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Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Wayne Shorter 2002 Interview

Ran: 5/21/02 on
Title: Wayne Shorter's Big Footprints

Wayne Shorter ranks among the greatest saxophonists in jazz history; unlike many of them, he is leaving an equal legacy as a composer. Born in 1933 in Newark, NJ, he first gained widespread notice during his time in Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, 1959-64, where he became Blakey's music director and his compositional talents blossomed. Miles Davis first asked Shorter to join his band in 1960 when John Coltrane left, but Shorter stuck with Blakey and also made his first recordings as a leader.

When Shorter finally joined Davis permanently in 1964 (after earlier working briefly as a fill-in), he was the final piece in what became known as "the second great quintet." Davis, Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams revolutionized jazz with such classic albums as Miles Smiles at the same time Shorter was recording a series of brilliant albums under his own name for Blue Note; then Davis' group expanded and went electric to key the new sound of Fusion with more classics (In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew). At its core were Shorter and keyboardist Joe Zawinul, who both quit Davis' band and formed Weather Report in 1970 (lasting until 1986), with 1977's Heavy Weather its high point. In the late '70s Shorter reunited with Davis bandmates Hancock, Carter, and Williams as V.S.O.P., with Freddie Hubbard filling the trumpet chair. Shorter also explored Brazilian jazz with Milton Nascimento on Native Dancer; Latin jazz had long been a part of Shorter's style, and continued to be during his resurgence in the second half of the 1990s on Verve.

Shorter's compositional talents over the years are nicely summarized on his new album, Footprints Live!, where he plays with younger veterans -- Danilo Perez (piano), John Patitucci (bass), and Brian Blade (drums) -- in a context that leaves him more room for improvisation than has often been the case. Footprints Live! looks back over his career with a program of tunes from his Miles Davis association ("Sanctuary," "Masquelero") and his Blue Note albums ("Go," "JuJu") -- with the title track fitting in both categories -- along with 1985's "Atlantis" (here with a new Latin tinge) and the lovely "Aung San Suu Kyi" from his duet album with Hancock, 1+1.

Shorter's conversation with CDNOW was conducted over the phone while he ate breakfast one morning, wandering through mystico-philosophical byways -- at one point, he said, "When you start talking about music, it's boring, about the workshop part of it" -- before arriving at the nuts-and-bolts discussion of his music, Footprints Live!, and future plans.

CDNOW: You haven't put out your albums at a very quick pace in the last decade or so. What are you working on?

Wayne Shorter: We have a studio album coming out, maybe by next January. It's more of a celebration of different people's input musically, but more than the music, a celebration of life's eternity, our eternal existence, and on top of eternity, to celebrate what eternity could possibly be for -- what is it for? And what is music for, and what is anything for? But a valuable purpose is to realize that eternity affords us the adventure of life, and the adventure never ends. The answer to living goes on, and I celebrate that. The same guys are going to be on the studio album, plus there's some celli and some brass and woodwinds, and there's other players, Brad Mehldau's going to join the keyboard contingent. The music will be pieces from the 12th or 13th century. And from Wales, a piece that Charlotte Church did on her second album, I made an arrangement of "She Moves Through the Fair." There's a piece of music by Leroy Anderson. There's another piece of music that Miles Davis gave me in 1965 from Spain, it's called "Selling Happiness," "El Vendo Alegría." There's some other things we do, Villa Lobos' Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5, that's with the celli. Right now it's in the mixing stage. So in essence, I worked on two albums at once.

Maybe to fill in the blank about why does it take so long to make an album, if there's nothing to say musically, wait until there's a story to tell, a summary of some worthy observation. Eight years can go by where some people have nothing to do with musical sounds. Someone asked me, "What were you doing those seven years when you had no recordings?" I say, it was with a different orchestra, a more complete orchestra, doing things in life with the orchestra of life. And those things are not written about in The New York Times, things like daily accomplishments, daily battles.

