To speak with Wayne Shorter can feel like an exercise in the mystical. At times, it’s stream of consciousness, ideas flowing that can reach the profound; but the direction can switch suddenly. There are frequent references to films (Shorter is a lifelong movie buff), as well as books whose subject matter run from science to philosophy. The discourse is never delivered in holier-than-thou fashion, nor is it deliberate obfuscation. Its always congenial and conversational. And witty.
Shorter looks at life with a sparkle in his eye. He’s pretty much completed the special year of his 80th birthday, with celebrations in concerts around the globe, though there may be more before he turns 81 in August. Over all those years, he still has a child-like curiosity. Things that come out of his mouth are without pretense and uttered freely. Shorter, in addition to be a creative artist of the highest order, is just a nice guy.
"He’s one of the most creative artists of all time," says trumpeter Wallace Roney.
"The nicest genius you’ll ever meet, but he’s nevertheless a genius," saysJohn Patitucci, the bassist in the Wayne Shorter Quartet for more than a decade in an All About Jazz interview a few years back. “He’s a musician of the highest level. I’ve learned a lot from being around him. I feel like I’ve been very blessed to be around him… Wayne is a beautiful person. He’s very generous, kind, very encouraging.”
"He’s one of the great masters," says the great drummer Jack DeJohnette who first played with the saxophonist when Miles Davis was going electric in 1969. “He has such imagination on his instrument. And he writes exciting pieces. He’s fantastic.”
Shorter’s quintet—with Patitucci, pianist Danilo Perez and drummer Brian Blade is one of the finest working units in jazz and the focus of Shorter’s work for years now, the first time in his blessed career that he has held the same configuration and personnel for so long. Their concerts are examples of four people in conversation. The topics change. There might be inside references. There can be confusion as well as great unity. They play as in-the-moment as any group, and the joy of their labor is obvious on their faces. They get lost. They discover. Their 2013 release, Without A Net (Blue Note), is a great example of their work and the title is an accurate description of their on-stage adventures. Shorter does not want a well-oiled presentation.
The meaning of the often-debated word “jazz,” to Shorter, is “I dare you.” He exemplifies it.
"Don’t play music lessons, Art Blakey would say,” says Shorter, who then effects a dead-on Blakey voice impersonation. “‘I don’t wanna hear that. Tell me a story.’ When I talked with Miles [Davis], we kind of talked like this, like we’re talking now, and Miles would say a couple of times [in perfect Miles raspy voice:] ‘Why don’t you play that.’ In other words: play what you’re thinking. Don’t play music. Play a story.’ What do you play after you play ‘Once upon a time?’ What comes next?”
That outlook makes Shorter’s playing what it is today. Darting. Shifting. Sometimes complex. Not always furious like his days with Davis’ Second Great Quintet, or in long serpentine layers like on his 1960s Blue Note records. It’s not the same style he brandished in his hometown of Newark, N.J., when he was known as “The Jersey Flash” because of his quicksilver runs on the saxophone.
"There’s no real approach anymore," he says of his playing. "The challenge is to be in the moment and the thought of playing or writing what you wish for. What you wish the world to be like. Or playing what you see. What condition the world is in today. A lot of loose ends. And also playing music that you can’t anticipate. Uncertainty? Play that. We have to learn to deal with uncertainty and dialogue with the unexpected and dialogue with the unknown. Because the unknown can not be rehearsed. How do you rehearse the unknown? It’s something that’s coming out of the human existence that’s making us evolve and grow. On a humanistic level, we’re pulling out of ourselves what we didn’t know was there. That should be telling us a whole lot about eternity. No such thing as beginning or end in life."
He adds, “The mission of an artist, or a human being, is to celebrate the artistry in every human being. There’s a phrase Esperanza [Spalding] wrote: ‘Wake up and dream’ [for the Shorter composition “Gaia.”] As opposed to, “I Wake Up Screaming,” That first movie  with Betty Grable and Carole Landis.”
