Eternal thinker: Wayne Shorter.
IF Wayne Shorter — the composer whose musical scores Miles Davis never altered — can seem at times to be on another planet, it’s certain Captain Marvel will be at his side.
Shorter is a deep thinker and a philosopher, but the saxophonist who wrote such classics as Nefertiti, Footprints and Prince of Darkness peppers his conversation with humour and light-hearted references to superheroes.
In the 76-year-old, who in his early days played with Art Blakey, Davis and the fusion group Weather Report before forming his current acoustic quartet 10 years ago, it is easy to recognise the mischievous high school boy who played hooky 56 times so he could hear Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk play at the Adams Theatre in his home town of Newark, New Jersey.
A strict Bavarian music teacher, Achilles d’Amico, encouraged the young Shorter’s love of Parker, and introduced him to Stravinsky and Mozart.
“When I heard Dizzy Gillespie’s big band and Stravinsky and Dmitri Shostakovich, these people became to me like Batman and Robin, and Charlie Parker was like Captain Marvel,” Shorter recalls by phone from Los Angeles.
“These were interchangeable with comic-book heroes and characters in novels who would overcome things, fighting for justice and all that.”
For Shorter, a Buddhist, the struggle is to convey the “great adventure” of life through music.
“People who don’t believe in eternity think they only have one life and they have a lot of incentive to rob banks and murder if they don’t get what they want. I have decided to write music that inspires thinking about something that goes on and grows and becomes more human,” he says.
Shorter has faced his share of tragedy. His brother Alan, a trumpet player, died suddenly in 1986 of a ruptured aorta. Shorter’s second wife, Ana Maria, was killed when TWA Flight 800 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean in 1996.
“Tragedies, failures — these things are temporary,” he says. “But there’s something else that’s constant and indestructible. I’m trying to write music about indestructible happiness.”
He has also written about suffering and struggle. He and Herbie Hancock each won a Grammy for a piece titled Aung San Suu Kyi, in honour of the Burmese campaigner for democracy.
“That music was originally written as an exercise in advanced harmony when I was at New York University in the fifties,” Shorter says. “I found it in my piano chair after all those years and my mind went to Burma. Since its release I have received word through diplomatic channels that Aung San Suu Kyi has the album.”
Shorter says in Australia his quartet, with Danilo Perez on piano, John Patitucci on bass and Brian Blade on drums, may play some material from the acclaimed 2005 album Beyond the Sound Barrier, but “we’re gonna surprise ourselves”.
“Because we don’t rehearse — there’s no time — people will hear moments with this group when they will think, ‘Where can they go now? What’s going on?’ It may sound like a struggle, but the challenge is to make the struggle sound good — the kind where everyone will want to jump in there and struggle with us.
“Then, out of the struggle comes Captain Marvel,” Shorter says with a laugh.
Audiences will not hear his latest, unrecorded compositions in which the quartet plays extended works with full orchestras in St Louis, Holland and France.
“When the music starts with the quartet and orchestra, that’s virgin territory right there in front of us,” Shorter says. “It’s like an astronaut jumping on to another planet. But these guys all have a lot of courage and trust.”
Shorter is impatient with musicians who want only to show off their best sides.
“Some people say I can’t play with strings, that strings don’t swing. Before Miles Davis died he asked me to write something with him for orchestra. And he said, ‘When you write something for strings, put a window in there, in the strings, so I can get out’.”
Canadian film director James Cameron is one of Shorter’s superheroes, perhaps because his alien characters highlight the way we cling to our musical tastes, resisting what may seem too foreign, deep or complex.
“You can’t worry about what the audience wants. If you did that you’d be enhancing the mechanism by which most audiences in America have been conditioned over almost 100 years … almost since the advent of radio.
“There’s a point beyond which they don’t wander and visit in music and in much of the arts,” Shorter says.
“Selling a million records was never our motivation. It would be nice to make a lot of money, but we have refused to get into the antics of payola.
“Record companies used to say, ‘We can’t market that sort of stuff that you’re doing with Weather Report’. But Art Blakey used to say, ‘You can market Wrigley’s chewing gum, but you can’t market jazz’. I’d say they won’t … let’s put it like that.”
Wayne Shorter Quartet plays The Palais on Friday, March 5 at 7.30pm. Local musicians Dave Beck, Stephen Magnusson and Scott Tinkler will open.
This article was published in the Herald Sun, Melbourne, on March 5, 2010