Let's talk about some of the tunes you picked for the live album. Your most famous is probably "Footprints," which is the name of the album too. When you first played that on your Adam's Apple album, it was much slower. Then when you played it with Miles Davis, it got faster. Now it's gotten even faster, and it has changed the character of the piece a lot.

Originally it crossed my mind that I was thinking, from the name, from the sound of it, and we're kind of plodding along, I figured that some listeners would go from the name and say, "Okay, Robinson Crusoe, on an island by himself, and he sees a set of footprints." And I realized, I'm thinking from the young adults' reading experience. But then I just left it open-ended by not explaining anything more to myself. It was a thought-feeling, like, let's see what happens with this. When we recorded back in those days, that was a general feeling. When Lee Morgan and I discussed something, he'd say, "Once we've got this on wax, it's gonna be out there forever. You don't know what people may do with this or that." Playing "Footprints" with Miles brought Herbie and all those other guys, the people, into play. The music doesn't do anything, the music is neutral until the human factor gets in there. As years passed, I developed a coda, sort of a "Row Row Row Your Boat" kinda thing. I said, "Footprints" is in a minor key and everything, let's lead these footprints into the light, so that's why on the end there's that brighter canon, so to speak.

The newest song on Footprints Live! is from your album with Herbie Hancock.

"Aung San Suu Kyi," that was [from] a modern harmony class at NYU back in 1952. It was four measures I did for that class. I kept that music in my piano seat until the '90s. I lifted up this seat and the music was still there, and I looked at it and I remembered when we did it in class, Professor Madina Scoville said to me, "You're mixing styles. If you can mix styles in a way which has this story, I think you're gonna have something." Her outside-of-the-university knowledge was always present. After I found this music in the '90s and I started working on it, I started to see what she meant. I still kept it simple, and Herbie and I did it, and it's on this album. It's not finished. It's not finished. I'm still gonna do something with it with full orchestra and develop some stuff. There's things in there from 1952, there's other stuff on the same paper, I didn't go all the way through what I wrote. I've gotta get it out there, get it down. It might not come out like jazz, recognizable as [in pompous voice] "This is jazz, jazz is supposed to sound like this." Jazz to me is the spirit of democracy, freedom, expression, the First Amendment, all of the Amendments, the ones that need to be amended [chuckles]. Beethoven had that spirit of jazz. My definition of jazz means no category. Mozart was bad, man.

Speaking of expression, on this record on some of the pieces you cut notes out, you're playing very sparely, and it makes the variety of timbre you're using on your saxophones stand out as the primary thing on the track. It's not so much the notes you're playing as how you're playing them. It's a bit of a change from the earlier versions.

Yeah, yeah, I think you're onto something, which I'm still working on. I'm working on something that Miles said. He said [in hoarse, Milesian whisper], "I don't like music that sounds like music." And he didn't like a trumpet that sounded like a trumpet. He said, "I don't play the trumpet." And I don't like a saxophone that sounds like a saxophone, in other words, how a saxophone is being played, has been played, is playing, and should be played. There's a sound that fits with electronics and there's a sound that used to fit with the old-timers. That word "legitimate" -- remember they used to have in the old times? [Goes back to pompous voice] "He's legitimate, he's playing legitimate, he's got a legitimate sound." I don't like none of that stuff. So I'm working from the soprano [and tenor] saxophones, it's the only two paintbrushes I have as far as that goes, until I start writing for the orchestra. For instance, when Herbie and I played, at one time, a lady from Sweden, she's a journalist said, because I only played soprano, "Now I see what you mean. The soprano became the viola, the soprano became the cello, it became the French horn, it became a tuba!" And Herbie was doing the whole string section and flutes and stuff. Man, we got some stuff on tape from those duet concerts, if that stuff ever comes out, but for orchestra, if somebody just copied it -- I don't have time to do it -- formulate it, write it out, you've got some serious art. Some of that rehearsing, you're gonna hear that stuff sometime. I'm gonna get it down.

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