Trumpeter Dave Douglas has been a student of Wayne Shorter’s music for a long time. His ’90s album “Stargazer” featured his arrangements of Shorter tunes from the late ’50s, early ’70s and mid-’90s. In 2008, while a member of the SFJazz Collective, Douglas was a part of that all-star band’s re-imagining of an array of Shorter compositions. More recently, he and saxophonist Joe Lovano have co-led the Sound Prints Quintet, to which Shorter contributed a pair of new tunes, expansive ones. The quintet has recorded them for release this year on Blue Note Records.
I talked to Douglas about Shorter and his music.
Q Dave, why are so many improvising musicians addicted to Wayne’s tunes? What’s their allure? Does he have a secret sauce?
A (Pause.) When you’re a player, you want to sound good. So you like playing Cole Porter tunes and Jerome Kern tunes and Thelonious Monk tunes, and Wayne Shorter’s tunes make you sound good, you know? On one level, it’s as simple as that. Why do people still play Beethoven? What is the quality? I can give you technical details about Wayne’s music, but you sense there’s something ineffable there that he’s put a finger on that touches us all.
Q What’s the first Wayne Shorter tune that blew you away?
A Probably “Nefertiti” (from 1967, with Miles Davis). A lot of us learned our first tunes from the Real Book, and there’s a good dozen of Wayne s tunes in there, like “Night Dreamer,” “Nefertiti,” and they didn’t always have the right chords, so we had to learn to go to the record. The interesting thing is, with Wayne there were often two recordings — one with his own group, one with Miles Davis — so that was a rich window into the different ways that one could interpret that music.
Later on, I sort of dove in deep and went and found every recording I could, and I started transcribing some of what I think of as his earliest tunes, on “Introducing Wayne Shorter” (recorded in 1959) and his other Vee-Jay albums — tunes like “Pug Nose” and “Powder Keg,” like “Wayning Moments” and “Tender Foot,” really great. This, I think, predates his being the music director for Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. All those tunes are classics, too, and the Blue Note era tunes are wonderful.
But probably the first Wayne Shorter tune that I ever heard would have been on the album “Heavy Weather” (from 1977), by Weather Report. That was kind of my entrée — like the tune “Palladium” — hearing what Wayne was doing in the ’70s, and also what Herbie (Hancock) was doing.
And one of the things that made me want to do that project (Douglas’s “Stargazer” CD) in ‘96 and ‘97 was that I felt that — with Wayne’s records like “Atlantis” (1985) and “High Life” (1995) — there was a continuity with his language that I thought was being misrepresented in the way the records were being received and written about…. Because there were the same brilliant voicing ideas and bass line ideas and melodies. And yet Wayne now had a larger canvas, a bigger ensemble and the availability of these great studios.
At that time, I didn’t really think I would actually talk to Wayne Shorter and go and introduce myself to Wayne and ask for scores. I was just a perpetual music student, and I thought, “Let me go transcribe ‘em.”
Q What about Wayne’s current quartet? How does it fit into what you’re saying about Shorter through these different periods?
A What he’s doing now is a great demonstration of that idea, that the music itself that he’s writing comes from this very rich language that was always there. But his approach as to how to interpret and how to perform has changed over the years, and I think that is the most heroic aspect and the luckiest aspect of what he’s doing for us, as listeners and musicians. Because he’s so completely fearless; he’s so willing to go against our expectations of what he should do. He’s absolutely, totally willing to throw away his credentials. And he’s the highest credentialed musician out there, and yet he’s willing to throw away the credential card. That’s amazing.
Q Have you gotten to know Wayne through the new project with Joe Lovano?
A A little bit. I’ve been around him, and I feel so fortunate to get to hear his group a lot, and for me and Joe to open for them on several occasions, and to get to talk to him and ask him questions — and talk to him about science fiction.
Q How much detail did he go into about the scores he gave you? Did he suggest ways of approaching them?
A He wrote two new pieces…. And, yes, we got his explanation of what he meant in the score, and we got to play through them and play them for him.
