You are here:Home>Jazz Artist Interviews>Wayne Shorter

Wayne Shorter

Though it’s all story-telling to the six-time Grammy winner who turns seventy on August 25, among the many other dimensions experienced in the music of Wayne Shorter are essentially its mystery, expansion of spirit, angular beauty, abstract truth, ponderous thoughtfulness and an uncannily synchronistic nature.

Since joining the modern music world's elite core of improvisers and composers in 1959 via Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers and as a leader in the Blue Note stable, Shorter's consistently stretched the fabric of what we know as 'jazz' with ever more intriguing experiments transcendent of style, meter, instrumentation, texture, density and timbre. And redefining what the tenor and soprano saxophone can mean. Be and do, and all the while organically blending his unique sense of humor balanced with an inextricable spiritual nature into the works.

And along the way, we've been encouraged to consider new perspectives, experience music in other planes poetic, spiritual - and consider the necessity of its inherent humor as routine (and if musicians, to reject the linear emphasis on scale/arpeggio thought in place of an innate grasp of sheer sonance, resonance, and textural recognition as entities). Of course when a musician is able to do that on a consistent basis, we start to dust off words like visionary, genius and innovator. . .all of which profoundly apply.

Shorter continued to extend his influence from the stages shared with Miles Davis (’64-’70) in the now legendary mid-60’s quintet featuring the stellar rhythm section of Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams. This group accessed and served time under Davis and Shorter’s foiling horns as if it were silly putty. Flex time came to be standard in any group worth its salt then and thereafter exploring a polyrhythmic format.

Still, it wasn’t long before even the freedom afforded by arguably Davis’ most progressive lineup wasn’t enough to continue to hold Shorter’s interest, and with longtime friend and keyboard alchemist Joe Zawinul from Cannonball Adderley’s sextet, the now legendary Weather Report was formed. Besides starting the new decade by turning both the jazz and rock world on their respective ears, this group was also responsible for unleashing bass phenomena Jaco Pastorius on the world, leaving music forever changed.

As if himself a messenger of the atomic age - a particle in continuous motion and vibration - Shorter, meanwhile, also resonated in kind with nearly every major progressive artist of his time, bouncing extra-curricularly between genres. Most notably, Joni Mitchell and Steely Dan both came to benefit directly from the signature warmth of tone, the ever searching, innocent eccentricity, met with a profound fortitude and complexity in the service of their art.

After numerous pivotal solo releases, six Grammies, including those for film work on all-star vehicle "Round Midnight," the neo-noir "Glengarry Glen Ross," and "The Fugitive," Shorter continues to channel Midas on "Alegria" with the same mischievous humor, insatiable inquisitiveness, transcendent, light-filled beauty and passion as ever. With clarity and purpose of exploration, he reworks and reattempts many a phrase until satisfied that it’s essence was fully expressed, both its spirit and potential - relayed and released - blending improvisation and melody to the point of each being a seamless extension/exchange of the other.

His career, now existing in six decades, is neither framed nor constricted by anything not time, place, style or agenda. Shorter remains fresh and timeless. He is truly free. Even after having heard all that’s come before, hearing what that freedom sounds like is often still a revelation.

On "Alegria" Shorter and his core touring band of Danilo Perez, John Patittucci and Brian Blade are joined by current leading exponents of the genre: his former drummer Terri Lynne Carrington, pianist Brad Mehldau and former Weather Report percussionist Alex Acuna as together they reinterpret boogaloo grooves, tangos, Celtic, Brazilian and ‘chamber’ music. Regardless, whatever you do, do not presuppose you’ll know what this album will sound like.

Though "Alegria" is Shorter’s first all acoustic statement since 1967’s "Schizophrenia" with Herbie, Ron and Joe Chambers, when asked what’s with the return to acoustic music Shorter gives it little credence, taking it with a grain of salt and seasoning responses with his own offhand, quirky sense of humor. As if an indicator summing the mood and results of the session, you can even hear his unmistakable laugh at the end of "Sacajawea," a groovin’ seven-and-half minute update on mid-60’s Bluenote style boogaloo.

