For the last decade Wayne Shorter has led an inspired outfit comprised of drummer Brian Blade, bassist John Patitucci, and pianist Danilo Perez. Their chemistry was strong from the get-go, but with relatively steady work it has become rather incredible. The group treats the leader’s themes as mere suggestions – Shorter’s melodies may or may not be stated once the improv gets going, and the band has several ways to communicate a melody that might not seem obvious to other improvisers. That means the explorations are wildly mercurial. Shorter uses his tenor sax with regularity these days, so the music has girth as well as smarts. And we don’t really need to discuss the inspired caprice that marks his soloing, do we? It’s one of jazz’s miracles, and it’s only bolstered its belief in itself during the last decade. The investigative spirit that’s at the center of this group will hover over the stage at New York’s Town Hall tomorrow night (before heading elsewhere). Elaborate and gripping, the band’s fluid machinations are perpetually bending its material – this is music dedicated to flux.
Shorter does something similar in his conversation as well. He likes to bend chats off into places you least expect them to go. I traveled with Shorter and Carlos Santana during their summer tour of 1988. Deciphering Wayne’s thoughts was occasionally as perplexing as listening to him speak was fun. To celebrate the Shorter Quartet’s gigs, we present five quotes from the great man. The first comes from a celebration of Coltrane that ran in Musician magazine.
Jim Macnie: How close were you with John Coltrane?
Wayne Shorter: He invited me to his house after we met and said he want to get together with me because we were playing…not the same way, but in the same areas of the horn. He said, “You’re playing some funny stuff.” He wanted to sit down and talk about it. He was playing the piano mostly; I think it was the beginning of “Giant Steps,” those augmented thirds over and over. He’d get his horn and play two notes for a long time. Then two others, then two others. We also talked about doing impossible things on your instrument. We talked about about starting a sentence in the middle, and then going to the beginning and the end at the same time. George Tucker, the bassist would come by, Cedar Walton and Freddie Hubbard, too. He’d ask me to spend the night. That happened more than once. We’d cook food. Then he came to Jersey to my parents’ house, on Thanksgiving. He’d talk with Ayler; he liked him. He wanted to check out what was going on with the scene. Not just tenor, but flute and other things. It was all encompassing. Charlie Parker was realizing that before he died, too. From 1965 on, [Coltrane] had a sense of urgency. Like he couldn’t get out everything he wanted. I think Trane knew something about his health, even though he couldn’t pin it down. One of John’s legacies is that any melody has a flexability beyond what it initially seems. Nothing is frozen. He said everything can be opened up, though it’s a lot of work. There are people who say you have to do “Nature Boy” just the way it is. And the “Star Spangled Banner”…hey, you can take the “Star Spangled Banner” out!
Ted Panken: Did you ever feel trapped in what you were doing in your career?
WS: Here’s what I felt. That the people, the masses were trapped, and I was trying to save them! Hah-hah! I was trying to get a rope and put it around the barred windows, like in the old westerns, pull the wall down, and let them out of jail. But a lot of people don’t want to be gotten out of jail. They’ve been in there too long. If you get in jail long enough, you think it’s heaven. With the hits! [laughs] With the hit parade, all those hits for 75 years, controlled by radio and controlled by what I call the gatekeepers.
Bill Milkowski: “Tinkerbell” sounds like it’s something generated spontaneously on the bandstand.
WS: Yeah, that’s something that came out in one piece with the bow and the piano and the fact that Brian (Blade) contributed by not putting all percussion in there every moment. As Miles would say…he would consider somebody valuable when they knew when not to play. If you could do that, Miles would say, “You’re good, man, and then walk right by you and keep walkin’. And you’d say to him, “What? What’d you say”? Miles liked that when you’d say, “What’d you say”? Because he’d kept walkin’ and he’d say to the bartender, “Get him a champagne. What you drinkin’ Wayne”? My drinking days are over but I had more fun with Miles than anybody…those years with Miles. The short time that I was with Coltrane, when he invited me to his house, we had another kind of fun because he would get into talking about philosophy. I had one little talk with Lester Young one time up at the Town Tavern on Young Street in Toronto. I had a little time left in the Army so they let me go on a vacation and I went up there and Lester was playing. During the intermission, the place was packed…this was in my drinking days. I had my gangster suit on — paisley tie, pinstripe suit — and I’m trying to get to the bar. You know, waiting your turn, six people deep. And suddenly this finger tapped me on the shoulder and I turned around and looked and it was Lester Young. And he said to me, “You look like you’re from New York”. His voice was real slow. And he said, “Whatchu drinkin’? and I told him, “Cognac”. And he said, “Let’s go down in the wine cellar and get some REAL cognac”. So we went downstairs where the barrels were and he got these big water glasses and filled the up with cognac. And as he was talking, I was getting ripped. But you know, just standing there talkin’ with Lester Young…I don’t remember what he was saying or what I was saying…we didn’t talk about music or what I played. But I was just checking him out the whole time he was talking. Then we went up the stairs and he went to do his next set, and all I could think was, “That was Lester Young!” I started listening to him closely after that. I had heard him earlier, when I was 15. He was late coming to the theatre for a Norman Granz Jazz at the Philharmonic concert in Newark. He had the pork pie hat and everything and we were trying to figure out how to get into the theater from the fire escape around the back. So we finally got into the mezzanine and saw that whole show — with the Stan Kenton and Dizzy Gillespie bands…both bands together doing “Peanut Vendor”, and Charlie Parker with strings doing “Laura” and stuff like that. And Russell Jacquet…Ilinois Jacquet, he was blowing up a storm at that concert too. The whole thing was so amazing to me. I was just 15 and in that moment I decided, “Hey, man, let me get a clarinet. So seeing that concert is what got me started on clarinet. I ended up getting one when I was 16, and that’s when I started music.
WS: “If you’re playing something that’s supposed to sound like it’s supposed to be . . . and you’re perfecting this mandatory expression with mandates all around it, it’s nothing more than a statue. Like polishing a statue.”
[Question from the audience] What can we do to save jazz?
WS: I think that taking chances is the beginning. Being unafraid of losing this and that, jobs, friends. You don’t have to have the extreme you see in biographies of Van Gogh, always being by himself or arguing with others, but you’ve got a lot of leeway. Knowing the difference between what you’re told and what you find out for yourself; starting as an individual, being alone. We don’t have to preserve jazz; we have to start preserving the stuff that comes before all of that.
Fred Jung: You kept me ringing my hands, recording only three albums over the last decade.
WS: Well, you know, Fred, there was nothing actually to record. There is so much more to living and life than doing music. It is working on, not working on, but exploring the areas of life that can be left unattended. You can do music, music, music, and then still be a cripple when it comes to what you’re really here for. You think you might be here for music, then the human condition, the humanity part of your life can be, you can be blinded to that part, be really out of touch and when somebody is saying something, you can’t always equate it with what you’re doing. There is a chance that the world revolving around baseball or music or boxing or whatever. It was like finding out what is your real purpose in life. I used to walk by a mirror and look in the mirror and say, “What’s your real name?” And we’ve been named as we are born and “what is your real name?” What is anybody’s real name? That sparked what are you supposed to do? What are you supposed to do also? By playing music, I am doing less than a fraction. Music is a drop in the ocean of life.
Josh Jackson spoke with our hero at The Checkout.
NPR’s A Blog Supreme has Shorter biographer Michelle Mercer drop some 101 science on why the saxophonist is so important.