Many musicians study hard, bury themselves in acquiring technique, listen to all the masters, then come as if they’re reading a book—albeit a really good one—but not writing their own stories. Not Shorter. He’s had the benefit of experience and went through growing stages like anyone else. Yet he was always an off-the-path thinker. He skipped school as a youngster, but wasn’t idle. He wasn’t up to mischief. He slipped away to movies houses or caught bands playing matinees. He was learning. He didn’t follow the crowd then, and his career choices, his playing and his composing are the same. As different as the movies to which he’s so attracted.
"I say sometimes I’m writing music for movies that will never be made. Or that won’t be made right now," he says. "Life is the ultimate movie, to me. Life is the ultimate adventure. Why not be curious enough to have fun studying it. Live while you’re studying it. Don’t think that studying is going to put a damper on your ideas… That’s a lie." The study Shorter refers to is one of life and what goes on around people. Technique, he notes, allows musicians to play something that relates to the moment. "Then you don’t have to worry about a final exam."
"The fact that somebody doesn’t want to investigate life, investigate what somebody’s talking about on TV, investigate for themselves, is an indication that they failed the final exam already. They are final. [They are] to be walked on and used and led and anesthetized. So they can’t wake up and dream."
Roney played with Shorter in 1992, after the death of Miles Davis, when his former great band—Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams, with Shorter—did a tour and album in tribute to the master. Roney was selected for the trumpet role. He’s been friends ever since with Shorter. A musician par excellence himself, he calls him “one of the greatest tenor /soprano saxophone players—also artist and composer—of all time. Him and John Coltrane are the torch bearers of that creative unity. Of trying to unite the achievement of what an individual was blessed to be able to do, or can evolve to do via art, music, mind, soul, spirit. When John Coltrane died, [Shorter] was left with that. Sonny Rollins was also one of the great ones, but I think Wayne shares that more with John Coltrane in that essence of trying to keep attuned to the evolution of where we are as a people.”
"With Wayne’s music, he is able to play the most creative things and found beauty in all the notes that he played," says Roney. "If you listen, there’s always a lyrical beauty in his playing. It’s a bit like John Coltrane’s but it’s different. Trane’s beauty and lyricism speaks of a oneness seeking a higher… seeking god, or seeking to unite with god. Wayne does that too, but he celebrates the beauty in human beings. The beauty of love, the beauty of day-to-day stuff… Trane’s beauty came from connecting to a love from above. Wayne’s came from a love within."
He adds, “It’s no accident that Miles’ two greatest partners in his bands were John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter. That’s no accident.”
"Wayne is one of the greats. He’s an absolute jazz master, one of the greatest composers in jazz and, in my opinion, in modern music," says Joshua Redman, one of the great saxophonists of his generation, once removed from Shorter. “There’s something about listening to Wayne’s music and his playing… The notes aren’t just the notes. They get to something else. There’s an emotional resonance that’s beyond the sound and the notes themselves. With Wayne’s music, you get that sense. There’s a visual aspect to his music and a poetic aspect that’s omnipresent. Every note, whether it’s a song he’s writing or a phrase he’s playing on the saxophone, every note has a kind of poetic and visual quality to it… there’s something really transcendent and ‘other’ about every note that he plays and every note that he writes. That’s kind of the ultimate in jazz.”
Shorter is long considered one of the elite composers in the history of American music. To him, music is ever living. “When people say something is finished, that’s like a consensus. That’s just an opinion,” he says in his inimitable fashion. “‘That’s the end of that song.’ No. the song’s just sitting there. That’s not a law.” His explanation veers from music to people.
"It hits us in the head … those tiny things that husbands and wives put under the rug or just ignore. Like large executive boardroom meetings and big political governments and everything. Like, you knock a penny off the table and rolls way under the desk. You have to get down on your knees to get that penny. Or you forget it and say, ‘Hey, that’s just a penny.’ But to me, when the penny falls off the table… Or a cufflink. If you drop it, it always goes into a place where you have to get a broom [to get it out]. That’s nature’s dialogue talking to us about something. It’s talking with us. If we ignore that, stuff that we have to get down on our knees and get together, we’re not able to handle big stuff. Nature is already training us. The natural order of things. The natural disorder of things."