Though released most recently, "Algeria," preceded last year's highly acclaimed "Footprints Live!" in the recording process. And as on "Footprints," Shorter continues to eclectically mine both his own early material and unexpectedly varied pieces by Brazilian composer Villa-Lobos as well as an untitled traditional 12th century carol, bringing new life to all. Each tune gets its own due and treatment. "Serenata" is taken with an almost chamber-like, languid fluidity while the now classic "Capricorn" from Davis’ "Water Babies" reappears in a loose, hesitant reading. "Orbits," also originally recorded with Davis for "Miles Smiles" returns, as well.

Since "Water Babies" coincided with Weather Report’s formation, "Alegria" can almost be considered an organic extension of that era, yet with the acquired wisdom and experience of 35 very active, yet ponderous years between.

As now classic releases like "Night Dreamer," "Adams Apple," "Schizophrenia," "The All Seeing Eye" and "Speak No Evil" attest, the richness of materials and technique in Shorter’s writing remain among the most viable grail for musicians, composers and listeners alike, to this day. Pieces like "Fall", "ESP" or "Yes or No" exhibit his signature over-the-bar-line, near through-composed openness and subtle harmonic ambiguity transcending rhythmic and harmonic conventions and sounding as fresh as if their ink were still wet. As exotic, entrancing and hyper-anticipated as the first strains of any new Weather Report experience (if written for orchestral/ small acoustic band formats), the group respectfully wields and yields to each other in the pursuit of making it happen.

A penchant for evoking mythical, ethereal and esoteric imagery with his titles is another interesting insight into the aesthetic motivations of the man. Even without their music, "Atlantis," "The All Seeing Eye," "Night Dreamer," "Virgo," "Capricorn," "Schizophrenia," "Pinocchio," "Fee-Fi-Foe-Fum," "Frankenstein," "Witch Hunt" and "ESP" easily conjure vivid worlds unto themselves.

As a human being, Shorter reflects his spiritual nature by placing enhanced value on the purity of "words, thoughts and deeds" and living them. A true modern icon, the likes of which there have been few of this essence and prolificacy, Shorter remains a vital link to the end of the Swing era with ears in the present and an aesthetic sight ever set to the future. And though you can transcribe the notes, like Klee’s playful filigrees or Picasso’s bolder, modernist, conceptual strokes, Shorter evokes colors, textures and complex moods, seemingly henceforth non-existent, and with effortless originality and skill.

Strangely enough, and coincidence being a constant in Shorter’s life, (and mine) the day the interview took place (June 4th), was synergistically also the birthday of my other half. These are the thoughts of a favorite composer and player from that morning. We hope you enjoy them.

Mike Brannon: Thank you so much for taking the time to do this on such short notice.

Wayne Shorter: I don’t know if it's a good time for Martha Stewart. Have you been watching?

Mike Brannon: Have you been watching that? It's crazy.

Wayne Shorter: Let me turn it down. Leave Martha alone (speaking rhetorically).

Mike Brannon: (laughs) You think she's ok?

Wayne Shorter: I think she gotta talk to someone who's not infected with the material growth (laughs). She needs to talk to someone who can help her get in touch with her real internal self.

Mike Brannon: Its guess it’s never too late, right?

Wayne Shorter: Yeah. No, its never ...she's a human being and that's her greatest fortune. I don't think she knows that yet. She wasn't born a slug.

Mike Brannon: You think it's just being separated from your spiritual self, that kind of evolution?

Wayne Shorter: Oh yeah. I think the separation started a long time ago; before she was born; in her past journey of up to this point. Lf people can think like that, damn. Are we eternal?

Mike Brannon: Do you consider that we've had past lives...that kind of thing?

Wayne Shorter: Yeah or eons, like, forever because I don't believe in a beginning or an end.

Mike Brannon: Just a continuum.

Wayne Shorter: Yeah, and a journey that is the greatest journey ever - forever. And to do the journey as a human being is the greatest fortune to be manifest, as a human being. Some people will manifest again or reincarnate - I like the word reincarnate - a like continued incarnation, or to manifest again. Some people if they act like an animal, or something like that, they will come back as an animal...but they look like a human being!

Mike Brannon: With the same type of personality, you say?

