Wayne Shorter interview: “You can stay as you are and delve into another medium”

Friday, August 26, 2022

Stuart Nicholson spoke with Wayne Shorter about the narrative behind this audio-visual feast, Emanon, and places it within the wider context of his formidable canon

Wayne Shorter (photo: Michael Putland)
Wayne Shorter (photo: Michael Putland)

At the age of 15, saxophonist Wayne Shorter created his own comic book – he still has it – a thick 54-page exercise book of intricate blue-pen drawings he called Other Worlds, a story of space expedition and an inter-species marriage. Almost 70 years on he still remains a serious comic book aficionado, able to rattle off the countless comic book heroes popular in his early teens. “There was Superman, Captain Marvel, names like the Flame, the Green Arrow and Speedy his sidekick,” he recalls with enthusiasm. “These comic book heroes always had sidekicks – The Torch and Toro. There was the one who swam under the water, Sub-Mariner – he came before Aquaman – Submariner had a lady. There was Bulletman and Bulletgirl, there was Hawkman. There was Airboy. Then there was Mandrake the Magician, The Phantom, The Hangman, Blue Beetle, Green Lantern – I had them all.” In early 1940s America, when Shorter was growing up, comics were the most popular form of entertainment in the US. At just five cents each, between 80 to 100 million people were buying them weekly, making them more widely consumed than the radio or movies. Back then, comic books defined Shorter’s world and, to a certain extent, it is impossible not to think of them doing so today.

Wayne Shorter

So it was not entirely coincidental that Blue Note records’ boss Don Was came up with the idea of creating a unique audio-visual experience for Shorter’s latest release, the 3CD set Emanon, by combining it with a specially commissioned graphic novel. It’s Shorter’s first release in five years and the first time a jazz musician has been honoured in this way with such a sumptuous release package ,where the music draws its meaning from the graphic novel, and the graphic novel draws its meaning from the music.“Yes, that was [Blue Note boss] Don Was’ idea,” confirms Shorter. “He said, ‘Why don’t we do a graphic novel with this next album?’, and in a sense it is related to the music… there is an emergence, a continuation and eternal discovery, an adventure.” Illustrated by Randy DuBurke, the Brooklyn-raised graphic artist, the powerful imagery is based on a storyline penned by Shorter and Monica Sly depicting an epic interplanetary journey undertaken by Emanon, “Emanon’s story is the quest to find originality,” Shorter continues. “It’s probably the closest thing you can get to creation.”

The music that accompanies it comprises four central original compositions by Shorter – ‘Prometheus Unbound’, ‘Pegasus’, ‘Lotus’ and ‘The Three Marias’ – recorded with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and his quartet – Danilo Perez on piano, John Patitucci on bass and Brian Blade on drums. In addition, there are six vibrant live performances by the quartet, recorded at the Barbican in London at the end of 2016. Shorter describes these live performances as, “Satellites, as Europa is to Jupiter! That means they have lives of their own, discoveries of their own, but are still connected.”

The four central orchestral pieces were recorded the day after performing them live with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra in Carnegie Hall, New York City in February 2013. “The Orpheus Orchestra do not have a conductor,” says Shorter. “We didn’t have a click track or a conductor through the whole process! It was left up to Brian Blade [on drums] and everyone listening to everything – changes in tempo and all that – we were really concerned with staying away from the whole ‘robotic’ thing. Anyone in that room has a voice. So anybody can stand up and suggest this and suggest that, the whole thing was supposed to be an adventure, be free enough to go into an adventure from wherever you come from. If you come from a classical background, a jazz background, it’s just about having a voice and not being forced to change your way of doing things. You can stay as you are and delve into another medium”.

Now aged 85 years, Shorter has never settled for nostalgia or reliving past triumphs, as many jazz musicians seem to do when they reach a certain age and, as his writing here shows, he is still capable of turning heads and stirring people up. His story covers almost 60 years of jazz innovation that can be traced on recordings, like footprints in the sands of time. His first recording session was with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers on Africaine for the Blue Note label on 10 November 1959, featuring Lee Morgan on trumpet, but not released until 1981. And on the same date, in the same studio and with the same personnel, albeitwith Jimmy Cobb replacing Blakey and Paul Chambers on bass replacing Jymie Merritt, he recorded Introducing Wayne Shorter, for the VeeJay label.