It calls to mind what Michelle Mercer, author of the biography Footprints: The Life and Work of Wayne Shorter, means when she says Shorter “talks like he plays, in a kind of improvised cosmic poetry” but with “deep thoughts that lead to occasional bursts of insight.”
As many of the greats Shorter played with over the decades, he’s not a teller of specific stories unless an anecdote jumps in his head, and that can occur at any juncture. He has influences, but doesn’t look back chronologically at them. “The influence I get is when you walk on the stage—start. What are you going to do? What do you do? That’s the influence. If you’re going to that thing that’s rehearsed and rehearsed and rehearsed” he says, voice trailing off indicating he has no use for such things. “The whole world is involved with dialoging with the unexpected. You have to learn how to dialog with, negotiate, with the unknown. The only thing you have to rely on is each other, for the first time. Whether you disagree with each other or not. You have to peel off all the B.S. and look at each other for real… It’s painful sometimes. But the pain is only temporary. There’s a constant we have to pursue. Not the temporary.”
When he takes to the stage with his band, “It’s knowing as much as you can, and finding out as much as you can about what life is. How life operates. That’s a hard word, ‘operate….’ It’s really an adventure doing this.” The development of that approach, he says, came from “not just Miles and Trane. Everybody. Beethoven. Painters. Rembrandt. Jackson Pollack. Writers. Inventors. Astrophysicists. Neil deGrasse Tyson. He’s director of the Hayden Planetarium now. We have to talk with each other to find out what your neighbor is about across the street. That’s what we’ve got to do. That’s what we’ve got to play. It’s not what we learn from Miles Davis or John Coltrane. That narrows it. That’s almost like keeping the whole thing in its place. Jazz doesn’t have a big paintbrush with the word ‘entitlement.’”
The path of an artist, is “to uncover themselves. To take off the layers and layers of stuff that we have allowed to smother us, or that we have embraced. We hijack ourselves. You look in the mirror and fool yourself, that kind of thing. Or we just believe what the picture is… Not even believe it, just, ‘Let George do it. I’ll follow what the ratings tell me. The ratings tell me about this and about that. The Republicans and Democrats and all that stuff. Instead of trying to find a source of truth or something. The effort to do it goes much father than actually finding it. Because you’re uncovering something about your own originality. Then self-thought kicks in. When you start researching. Asking questions. And really use the computer. Say, ‘Hey, what you hiding, Google?”
Shorter doesn’t lecture. He points out. Discovery is up to the individual. So he’s is quick to lighten the mood, which can involve a quick segue.
"We’ll be getting into stuff here, if we keep talking," he says gleefully. "We’re getting into some snuff. They had snuff in 1776. They had some snuff and stuff. [chuckles]. Then there was Stuff Smith. I played with him, you know. In Norway, 1967. Stuff Smith and Don Byas In Molde, Norway, we played together. I played with Bud Powell. He’s on the record with us, with the Jazz Messengers. I think it’s on the Toshiba label. We recorded that in 1959 when I joined the Messengers, after I left the Army.”
He talks of another session—a lost recording—that then leads to another revelation. The session was at a club with Sonny Rollins, Kenny Dorham andMax Roach, after the great trumpeter Clifford Brown died in a 1956 car crash. Shorter was on leave from the Army and walked into a club in Newark. “They were playing there. Max Roach saw me walk in the club and he waived for me to come up and play. I went home, changed out of my Army clothes, put a suit on, got my horn. I jumped up on the bandstand and they played, at jet propulsion speed, ‘Cherokee.’ There was a guy standing there. He went to school with my brother. His name was Pete Lonesome. What a name. He had a Nagra tape recorder. These writers and everything, they heard about that and they’d say, ‘Where’s the Nagra? You know where it is?’ I don’t know where it is. This was 1957 or ‘58.”