Wayne Shorter: Yeah. They'll look like a human being but they're still animalistic until they can realize they might have to realize this all by themselves. I think a good example of that is...see, what I'm talking about now is an attempt to play this onstage. If you have a girlfriend I don't think anyone else fell in love with her for you.

Mike Brannon: Right, you have to do that.

Wayne Shorter: You did that by yourself...doing it, whatever. There are influences and things like that. Some of these influences almost, look like/feel like teachings but they're still influences. One of my in things or jobs or curiosities is to figure what in the hell else is music for besides to escape, entertainment, getting a fast buck, getting to the bank real quick, before you're 23 (laughs).

Mike Brannon: It’s been used so many ways, hasn't it, in the hands of different people?

Wayne Shorter: Yeah. Like the judge says before he sentences someone for murder," Wait a minute, never mind what you did, but what your intentions?" (laughs).

Mike Brannon: Intent's very important.

Wayne Shorter: So I'm intending to do music, which can go against today's dinosaurs. Today's dinosaurs are Sony (laughs), Universal...

Mike Brannon: (laughs) You want me to write all this down?

Wayne Shorter: (laughs) No, yeah, its not supposed to be all record companies and everything. Yeah, Sony, all of them. But some of the people who work in these places are still faced with the alternative to take chances? Or be fired. And if you're not afraid to be fired you take chances and in taking those chances you find creative ways of surviving the corporate structure and conditions that handcuff people to the curriculum, you know, the policies: get that dollar any way.

Mike Brannon: Do you feel it’s like that for you?

Wayne Shorter: No. We have a group over there of close knit people that still have their creative process still available to them and as creative as they can be to aid in the marketing. I think when it gets to a certain level, they have that challenge to penetrate the corporate structure themselves in ways, which will enlighten: "Oh, we never thought of that". I say, "Why don't you got for it?" you know. Where everyone can go beyond the dollar.

Mike Brannon: I think that if you can think beyond that you can actually end up with what they're after in the first place, which is sales over a long period of time, rather than over a period of weeks or months. You can create something that'll keep generating income because its timeless; from their perspective.

Wayne Shorter: Yeah, something that allows and can encourage people as individuals - maybe for the first time - themselves, like loyalty to oneself rather than loyalty to a group or a consensus or "I'm part of that club," the pop club.

Mike Brannon: It almost seems as if your music has this element of being...just transcending style, I mean, you may play in a way that's always recognizable but it may be with Steely Dan or Joni Mitchell or your own work or with Miles and its always you but it just transcends stylistically what anyone else is doing these days and it stays fresh. How do you keep that kind of balance, that consistency?

Wayne Shorter: Well, you kind of see what's not being done and you're taking chances. The chance taking is not so obvious that it’s evident that: "Oh, they're taking chances for the sake of taking chances." And if you’re taking chances it can be invented to the seamless degree that its in there, like, "I don't know what's making this soup taste so good but, hey, its happening" (laughs).

Mike Brannon: (laughs) That's great. How much a part of what you do, would you say, is instinct? I mean, is that everything?

Wayne Shorter: You know I took a sociology class at NYU and this teacher, the first day matriculated the first day...she wrote on the board while people had their heads down doing their matriculation cards - that's what we did in those days - and as soon as they raised their heads, she had on the board: "We will not discuss instinct." Why the salmon tries to swim back upstream.

Mike Brannon: Well, I didn’t mean mindless instinct or for survival but just in the act of creation, in the pursuit of creation.

Wayne Shorter: I would say instead of instinct, be vulnerable. To be vulnerable. To be vulnerable in the face of all the clerics who weigh things against your musical foundation. They weigh what you're doing against what is known as musical foundation and they say, "are they doing just helter-skelter or do they really know music?"

Mike Brannon: In other words they have to relate it to theory that they know.

Wayne Shorter: Yeah. And Miles used to say, (adopts Mile's rasp) "Don't you get tired of hearing music that sounds like music?" (laughs)

Mike Brannon: (laughs) You must have learned a lot from him.

