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Wayne Shorter
Photo: Christian Rose

Book Review

Wayne Shorter: Punching His Way Out

Michelle Mercer: Footprints

By Mike Zwerin

PARIS, 7 March 2005—In Footprints (Tarcher Penguin), Michelle Mercer’s important new biography of Wayne Shorter, she describes Carlos Santana’s first take on her subject. “I didn’t have words or facility to talk to him. It’s the same thing with Wayne or Miles or Coltrane, you don’t just stroll up and say, ‘Hey man.’ If you’re sensitive in your heart and have some dignity, you don’t approach them like that. So I admired him from a distance.”

“Like Herbie, 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 it’s 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. There’s 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 Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, Miles Davis, and Weather Report; and with Milton Nascimento, Santana, Joni Mitchell and Steely Dan—plus 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. He’ll 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 he’ll 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 jazz’s 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 called“Syzygy, 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. Wayne’s wife Carolina said that he “literally wrote it while watching television the whole time. He likes to see what is directing people’s 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 Coltrane’s 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 man’s 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, that’s 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 silences—and Wayne Shorter—would 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 don’t resolve something, like writing a letter where you don’t 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 isn’t 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 tune’s tempo after its loose rubato intro. “Let’s not set it,” Wayne said. “We’d rather go for elusiveness than clarification.”

Footprints by Michelle Mercer
by Michelle Mercer
Penguin Group (Tarcher); Hardcover: 320 pages (29 December 2004)
ISBN: 158542353X

Related: Sons of Miles: Wayne Shorter's Slow Road To Instant Gratification

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.

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