With Blakey, Shorter appeared on countless (mainly) Blue Note albums, touring widely, representing jazz and America to the world. He contributed a substantial part of the band’s repertoire, becoming its musical director and moved Blakey’s music from pure hard-bop to sophisticated post-bop. Such talent didn’t go unnoticed by Alfred Lion and Frances Wolff of Blue Note, who signed him as an artist in his own right after he had recorded three albums for VeeJay. With Blue Note, Shorter recorded 11 albums under his own name between 1964-70 (12 albums if you include the as-yet unissued Creation). All of them are classics, none more so than the seven between 1964 and 1966, representing an astonishing period of creativity, because at the time he was also contributing original material to Art Blakey and, from 1964, the Miles Davis Quintet, whom he joined that year after leaving Blakey. Many of Shorter’s compositions are today regarded as jazz standards, such as the often played ‘Footprints’, and are the subject of study and analysis in jazz academe to this day.

During the Christmas break in 1969, Shorter left Miles Davis, having recorded his final Blue Note album in October 1970, the aforementioned Creation. At the end of the year he began rehearsals with keyboardist Joe Zawinul, from which emerged the group Weather Report. Signing with the Columbia label, the 16 albums they recorded between 1971 and 1986 are generally regarded as a high point in the jazz-rock era. And, for fans wedded to acoustic jazz, Shorter could also be heard in the ‘supergroup’ V.S.O.P., originally formed by Herbie Hancock for a retrospective of his work in Carnegie Hall in 1976. The group was effectively the ‘Second Great Quintet’ Miles Davis led between 1964-68, with Freddie Hubbard in Davis’ stead.

Such was their success they continued to tour and record into the early 1980s. In 1974 came Native Dancer, the first album under Shorter’s name for Columbia. On it, he came up with the most original new sound in Brazilian jazz since Stan Getz’s success with the bossa nova in the early 1960s. In the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, Shorter contributed classic solos on recordings by Steely Dan and Joni Mitchell, and appeared on the soundtrack of motion pictures such as Glengarry Glen Ross and the Harrison Ford film The Fugitive.

Between 1985 and 1988,Shorter recorded a further three solo albums for Columbia – Atlantis, Phantom Navigator and Joy Ryder – and these, together with the Grammy-winning High Life, his 1995 debut for Verve Records, owed much to electronic sounds. But as Joni Mitchell, a great fan of Shorter’s music, wryly remarked, the backbeats “put fence posts through the music”.

When, in 1986, Weather Report disbanded, Shorter, like Joe Zawinul, initially seemed unsure of where to position his music. In 1986, he toured with a short-lived quartet with Mitchel Forman (keyboards), Gary Willis (bass) and Tom Brechtlein (drums), but in 1988 he embarked on a 26-date tour throughout the US and Europe with Carlos Santana, which seemed to get his creative juices flowing. The following year he contributed to Don Henley’s The End of the Innocence that went to No.8 on the Billboard Hot 100, and produced the album Pilar by the Portuguese singer-songwriter Pilar Homem de Melo.

In 1995 he signed with the Verve label and his collaboration with Herbie Hancock on 1+1 earned a Grammy Award. In 2000 he formed his first permanent acoustic group under his own name with Danilo Pérez, John Patitucci and Brian Blade and a series of critically acclaimed albums followed, including Footprints Live! (2002), Beyond the Sound Barrier (2005) and Without A Net (2013).

There was a pleasing symmetry when Shorter rejoined the Blue Note label in 2013. Returning to the home of his earliest triumphs, Without A Net (2013) and his latest release Emanon seem to pick up from where he left off all those years ago. Its musical centrepiece is ‘Prometheus Unbound’ which touches base with Shorter’s teens.

“When I was about 19-years-old, I started writing an opera and what you hear at the beginning of ‘Prometheus’, that was for the curtain opening-up and that’s the first thing you hear, those notes,” says Shorter. “But when I was working on it, at 19, I was going into New York University for four years and two years in the army, so I abandoned working on it. But when I met Joseph Zawinul [and formed Weather Report] he heard me playing this on the piano back in 1969-70 – ‘Hey Wayne, you should do something with that’ – and every now and again he would play those notes, that theme, just to remind me to finish it! The story had to do with a family that lived in Greenwich Village, New York – a brother and sister, and the brother was hanging out with a motorcycle gang, and they were all wearing their leather jackets. When I abandoned working on the opera, Leonard Bernstein came out with West Side Story! The same kind of vibe and intention! When I came up with the Prometheus idea I was thinking of Mary Shelley and Prometheus Unbound [by Percy Bysshe Shelley] and [Mary Shelley’s] Frankenstein [or, The Modern Prometheus]. And she was only 18-years-old when she came up with that. Along with Don Was and myself, and some other people, we liked the idea that everything is connected. The kind of music on Emanon is not really heard a lot on the radio, this kind of sound, and leaves someone wanting to see something, and it’s up to the person to say, ‘I want to look at this graphic novel’, since attitudes can be changed when we get ‘The Big Picture’.”