Wayne Shorter: We used to talk about stuff but we didn’t talk about music all the time. But he used to say, "What do you do with your hands when you're not doing anything?" And then he said to watch the presidents of companies - they didn’t have the word CEO's then - but he said, "Watch the presidents of companies when they're sitting at a desk and there's nothing being said." He said, "If you watch what they're doing with their hands...whatever they're doing with their hands, they be lying." (laughs)

Mike Brannon: (laughs) What do you remember from those times? Were you aware of what you were involved in while it was happening or did that sink in later, what an incredible band that was, with Tony and Ron and Herbie?

Wayne Shorter: We were busy, all of us were busy basking the fact that we were all together and that Miles was a person who could realize the combination of something in people in music, in a way that held true to that unique sound and musical process that went on. Miles, to me, had the most color in that kind of format, you know - I never use the words 'acoustic' as if it’s a glorification of something. (laughs)

Mike Brannon: Like a purity kind of thing.

Wayne Shorter: Yeah. It’s to glorify. Not that it’s pure, but to glorify what it is.

Mike Brannon: Because of how it was processed (electronically or otherwise). I mean, I don't think electricity ever negated what a real musician can do. I mean, certainly Weather Report created some of the greatest music that's ever been, as did Miles.

Wayne Shorter: We can't live without an electrical charge in ourselves.

Mike Brannon: Yeah. That's a good point. I've been watching this movie. I don't know if you've heard of it. It's called, "Mindwalk." It’s just one long conversation between three people that's fascinating. It talks about physics and all...Physics, Art, politics, but it just reminded me of it when you said that - that we are all vibration, we're all electrical charge and chemical reactions, and all that's always taking place obviously and we're always transforming.

Wayne Shorter: Oh, you saw that one about the sound and that we're 70% water and the water molecules in our body react to, what they call, certain kinds of music. And with certain kinds of music they do a beautiful ballet with colors and all that and with certain other kinds of music - this came on the phone from Brazil - from a mediocre to lower/tasteless; the molecules, like, withdrew...they cringed.

Mike Brannon: They were repelled.

Wayne Shorter: Yeah, repelled.

Mike Brannon: So this is a study that's going on?

Wayne Shorter: Yeah, they're studying this now. And it's also to me, like, how can this repulsion draw from this raucous, music? How can it draw from it, the intention behind it?

Mike Brannon: Right, exactly! In other words, it’s not just a subjective/objective thing.

Wayne Shorter: Maybe it’s a withdrawing (from) the intention. It's going on inside without us knowing it. And if people who get certain things because they're a part of this big pop club and they gotta have this kind of music to get this girl. They gotta go buy the record for the girls. She likes such and such and it multiplies and multiplies and the adverse is going on inside the consumer. Therefore, these molecules are together with one's entity, our eternal entity. I say the part of us that knows everything (laughs) - and there's this push and pull, this flux going on...creating the kind of stress its talking about, which creeps up and is called the silent killer. Who knows?

Wayne Shorter: Inside there's nobody home, there are no lights...there's a hall light. (laughs)

Mike Brannon: So you've got this battle going on inside and outside with your aesthetics.

Wayne Shorter: Yeah. And your eternal entity is dependent on both.

Mike Brannon: Don't they need to agree?

Wayne Shorter: I think that happens when people go, "Oh, I see."

Mike Brannon: A breakthrough.

Wayne Shorter: Yeah, a breakthrough. You get someone who includes other things into their diet.

Mike Brannon: How would you say vision evolves? How did your vision evolve?

Wayne Shorter: Well, I was a questioner. And I'd say, 'What is life? What is the answer?.' Then I'd see in my head, 'The question is the answer. The answer is living it!' When I was forty I really started to practice Buddhism; this Buddhism that we practice. And, damn, I was lucky, my outer shell didn't get too hard. A lot of people's shells they gettin' hard at age 23, 24, and 25.

Mike Brannon: You were still open minded...

Wayne Shorter: Yeah. I want to be open-minded, open ended, everything like that. I know there are a lot of things that I fool around with, I've played! no, no. You know when you strike a match to make a fire? It doesn't make a fire yet, but you like the feeling of striking it.

Mike Brannon: Sure. The sensual experience.

Wayne Shorter: There's Martha Stewart again.

Mike Brannon: What inspires you these days? Where do you get inspiration; where have you always gotten inspiration? Does it change?