That’s the kind of lesson that you might get once in a lifetime.
Q Tell me more of what you’ve observed about Wayne’s quartet.
A They don’t go on stage with a set list. They just walk out and start playing. And I’ve seen them rehearse his music at the sound checks, and his music is difficult; there’s a lot of notes to learn and considerations.
But you realize you have to throw that away and just go in the moment. His band — they speak a language together. But with every gig I’ve heard, they never go out with a set list. They touch on the themes, but always in a different way and always looking to explore a different territory. And in speaking a little to Danilo (Pérez, the band’s pianist) and John (Patitucci, its bassist) and Brian (Blade, its drummer), I think that Wayne is very — maybe “aggressive” is the wrong word, but very insistent that they abandon all those expectations and any standard business practice, shall we say.
You know, like he may say, “That’s the way we used to do it” or “that’s the way we did it last night” — meaning, “Don’t do that again.”
If you talk to the musicians from (the chamber group) Imani Winds, that was a real eye opener for me to hear them get to commission and learn that piece (“Terra Incognita”) from Wayne. And one of the things they told me was they rehearsed it and worked it up, and it was a lot of time and energy. And they came to the rehearsal to play it for him, and of course they were all fired up and he listened and said, “Oh, my God, it was perfect — never do it that way again!”
Q And what did he say to you and Joe Lovano?
A When he gave us the new pieces to play, he said as much. He said, “This is just a suggestion. You guys take it where you want to take it.”
Of course, it’s his piece. And of course, we played it with a lot of respect and attention to detail, but also with a lot of thought to “what does he really mean by ‘you can’t rehearse the unexpected?’” What does he really mean when he says, “Jazz means, ‘I dare you?’” Those are very quotable and wonderful things to say, but as a practicing musician, he has a lot to teach us. It’s been very, very profoundly influential for me.
Q Wayne has a reputation for being a little out there or elliptical. Have you found him to be that way?
A I don’t think he’s out there at all. He’s incredibly smart, and I think when people say that he’s being elliptical, it’s just that they’re not picking up. I think, just like in the music, you might say, he goes on what you think is a tangent, a side trip, and then after some time goes by, you see, “Oh, I see. That was the answer to the question that was asked.”
Q Dave, your new album (“Riverside” on Greenleaf Music) with the Doxas brothers (saxophonist/clarinetist Chet and drummer Jim, from Montreal) is terrific. I really enjoy how you’ve themed it around Jimmy Giuffre’s music; it feels totally fresh. You lead so many different bands and take on so many types of projects. How come?
A We’re talking about Wayne Shorter, and he’s done so many things in so many ways. And it’s a huge inspiration for me — and it’s one of the reasons why I, in my own way, try to keep growing and expanding and changing in my own music.
Q Really? You mean, it’s because of Wayne that you have all these different groups and projects?
A Absolutely. And (because of) Miles, too.
With my generation — I came to the music via Weather Report and “In a Silent Way” and VSOP, and so as I experienced all the different periods of Miles’s music, Wayne’s music, as well as Mingus and Threadgill, even. That all seemed co-habitated. It all seemed of a piece. And I always felt, “Why can’t I hear that all at once?” And I hear that in a lot of musicians now. It’s like: Why should this be separate from that?
I don’t like to repeat myself, and that’s what keeps me doing all these different projects. And with “Riverside,” I had a class with (saxophonist/clarinetist) Jimmy Giuffre, when I was at New England Conservatory years ago, and didn’t know enough about his music, as I should have. But over the years, I came to love and appreciate it, and I eventually came to the point of asking, “What does this legacy mean to us now?” And then I got to the point where I’d written some tunes.
And so years ago, when I was teaching Chet Doxas at Banff (its International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music), he said, “You know, I want to do this tune by Jimmy Giuffre.” And I said, “Well, let me give you these tunes I’ve written.” I didn’t just get up and do this yesterday. All these projects are a long time coming.