Michelle Mercer, Shorter’s biographer, has spoken of how he usually frustrates expectations for direct answers by mind-boggling leaps of the imagination by way of a reply. As his friend, pianist Chick Corea once observed, “Wayne may be the one who invented the idea of thinking outside the box, 'cause I don’t think he ever found the box.”

Questions are often met by riddles as he laughs and chuckles as you try fathom out his meaning. And there is always a meaning in what he says, so that’s why unlocking the puzzle he has posed with his graphic novel allows us to better understand the music that accompanies it. The storyline, devised (of course) by Shorter with the help of Monica Sly, and illustrated by Randy DuBurke depicts a 'heroic' space-age journey undertaken by Emanon, who is confronted with four challenges before receiving his reward. The first challenge is on the planet Ypnos, where the government reinforces the idea its citizens are powerless, but Emanon resists and, heeding a call to action, unleashes great power, bringing light into the darkness. The second challenge is on the planet Polémos, where Emanon has to call on his unknown potential, setting himself on a path of resistance to respond to the bloodshed around him. He is met by fearsome opposition, but it is no match for him, and in the depths of darkness a seed of beauty is sown. The third challenge is on the planet Logokrisia, ruled by powerful minds. But Emanon will not be censored, and embarks on a quest to free the planet of ideological and individual oppression. Threatened by Emanon’s “wake-up call” to the planet’s citizenry, the government respond and, fuelled by self-belief, Emanon squares up against his attacker and brings joy, opportunity and free thought to Logokrisia. Finally, on Agnostos, he is confronted by a terrible creature, and breaking free of his chains he seeks to escape, pursued by this mutant horror, but suddenly there is a transformation and before him stands an “exquisite woman”. It’s a story full of obvious symbolism, but what exactly is being symbolised?

Emanon’s epic journey is a variant on what the late Joseph Campbell, formerly American Professor of Literature at Sarah Lawrence College, calls the “Hero Myth”, a theme that runs through all ancient mythology. The story of Prometheus is a variant on this; he goes forth into the unknown and brings back fire for the benefit of humanity and civilisation, but falls out with Zeus and is cursed for what he did. The hero myth involves a 'journey', leaving in one condition and returning in an another, more enlightened one. This universal myth underpins the three great religions, Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam.

In Christianity, Christ goes out into the desert and is confronted by three temptations, returns to bring enlightenment to civilisation. Buddha goes into the forest is similarly confronted by three temptations and returns, and brings back a new way of thinking. In Islam, the prophet Mohammad goes out into the desert and meditates and there is light and the angel Jibreel, who orders him to recite. These words he believed were the words of God, and when Mohammed returned from the desert they were recorded as the Koran. In all three religions there is a journey, a going and return and a transformation – you think this way and now you have to think that way. These transformations are achieved by the trials and tests the hero undergoes during his journey that illustrate there is no reward without strife or challenge. Similarly, in Emanon’s journey he has to overcome his four planetary challenges to witness transformation that rewards him with, as Shorter puts it, “an eternal discovery”, an “exquisite” woman (in this context, beauty is eternal).

Shorter seems to have used Emanon’s tale as a leitmotif for the problems he believes afflict American society today as he entreaties America to wake-up, “in the United States, right now, this country needs to wake up!” he says, and, just like Emanon, “unleash great power”, or unleash the potential that lies within us all. “‘Wake-up, wake-up there’s a giant on the beach!’, there’s a whole story in there,” continues Shorter. “There’s drama [in the graphic novel], and dictatorships and everything, breaking through the potential that exists within, not something outside of one’s self, something stronger that’s in yourself, to save the world, it’s the potential we have as a human being, that exists within all us, wake ourselves up and everything, and people are waking up! I can always say [the graphic novel] is having an adventure for the future! I hope it will inspire some people – many people – to jump into the unknown without fear”.

This interview originally appeared in the October 2018 issue of Jazzwise magazine. Never miss an issue – subscribe today

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