Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Michelle Mercer's Insightful Wayne Shorter Biography

by Michelle Mercer 

At the Hollywood Bowl not too long before he passed, Miles Davis told Wayne Shorter, “You know, you need to be more exposed.” A rather intriguing comment about Shorter who certainly has had a most distinguished career in jazz as a musician, a composer and a person. Shorter was a central figure in the bands of Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers and the second great Miles Davis Quintet, before forming Weather Report with Joe Zawinul, and then having the fruitful partnership with Brazilian singer, Milton Nascimento, and in more recent years lea ing his own highly regarded group. Throughout this tenure, he has enriched the jazz corpus with such classic compositions as Africaine, Native Dancer, Lester Left Town, Footprints, Delores, E.S.P., Infant Eyes, Neferiti, Mysterious Traveler, Super Nova, and Speak No Evil, to list a few. At the same time, Shorter’s playing, which fortunately is fairly well documented, shows him to be one of the great saxophonists of the past few decades and certainly one who may have shown influence from John Coltrane, but certainly developed his own approach.

Michelle Mercer was fortunate enough to get Wayne’s cooperation in writing her biography and overview of his music, Footprints: The Life and Work of Wayne Shorter. Not only was she able to interview and spend time around Shorter, but this also enabled many of Shorter’s associates to cooperate with her. Shorter is not the simplest interviewee, and as Herbie Hancock notes Shorter does not simply answer questions, he reacts. “Reactions, not just answers, that are chock-full of wisdom. In his jovial way, and with an innately uncanny sense. Wayne says what a person needs to hear in order to expand himself.” As Ms. Mercer notes in her introduction, getting to write this biography involved more than simply charting the events of Wayne’s life, which she does. It involved being around him and realizing his still evolving life and career.

Growing up in Newark, Wayne was fortunate to have a mother that nurtured his creative whims which included an early display of artistic talent and allowed his imagination to flourish., as well as be critical of social norms and institutions, and in their neighborhood where some of the immigrant families were less fortunate than the Shorters, his parents pointed this out “to discourage racial stereotyping and encourage self-reliance.” Then he went to Arts High whose alumni include Sarah Vaughan, Melba Moore, Connie Francis and Woody Shaw where his artistic bent was encouraged and while there discovered music, namely bebop, which led him to develop an interest in playing music at the age of 15.

Perhaps a late beginner, nevertheless Shorter quickly picked up the technical aspects of music, including reading quickly, and started playing in local bands and going to New York University as a music education major while still playing and starting to compose, and playing the Palladium on a bill with Tito Puente who recalled to Wayne years later how Wayne’s band from Newark had kicked his band’s ass. He met and started working with Horace Silver, and later met John Coltrane, with whom he would practice together, and then begin a friendship with Joe Zawinul. While with Maynard Ferguson, he was recruited by Art Blakey to replace Hank Mobley, where his talent a saxophonist and composer blossomed. It was one of the great editions of Blakey’s Band with Lee Morgan on trumpet. While with Blakey, some called him a Coltrane clone but Sonny Rollins noted that while Wayne liked Trane and himself, he was innovative himself and it came out in how he constructed his solos, “He was an honest boy and a real player.”

With Blakey he introduced such songs as Lester Left Town and Africaine. With Blakey, he toured Europe for the first time and the closing concert in Paris featured several expatriates including Bud Powell who sat in with the Messengers. Afterwards Powell, Blakey and others socialized, but Wayne went back to his room, drinking some wine and work on some tunes. At 3 A.M., there was a knock on the door, and opening it he was surprised to see Bud Powell, not Lee Morgan or Walter Davis, who came in and asked Wayne to play something. Wayne launched into Dance of the Infidels, after which Bud thanked him and left, an event that stuck in Wayne’s mind like other encounters he had with famous jazz legends.

The time with Blakey was the first major exposure of Shorter’s talents and contemporaneous with his first recordings as a leader on Vee-Jay, which have been followed over the past few decades by his tenure with Miles Davis in Davis’ Second Quintet, and contemporaneous with his Blue Note releases like Speak No Evil, and Super NovaThen with long-time friend Joe Zawinul he was an integral part of perhaps the greatest fusion band, Weather Report, where he focused on soprano sax in order to be heard. Then there was the V.S.O.P reunion at the 1976 Newport in New York Jazz Festival and the accompanying tour, and after a number of years he recorded his first solo album in years and introduced the United States to the remarkable Milton Nascimento, and on to later gigs with Joni Mitchell and a tour with Carlos Santana, to his present band.

Mercer chronicles the life as well as the personal evolution of Shorter as he adapted and became committed to Buddhism attempting to balance the religion’s demands to the conflicting demands of a musician’s life, his marriage to Ana Maria, his ailing first child Isak whose brain damage may have been as a result of a vaccination and the devotion of the family to the child, sheltering Tina Turner through the worst of her times with Ike at the point where she finally broke away and went on her own, and when Ana Maria changed flights to meet him in Europe and boarded the tragically fated Flight 800 in 1995.

This rather sterile description of the book fails to convey the richness of the narrative. Footprints doesn’t describe Wayne’s compositions in technical detail but conveys a sense of the recordings and his playing. More importantly it conveys the complexity of his person and his relationships. The book opens and repeats with the narrative Wayne going backstage to meet Miles Davis at one of Miles’ last, if not the last, performances, and after others were sent out, being told he needed to be exposed. Shorter has never had a flamboyant personality and while sometimes shy, he has always been thoughtful and caring and has known when to say things. Fortunately he continues to expose himself as he plays and bring us his magic in performance and on record. Footprints includes 19 pages listing Wayne’s compositions and the first recordings (if they were recorded) of the composition.

One wishes there had been a discography of Wayne’s recordings, but that probably would have been a book in itself. Footprints was a fascinating and enlightening read that will be hard to stop reading at times, and like I often do after being engaged with the book has led me to reexamine Wayne’s musical legacy. 

This review originally appeared in the July-August 2007 jazz & Blues Report (Issue 295).  I do not remember if I purchased this or received a review copy. I close this review with this 2003 video of Wayne Shorter performing Footprints.

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