The recording never surfaced. “When Pete got that recording, he disappeared. Then Nagra went out of business after a while too. He went to Howard University with my brother. [Alan Shorter, who played trumpet and flugelhorn.] They were the lone wolves. Mavericks. These were the guys,” says Shorter. He flashes, “When you asked about Miles and Trane and all that. It’s not that. It’s the guys you grew up with. My brother. Pete Lonesome. Guys from Newark. Because guys from Newark, New Jersey, were crazy. Miles used to say, ‘You all guys are crazy.’ I said, ‘Look who’s talking.’ Because Miles was out there. He was like a genius.James Moody lived down the street from me. I was in grammar school with his sister, Vivian Moody. But I didn’t know who James was. Then I saw him on stage playing with Dizzy Gillespie’s band when I was 15. I said, ‘What? That’s Vivian’s brother.’ He lived down the street. Walter Davis Jr.—we used to call him Humphrey—was there with his twin brother. They never went to class, but they’d take examinations and get A’s. Humphrey would play piano when Bud Powell couldn’t make it, when they came to Newark.”
"This stuff was going on," he says of his real education. "They had these street-corner philosophers talking stuff all the time at night. What was hip. What was not. ‘Have you ever heard of Charles Christopher Parker?’ I’m like 15. I was not into music at all. I was an art major. ‘Have you heard Miles Dewey Davis? Have you heard of Thelonious Monk?’ And on the radio, all this stuff was going on … Then I got records from the library. Listening to Dvorak, Stravinsky, Beethoven and all that. I’d keep the records. [chuckles] I didn’t return them on time. And I would read books in the library until they closed. All kinds of stuff. Letters. Beethoven speaks about it being so difficult to write something, that he was actually in pain. He was suffering. They say, ‘This music came from the masters from above. It came through them. This was pure genius.’ Beethoven’s like, ‘man, I was struggling.’ He was struggling.
"So was Chopin, struggling with playing cafe music. And his teacher said, ‘Hey, Poland’s in trouble, man.’ [chuckles] Let’s get serious. So he played, ‘Dah-dah DAHHHH. [mimics the Chopin phrase.] He said, [to the same phrase] ‘Kiss My ASSSSSSS," Shorter says, laughing.
"But when you write something, it’s not for anyone when you write it. You just hold onto it until somebody wants to record it," he says, as he did with a piece opera singer Renee Fleming performed, called "Aurora" based on Maya Angelou’s poem, "The Rock Cried Out To Us Today." "I started it when I was 19, around 1952. Just starting NYU, because I worked for a year before I went to college. I continued it and finished it in 2009, this piece called ‘Aurora.’ She did it with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. You never know. You just do things. There’s no mystery. I figured out how to write music when I was about 16. Little notes. I wrote about 28 arrangements for a dance band. For people to dance to. A lot of them were mambo, Latin stuff. I wanted to have some fun with the rhythm."
He’s been burning ever since those early days in New Jersey. From Art Blakey, his reputation grew. Classic Blue Note recordings, a tenure with Miles Davis and what many call the ultimate in small-group jazz. Founding Weather Report withJoe Zawinul. Working with Santana. Joni Mitchell. Milton Nascimento. projects with a myriad of greats. Grammys.
He adds, “Now it’s time to pull out the stops and do those things that were left undone and do all the kinds of stuff you wanted to do when you were a kid, too. It’s not in a selfish way. It has to happen.”
It has it’s time and its rhythm. Sometimes. art, like lessons in life, takes time to unfold. To Shorter, that’s OK.
"Like commercial music. Pop songs get to the point. People who are raised on pop music—get to the point," he says, that twinkle in his eye. "How about this: In the pop or rock world, on stage the artist says to the audience, ‘Put your hands up in the air. Put your hands over your head. Put your hands together.’ Everybody, automatically, does it. There they are with their hands up. Does anybody see that little possible voice that they’re missing? The voice that says, after ‘Put your hands over your head…’ the little voice says, ‘Cause this is a stickup.’ Put your hands in the air because you can’t think for yourself. You can’t think-feel."
As for his own music, Shorter has toured vigorously for the last couple years with his quartet. He has also written music for strings to go around his quartet. It’s been performed with a Czech orchestra, and the BBC orchestra in London. It’s also been played with symphonies in Detroit, Los Angeles, Nashville and Washington D.C.. Music has also been recorded with his quartet and the Orpheus string quartet. It will be released in 2014.
