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Sons of Miles
WAYNE SHORTER's Slow Road To Instant Gratification
by Mike Zwerin
6 May 1999

Wayne Shorter almost named his Verve album "High Life" "Instant Gratification" instead. The recording is, he says, all about the "regaining of patience" through "thorough" music that gives you "the complete picture."

An amicable, facetious twist of the lips indicates he knows how impossible it is to explain music with words but he'll try anyway: "There are mostly sound bites and jump cuts out there. I see a lot of people sitting through 'Pulp Fiction' and 'Braveheart,' which are basically designed so you do not have to pay attention to follow the story.

"On the other hand, I hear the beginning of a hue and cry from people wanting more substance. More involvement. Something more than a series of explosions. Implosions. Whatever. Exploitative implosions..."

You wonder how seriously he's taking himself when he stops to play with such words. But he says he's "going for it" for real. "I want to crack this impatience thing. Kids are too busy jumping around to pay attention. They won't walk through a museum. They can't sit still long enough to listen to Bach. It's malignant. Instant gratification leads to AIDS and quick divorce."

It is neither a surprise nor coincidence that much of the "hue and cry" about his record is from women. Women tell him "High Life" has "a whole lot to lean into." They say they hear an entire wardrobe - jewelry, ornaments, all sorts of colored fabric - in there.

Women are attracted to his music in general. Marilyn Mazur, Geri Allen, Terri Lynne Carrington, Renee Rosnes and Tracy Wormsworth have worked with him, and the keyboardist Rachel Z had a key influence on "High Life."

Before meeting her, watching a video she was in, he liked the way she took her time with music even though she was performing on national television. He mused and then muttered: "So, young people can still have patience."

He started to put the album together with Rachel Z and producer Marcus Miller, who had produced Miles Davis's "Tutu." Shortly before his death, Miles had advised Shorter to make a romantic album. Shorter considered the album in question to be a "romantic adventure."

Quite honestly, it was aimed at the Contemporary Jazz chart, an easy listening category. By extending form and designing subtle sound configurations, Shorter managed to squeeze a great deal of grace and substance into the Contemporary easy chair. But his pitch at patience and "the complete picture" did not, like "Tutu," enlarge the category itself. Shorter described it as "an attempt to raise the IQ of commercial music."

Like Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and Pat Metheny, he knows how to mix musical and commercial calls. He can hit pay dirt pretty much at will. He has made many moves in his long and varied career - writing, playing, leading - circling between yin and yang and contention and concession in wide dramatic arcs.

Wearing a Versace shirt, looking nowhere near his 62 years, he was at ease being interviewed in the lobby of the Ritz Hotel in Paris. King of the hill, as it were. He lived near Mulholland Drive on the crown of Hollywood Hills in Los Angeles. He related to living there as a sort of bizarre modulation rather than a triumph.

Wayne Shorter

There was a movie projection room with a big screen in the house ("the real deal"), THX sound, well-stocked video and audio libraries, and a computerized 24-track recording studio with rhythm machines, samplers, synthesizers and the rest. Steel shutters and an electric alarm system had been installed. One of his two Mercedes had been stolen recently, but it was okay; he was insured.

This may seem like a surprisingly fancy bunker for a jazz saxophone player but he's a lot more than that and he's sort of surprised himself. After making his name with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, he joined Miles Davis for six influential years. It was a cutting edge quintet with Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams. In his autobiography, Davis named Shorter the band's "intellectual musical catalyst."

They advanced their own edge, taking standard harmony and form to a point where there was nowhere to go but out (modality) or in (rock). Shorter went both ways. All the while he had been writing two-fisted, brainy songs in a style described as "nostalgic lyricism." The collective influence of "Speak No Evil," "Children of the Night," "Beauty and the Beast," "Water Babies," "Nefertiti," "Footprints" and all the others on the jazz palate comes close to equaling that of Cole Porter. Few nights go by in the clubs without a Wayne Shorter tune being called.

He wrote songs for Weather Report, the hot and anything but heavy jazz-rock fusion group he co-founded with Joe Zawinul and Miroslav Vitous, later joined by Jaco Pastorius; his saxophone sound was one of its key definitions.

According to Billboard magazine, Shorter's "days with Weather Report resulted in music so influential that it continues to inform today." As the years went by, however, he played an increasingly passive role as he first withdrew from the spotlight and then faded out of focus both on and off the bandstand.

He finally quit in favor of touring with all-stars and recording with names like Joni Mitchell, Pino Daniele, Milton Nascimento and Steely Dan. After co-leading a band with Carlos Santana in 1989, he reacted to a contractual problem with a record company by being "grateful for the hiatus." It was time to take off and "go real slow."

Musicians continued to cover his songs, Weather Report was reissued on CD. Plugged into the Internet and with an E-mail address, he was ripe for the slow lane behind closed doors on Mulholland. He spent time with his wife Ana Maria - they were very close (she vanished on infamous TWA flight 800 to Paris) - and their friends.

He read books, watched ball games and movies, sat in the sun, learned about computers: "I'd been out on the road pretty much 30 straight years. I was in no hurry. I needed time to think."

He thought about the future: "We will have medical smart rooms in our houses with robotic facilities and fail-safe systems. We won't need to call a doctor any more. Vehicles will be automatically directed on smart highways."

"On the other hand, we might not even need highways any more after the invasion of enough stuff like creative harmonizers and medical smart rooms. Why go out? People are leaving their houses less and less as it is. Soon the only way out will be via the eject button. Bam! May Day! Straight up."

Which is what got him thinking about instant gratification in the first place.

Photo: Wayne Shorter
Credit: Christian Rose

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