Wayne Shorter: Inspires? The inspiration I get is from the enormity, the endlessness of life. This amazing place and places, the lightning bursts between people. And people and events that's happening.

Mike Brannon: Like a brainstorm.

Wayne Shorter: Yeah. Someone, like, gives you a nudge, "Did you see that? Did you hear that?" And then you see, like, you see a moment of the drama! Even though you're passing through people and you see, like, a dramatic moment, then you won't ever see that again. But you'll know its still going on. And yours is going on. And then whatever purpose comes to the surface over a period of time, the purpose starts to crystallize. Purpose, and not just single purpose, but the children of, you know (laughs) - purpose's children. And you find that your part becomes peculiar unto yourself along with all the other parts that people allow themselves to know. And then knowing that knowing is not good enough to sustain and transcend the coldness of knowledge for its own sake. We find that we have to summon some deep within ourselves, the most unique wisdom, never attained, in order to deal with the unknown.

Mike Brannon: How do you connect with that...on a regular basis?

Wayne Shorter: Well, on a regular basis you call someone up, you're calling a certain person, you're calling Florence. And you pick up the phone and you say, 'Florence, are you there?' But if you call Florence and you say, 'Jane?'...'Oh, you have the wrong number.' Bam! Or we speak everyday, we say things and most of the times throughout the world, within every language, most people are talking about basically the same stuff, every day. And what we think, say and do are, to me, the components of our report card. The Karmic report card...building Karma. What we think, say and do. If we think, say, and do something that we've never said before, it would be an attachment to a name of something. If you say, 'Hello people, how you doing, good morning,' everything like that, a lot of people thinking, 'I don't like her, I never did like her; this guy gets on my nerves...'

But if you call on your eternal if I say, 'What's your real name?' Your real name has to do with thoughts, words and actions and I used to look in the mirror and say, 'What's your real name? But it's not soul either, its what's your real name? Its a doing name. What's your real name? It’s not Homosapien, not human being, not male, not this...And then when I was forty my wife was talking to me and Herbie and Buster Williams and other people--we all talking about things and everything. And we were talking about this ultimate, like when you summon something from within yourself. And what we do is summon dedications. A dedication to the mystical part of ourselves, a dedication to the incomprehensible component of ourselves with the greatest dedicated cause to make the greatest effect through our words, thoughts and deeds. We're summoning to BE this well/wealth of wisdom. It’s a Dimoku. In the morning and evening we do something called Dimoku. Some people call it a Mantra. Well, sort of. People need a word to match up to something. The Dimoku is something else. The Dimoku is: I dedicate myself to...(laughs) - you have to say that long sentence - but the Sanskrit is...You know what I'm getting ready to say, right?

Mike Brannon: I think so.

Wayne Shorter: The Sanskrit is: Nom

Mike Brannon: Yo ho renge kyo.

Wayne Shorter: Nom yo is mystic law, of ourselves. Renge: cause and effect. Kyo, the shortcut of that is through sound. Kyo - sound, but its also words, thoughts and deeds. And all phenomena. Because words do have power. Like a person who cusses all the time: "Grrr, kick your ass," (if they) do that all the time. But say a person who doesn't curse all the time, appears to be a nice kind of person, maybe a religious cleric, or something like that, and something befalls this person..."Ah, why did that happen? Why is this happening?". It's because the present path that they're on is a culmination of the words, thoughts and deeds that go along with it. Its a carrying out - cuss words - which are camouflage/in frock. But you could never get them in a court of law to say that they're connected with cuss words. But resentment - these are deep - resentment and all that carry an effect. And appreciation is just as deep. Sometimes people act out appreciation and they don't mean it. So, then people say, "Do we have to be all this, to make it?" So when people come to a concert and hear instrumental music or stuff that we may be doing...hey, its the same pop audience who like Jefferson Airplane and everything, all that kind of stuff. That same pop audience: "You mean I gotta dig all the way down into myself to enjoy? That's too much work" (laughs) Also, its been made easy access to feel that, to say that. It's also taken 75 years to 100 years of conditioning for that dot to disconnect. I mean historically we've been historically involved with disconnecting many dots. And we wonder why things are do not connect. We're gonna fix that though. James Dean said at the end of Rebel Without a Cause, "You want me to fix it?" To Sal Mineo, "I'll fix it" (laughs). You saw that movie?

