Wayne Shorter: When less is more on the road to being human

He wrote his first piece when a boy, by way of trying to woo a girl. That he failed in his quest didn’t cause Wayne Shorter too much angst, however, because he already saw art as a doorway to adventures of a more internal sort. Chasing girls was put on hold while he conquered clarinet, saxophone and composition. He listened avidly to Stravinsky, Dvorak and Ravel, and then at 15 heard Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie. His world was turned on its head.

Wayne Shorter. Photos: Daniel Boud.

Also a painter, Shorter preferred the interaction that music offered, and after his discharge from the army he practiced tenor saxophone side by side with John Coltrane, before gaining notice in the big band of flashy trumpeter Maynard Ferguson, where he met his future Weather Report co-founder, pianist Joe Zawinul. He then steamed into the Jazz Messengers, led by drummer Art Blakey, who taught him not to hide from life behind his instrument – a lesson Shorter remembered when he heard Meryl Streep asked if she donned a mask for each new role, and she replied, “No. I take them off.”

Contributing compositions to Blakey’s band, he soon became its musical director. By the mid-’60s he was a harmonically innovative composer for both his own projects and Miles Davis’s fiery quintet with Herbie Hancock and Tony Williams, and hailed as a worthy heir to the compositional legacy of Ellington, Monk and Mingus. Meanwhile he added soprano saxophone to his tenor, developing different voices on each, and after six years with Miles became something of a reluctant rock star with the massively popular Weather Report.

To interview him was to be stunned by how similar his verbal expression was to tenor lines that seemed to begin mid-sentence and stop in equally unexpected places. Wayne’s mind built up broader theses by juxtaposing laconic snippets based on abstractions and enigmas. He saw seeking out originality as parallel to seeking the truth of what it is to be human.

Shorter with John Patitucci. Photos: Daniel Boud.

In 2000 he formed the perfect band to pursue his mission, with pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade – players who make composition-based music astoundingly open-ended. Their leader wanted them to “negotiate the unknown” via studying life and music as intertwined entities, and would recite Mark Twain’s famed, “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.”

This band was exceptional straight out of the box on 2001’s Footprints Live!, championing collective improvisation over soloing (like the early Weather Report), and presenting long suites, within which wisps of familiar tunes appear and disappear, as if swallowed by a mist. The only permanence is metamorphosis, because to settle would invite predictability: the mortal enemy of Shorter’s art.

His own playing, especially on his ever more epigrammatic tenor, seems to consist of a series of asides, his sound breathy, sand-blasted and restrained, with occasional eruptions of the brawny, restlessness of yore. Often this is windswept music: almost bleak, yet eerily beautiful. His harder-edged soprano is more expansive, and, whether lyrical or fierce, can compound the band’s energy until his lines are tracer fire streaking across music that rears to towering peaks, with Perez a one-man orchestra and Patitucci the multi-braided fuse that detonates Blade’s drama and intensity. This band grew ever more potent and oblique, with Patitucci’s arco playing as magnificent as any you’ll hear in jazz.

Shorter has always exploited space as a place into which he’d toss laconic little motifs that he poked and pulled until he’d exhausted all their possibilities. With Weather Report he began playing less; with this quartet less still. Yet what emanates from the saxophone is the most assured and compelling art of his career, as if approaching the vanishing point that is the silence that surrounds all music, and lies at its core.

Tragically, Shorter’s ill-luck with love persisted, and his second wife, Ana Maria, was killed when TWA Flight 800 exploded in 1996.

Footprints Live! streams on Apple Music and Spotify.