renge-kyo." (His commitment to the practice
shortly followed that of Herbie Hancock, his partner in the
great Miles Davis group of the 1960's.) The philosophy of
Nichiren Buddhism - particularly the idea of the "eternal
self" and taking responsibility for one's life - is the
axis of most of his deep thoughts, and Mr. Shorter was
speaking nearly exclusively in deep thoughts, with short
pauses for the ridiculous.
"I don't really listen to music," he said, later in the
day, not to my great surprise. "I listen to music when I'm
making a record, I listen to what we're doing. But I don't
listen to music, because there are not that many close
sequences of chance-taking over any period of time. You
have to wait until someone has the courage to come and jump
into deep water. You have to wait a long time for a Marlon
What has he heard in passing lately that he liked?
"Occasionally I will hear 20 seconds of something in a film
score," he allowed. "I liked John Williams's opening music
to 'Catch Me if You Can.' I like the depth and breadth of
sound that he can get to reflect the vastness of something
- of space. I like James Newton-Howard, too, his way of not
always seeming like he has another film to score. James
Horner - I liked his score for "Glory," with the Harlem
Boys Choir. I like Bernard Herrmann's score to 'One Million
B.C.,' the movie with Victor Mature and Carole Landis."
So, back to his comment earlier about Coltrane. Did
Coltrane listen to Vaughan Williams, too? "I don't know,"
he said. "But like Charlie Parker, he probably listened to
Did Mr. Shorter ever meet Parker? "No, but I saw him about
five times. I sneaked into a theater one time, when I was
about 15. The fire escape, back of the theater, mezzanine,
and there was Bird with strings, playing 'Laura.' I liked
Bird with strings. The word was like, 'It's a novelty, it
won't last.' But Bird really wanted to work with the
Exploring the World
Coltrane wanted that, too, Mr. Shorter said, and recalled a
conversation he had had with Coltrane's son Ravi: "Ravi
told me that he wanted me to write something for him, for
orchestra. Trane was still alive when I was with Miles, and
we performed something at Monterey, a piece for 28 pieces
called 'Legend.' It would have been natural for Trane to
hear about that - he was always following what Miles was
doing." Lately, Mr. Shorter has been looking at
semi-retirement, which means less time spent on the road
and more time thinking about composing music that will
include only a little of his playing - "not all over the
place, just where it counts."
He has thought about revisiting "Legend" - Davis's nephew
has found a tape of the concert - as well as a number of
other orchestral projects. One is "Aurora Leigh," a
composition he started when he was 18 and at N.Y.U. It is
named after an Elizabeth Barrett Browning poem. He said he
might take it to David Robertson, principal conductor of
the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, who wants to work with
him. More recently he has begun writing original music for
the soprano Renée Fleming.
"When I listen to music, I'm not thinking about the
workshop aspect of it," he said. " 'Oh, that sound goes
good against that one.' Boring. But, you know Elgar, who
wrote something about people that he knew, characters he
knew? And each theme was antiphonal? You say, 'Describe
this person in music,' and he'd do it, whether the person
was rotund or skinny." (Mr. Shorter was describing the
"I need to find out more about other people's cultures,
with the time I have left," Mr. Shorter said, jumping over
a conversational hedgerow. "Because when I'm writing
something that sounds like my music - well, not my music, I
don't possess music - but when they say, 'Wayne Shorter's
playing those snake lines,' I should take that willingness
to do that, that desire I have to do that, and extend it to
the desire to find out more about what is not easy to
follow, what is difficult to follow in someone else's
Thinking Another Way
Would he like to hear one more piece of music?
think that would enhance what you're writing, so people
could hear through your words?" he asked, without really
waiting for an answer.
"I used to think, what the hell is music for?" Mr. Shorter
mused. "Like, what is law for? Is it for immediate checks
and balances and controls? But then what is it really for?
And music - is it an aphrodisiac, a convincer, a manacle?
You know, 'I gotta have my rhythm and blues, man. ...' "
Well, is there some piece of music, or some kind of music,
that has altered his life in a positive way?
"Actually, music hasn't changed my life, it's the other way
around," he replied. "Somebody asked me that once, a young
guy in Spain. He said, 'What has life taught you?' I said,
wait a minute, think of it this way: What can you teach
Mr. Shorter talked further about what he called "the human
revolutionary process" and then said, "For me to be aware
of something that has great value, I change my life."
I tried rephrasing the question: Is there music that
embodies a value that you would change your life for?
"See, to me, the sound of music is neutral," he shot back.
"What I do is arrange the dialogue, the musical dialogue,
in a way that has not been spoken to me before."
Does he often hear a piece of music and think that he hears
himself represented in it?
"Oh, yeah. I used to play all kinds of records, and I'd get
my clarinet and get right in it. One thing I liked about
Charlie Parker: he'd play that song 'South of the Border,
Down Mexico Way.' That's a nice song. One of Gene Autry's
hit songs. Nothing complicated, but I like it."
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