Mike Brannon: Yeah. Not in a long time though.

Wayne Shorter: Natalie Wood was looking at him: "I’ll fix it".

Mike Brannon: Yeah, she was something.

Wayne Shorter: Sal Mineo says, "You will?" "I told you I’ll fix it." (laughs) I just like those subtleties in movies.

Mike Brannon: (laughs) Yeah. Well you can take these things, you know, in a very personal way. They can have personal meaning to you that nobody else would get, maybe, because of what's going on inside you. Like we can have an external life and an internal life.

Wayne Shorter: Yeah. I think that's what about checking out "Searching for Captain Nemo?" Check that one out. See what the Disney people, employees, painters, artists and everything and storytellers say. Now, here's the question I get from interviewers: "What is it in the music? What are you doing? Are you doing mathematics or this and that?" I'm thinking the same thing as Steve Spielberg is: 'What's the story? It doesn't have to be, "Once upon a time...da da da da da." (It) can be like, one second you pass somebody in the street for one second and you say, "Wow, that's interesting". But you said, like there's something going on inside of you, it's still a story. And you wonder what's gonna happen to that person. That's the story. A story has to do with caring. You wonder what's going to happen to that person. That means you care. You start to super-impose, "What if, what if..." I hope that person makes it or this and that. And the kids have a lot of that feeling with dogs, animals, their pets and stuff. It’s a continuing story 'til they get into their terrible teens. (laughs)

Mike Brannon: Are you affected a lot by film scores? Do you like film scores?

Wayne Shorter: I'm not affected by the fact that nobody's taking any chances.

Mike Brannon: Really? You don't think anyone is?

Wayne Shorter: I don't hear any chance taking. I think John William's opening of "Catch Me if You Can" was good, with the horns and all the saxophones and all that. It was good. That last...the guy who plays Hannibal Lechter, when he played like a servant in a house. What was that movie? Nice music in there.

Mike Brannon: Is that "Howard's End?"

Wayne Shorter: Not "Howard's End," the other one, written by the Japanese.

Mike Brannon: Damn. I know what you mean. I can't think of the title. He's the butler and he falls in love with her over a long period of time, but can’t tell her - "The Remains of the Day!"

Wayne Shorter: Yeah, and then he drops the bowl at the end. (laughs) The way the movie began, there's a sound in there. But I look for intricate stuff and science fiction, or sci-fi movies. Of course you can get a conglomeration of things, but horror and sci-fi are the only ones I look for. But there are some other nice things too, but not enough. Nobody's taking any chances.

Mike Brannon: What would they have to do to be taking chances, as far as you're concerned? What would you have to hear?

Wayne Shorter: Maybe not be so much a part of the group effort. (laughs) Well, you've got to be a part of the story...its like a co-operative effort.

Mike Brannon: This big commercial effort?

Wayne Shorter: Yeah. And then somebody says, "All right, let's get a hit song in here."

Mike Brannon: Well, your creativity's not limited to music, you also paint and draw, since childhood.

Wayne Shorter: Well, I haven’t done anything since 1988 and before 1988 I hadn't done anything since 1949. So I had to wait forty-something years. So I’ll have to wait another forty years before I do something. (laughs) Is that enough?

Mike Brannon: Yeah, unless you want to talk about your new album.

Wayne Shorter: Well, I already did. Everything I talked about is about that.

Mike Brannon: Ok. (laughs)

Wayne Shorter: Translate all that; translate everything I talked about to music. The new album: how do you rehearse the unknown? That's a clue.

Mike Brannon: Ok, well I certainly appreciate your time. Thank you, Wayne.

Mike Brannon is guitarist/writer for the Synergy Group ( Their latest release is "Barcodes" w/ members of King Crimson and Grammy-winning Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. The follow-up, "Later," with special guests Harvie Swartz, Paul Wertico, Bill Evans and others TBA will be released in late ‘03.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Wayne Shorter
  • Subtitle: A Formidable Sonance
Login to post comments