"They actually play without a conductor. The manager of the orchestra does something very eye-opening," says Shorter. "There’s a conference once or twice a year where all of the companies and front office people get together. They’re looking at the Orpheus, because they play without a conductor, they’re looking at them like they’re mavericks. They’re trying to find out how they do what they do without having a general, or the pecking order. Conductor and all that stuff. And not following the traditional classical, hoity-toity whatever… Everyone has a voice when they rehearse. Everyone has suggestions. They’re the new thing. They’re doing new stuff. Not only new stuff. Orpheus they play everything. But it’s their openness. the things you should hold on to when you were a child. They say, ‘When I was a child, I did childish things…’ and all that stuff. ‘When I was a man, I put away childish things.’ Don’t put them all away. Hold on to that jumble marble and a couple of those jacks."
So the band is pushing forward and so, too, is its leader who has the experience of 80 years, but fondly thinks of himself as having the outlook of a child of 8. He’s the master who has stood with all the greats.
"They’re on stage. There in my thoughts and everything. Not just them. Everybody’s in there. Beethoven. Mozart. Chopin. Stravinsky. Shostakovitch. Antonio Carlos Jobim. Milton Nasciamento. Everybody. It’s endless. They’re all in there. There’s actors in there. John Garfield. When he said, ‘Everybody dies. What are you going to do, kill me?’ That movie. Humphrey Bogart, with his ‘My gun is bigger than yours.’ They’re all in there, man. People. Paul Robeson. All these people. And people not even born yet.
"I don’t like that word, ‘born.’ People who haven’t emerged. Haven’t emerged at this time, but they will emerge. My feeling is that everyone emerges at the right time for them to do the mission. Continue the mission. Then you take a rest. We call that death. Then emerge again and continue the mission. Or discover it for the first time. What’s the mission? The mission is to eternally unfold. Eternally, as a human being. More, more, and more, unending. the ultimate adventure. The answer to: What is a human being? It’s eternally. What is life? Both one and the same. We can see it, touch it and feel it. We’re all, life and us, occupying the same space at the same time. And not the same space and not the same time—at the same time."
Shorter chuckles at his pondering because sometimes, like music from his horn, it surprises even him and brings delight. Shorter’s artistic stance is reminiscent of the story attributed to noted California artist Howard Ikemoto who, when asked by his young daughter what he did for a living, responded that he worked at a college and taught people how to draw. After pausing, she said, “You mean they forget?”
Wayne Shorter, Without A Net (Blue Note, 2013)
Wayne Shorter, The Soothsayer (Blue Note, 2008)
Wayne Shorter, Beyond the Sound Barrier (Verve, 2005)
Wayne Shorter, Alegria (Verve, 2005)
Wayne Shorter, Footprints Live! (Verve, 2002)
Wayne Shorter, High Life (Verve, 1995)
Wayne Shorter, Joy Ryder (Columbia, 1988)
Weather Report, Heavy Weather (Columbia, 1977)
The Quintet, V.S.O.P. (Columbia, 1977)
Weather Report, Black Market (Columbia, 1976)
Wayne Shorter, I Sing the Body Electric (Columbia, 1972)
Weather Report, Weather Report (Columbia, 1971)
Weather Report, Weather Report (Columbia, 1971)
Wayne Shorter, Odyssey of Iska (Blue Note, 1970)
Miles Davis, In A Silent Way (Columbia, 1965)
Miles Davis, Nefertiti (Columbia, 1967)
Wayne Shorter, Super Nova (Blue Note, 1967)
Miles Davis, ESP (Columbia, 1965)
Wayne Shorter, Speak No Evil (Blue Note, 1965)
Wayne Shorter, Juju (Blue Note, 1964)
Wayne Shorter, Night Dreamer (Blue Note, 1964)
Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, A Night in Tunisia (Blue Note, 1960)
Wayne Shorter, Introducing Wayne Shorter (VeeJay, 1959)