By Mike Zwerin
PARIS, 7 March
2005In Footprints (Tarcher Penguin), Michelle Mercers
important new biography of Wayne Shorter, she describes Carlos Santanas
first take on her subject. I didnt have words or facility to talk
to him. Its the same thing with Wayne or Miles or Coltrane, you
dont just stroll up and say, Hey man. If youre
sensitive in your heart and have some dignity, you dont approach them
like that. So I admired him from a distance.
Miles, Duke or Bird, Mercer writes, Wayne has one-name-only
status. She refers to the principles in her story by their first names or
nicknames. This nominal informality is in fact the sensitive way to approach
writing about jazz; it is one example of what sets it apart from so-called
serious music. There is at least the fiction that its family.
It helps her set the right style for her task.
Wayne can certainly seem
distant. His voice is quiet and introspective, his ideas abstract. There is at
times the uneasy feeling that a level is escaping you. Theres a lot of
hipster in him. People are always trying to think fast enough to keep up with
him. Mercer holds that Wayne belongs in the elite line of jazz greats not only
because of his compositional and instrumental importance, but for the depth of
his intelligence as well.
Born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1933, he has
played with Art Blakeys Jazz Messengers, Miles Davis, and Weather Report;
and with Milton Nascimento, Santana, Joni Mitchell and Steely Danplus a
multitude of his own groups. A practicing Buddhist, he has been known to answer
the question, do you know what time it is? with an essay about
eternity. He tends to speak in parables. Hell ask his band to play
some stem-cell research music. He learned that sort of thing from
Miles, who once told him to play like Humphrey Bogart throwing a punch. Wayne
sees a lot of movies and reads a lot of books.
Listening to him play
the saxophone is a bit like watching a film by Eric Roemer. His body language
is introverted, his sound is soft and engulfing, and hell never honk or
screech without a good reason. You need to interact with more than listen to
Wayne. He will not ride warhorses for you. Mercer writes that he has
produced one of jazzs great oeuvres, crowding out the likes of
Ellington and Coltrane for space in the fake book, the collection of standards
that is required study for most jazz students. Music is like a
piece of clay, he once said. You get inside it, make a cubbyhole,
and then punch your way out.
He wrote a composition
calledSyzygy, a word he found by coincidence in a dictionary,
meaning a straight-line configuration of three celestial bodies, like the sun,
moon and earth in an eclipse. Waynes wife Carolina said that he
literally wrote it while watching television the whole time. He likes to
see what is directing peoples minds. When your wisdom is
developed, Wayne told Mercer, anything and everything is a ways and
means of creating something valuable. Syzygy was premiered by the
Detroit Symphony Orchestra as part of its Millennium Jazz Celebration.
Some 35 years earlier, December, 1965, the Miles Davis Quintet
Shorter was Coltranes replacement - played a historical engagement at the
club the Plugged Nickel in Chicago. The rhythm section was young - Herbie
Hancock, piano, Ron Carter, bass, and Tony Williams on drums. They had already
worked together, but Miles had been sick, and, now that he was ready to go
again, they realized that they were tired of playing the old mans hits
like So What, and My Funny Valentine the same old way
every time. Williams suggested a solution: What if we play anti-music?
Like whatever somebody expects you to play, thats the last thing you
play? On the seven-CD box, Live At The Plugged Nickel (Columbia),
you can hear how the looseness of the form, the inspired collective
improvisation, and the importance of the silencesand Wayne
Shorterwould change the future of the music.
In the early 1970s,
Wayne co-founded Weather Report with the keyboardist and fellow composer Joe
Zawinul. Although it was only a jazz-rock fusion band, they wanted to change
the song form. Why did a song have to have eight bar phrases? Why not more or
less? We were talking about doing music that had mountains and streams
and valleys and going over hill and dale, Wayne told Mercer. We
were trying to do music with another grammar, where you dont resolve
something, like writing a letter where you dont use capitals.
His return to acoustic music was big news in the 1990s. Mercer says
that the scene has gotten to the point where Wayne isnt just
on the scene. He is the scene. Once he was rehearsing his
composition Water Babies, and his musicians wanted to know how he
planned to establish the tunes tempo after its loose rubato intro.
Lets not set it, Wayne said. Wed rather go for
elusiveness than clarification.
Penguin Group (Tarcher); Hardcover: 320 pages (29 December 2004)
Related: Sons of Miles: Wayne Shorter's Slow Road To
Mike Zwerin has been jazz and
rock critic for the International Herald Tribune for the last twenty years. He
is currently writing a book called "Parisian Jazz Affair" for Yale University
Press and he is the jazz editor of Culturekiosque.com. Zwerin who has lived in
France for 33 years, was promoted recently from 'Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts
et des Lettres' to 'Officier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres" by the French
Minister of Culture.