Apr 11, 2023 10:47 AM
Brad Mehldau Tells His Story
At the tail end of 2022, Brad Mehldau took advantage of a New York sojourn to play piano with old friends at Smalls…
Sadly, the formative giants of jazz are passing the torch and joining the ancestors. But such cliché and dwelling on pantheons wouldn’t interest Wayne Shorter, despite the DownBeat Hall of Famer’s fascination with mythology.
His interstellar career threaded through a brief stint with Maynard Ferguson, four formative years with Art Blakey, six with Miles Davis — concurrent to mining a deeply personal (and influential) leader career at Blue Note — then fusing global sounds with Weather Report and delving into further synthetic flavors alongside the sonic subtleties of Brazil before cracking his modus operandi even wider with decades of daredevil acoustic improv in the new century, and then an operatic finale. Despite all this, Shorter was, beyond music, fundamentally a humanist. A science fiction freak as a kid in New Jersey, “Mr. Weird” and “Mr. Gone” discovered Buddhism at 40, but had ever been searching for “other ways” to navigate life’s puzzles and postulations.
Clues to his unquenchable curiosity can be traced in myriad compositional conceits, pregnant with ominous musing, that bespeak the saxophonist’s boundless quest and embrace of rebirth: “Someplace Called ‘Where,’” “More Than Human,” “Fee-Fo-Fi-Fum,” “On The Eve Of Departure.” Thus, don’t unduly mourn Shorter’s transition, which occurred on March 2, at the age of 89, after an extended period of ill health. Instead, celebrate his terra firma triumphs, while squinting at the night sky, awaiting the explosion of a supernova — to reference one of Shorter’s most exploratory, least tethered sessions from 1969.
The following is one of the maestro’s last interviews, a phone conversation that began as a discussion of crucial Shorter collaborator and pianist Danilo Pérez for the May 2022 DownBeat cover. DownBeat found Shorter, despite the discomforts of dialysis, to be utterly lucid — contemplating intimate details of his incandescent career — and fearless. Shorter’s responses have been edited for space, clarity and continuity.
Michael Jackson: I’m wondering how the premier of your opera Iphigenia went?
Wayne Shorter: Well, the New York Times and other newspapers … they used the word “landmark.” They even compared it to Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress — [with] the impact, the road that it’s on. So they seem to think it’s a doorway into something.
Jackson: Well, that will work for you, won’t it? And Frank [Gehry, who designed the sets] was in attendance?
Shorter: Yeah, he was there at the end, too, taking bows. And the conductor, he was the director of the L.A. Phil at one time, and some other people, I couldn’t see them all; we were all on stage together.
Jackson: And was it sold out?
Shorter: Oh, yeah, sold out. In fact, people were standing outside still trying to get in, waiting for a loose ticket here and there, y’know.
Jackson: That’s amazing. Must have taken you back, to, well, I was going to say Weather Report days, but that doesn’t quite make sense.
Shorter: No, this is another hallway, unvisited. … Before he died, Miles Davis called me. He also wanted to do [an opera] rendition, as if Gil Evans was still around. But he called, asking me to write something … Tosca, the opera Tosca and some of the other operas he wanted to get into. Then he passed away.
Jackson: I was thinking back to the first time I saw you perform with Weather Report in Manchester, U.K., 1980 … Jaco [Pastorius], Joe [Zawinul], Peter Erskine, Robert Thomas Jr. I think that was the first time a laser was used for onstage special effect.
Shorter: Oh, yeah-yeah, I remember!
Jackson: Was that your idea?
Shorter: The laser? No, all I was into was doing the performance … just like with Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit,” those robots they used on the video, that was somebody’s idea, a guy from Scotland. Other people tried to take credit, including management, but Herbie reached out beyond the management handcuff. They were against it, but when it was a hit, they were all for it, took their 10 or 15 percent.
Jackson: I was but a twinkle in my father’s eye during your Jazz Messengers era, but they were some heady days, eh? Art Blakey was a progressive, pushy leader.
Shorter: Art and his family knew about a lot of things. “Don’t worry about Fidel Castro, watch out for Papa Doc in Haiti,” he’d say. We went to Algeria. Things happened there, man, with the French gendarmes and all that, the French colonists. We played a concert, and in the middle, Art went to the microphone and said [Shorter offers a gruff-voiced Blakey impersonation], “Ladies and gentlemen, we are unable to continue the concert because of a certain situation. …” Art had all these big words. He’d found out they’d raised the ticket price so high, regular Algerians couldn’t get in. [In protest] we walked out the dressing room to the cars waiting. It was wall-to-wall people steaming with anger at us. Art had a Koran under his arm and went under the name Abdullah Ibn Buhaina. They’d say, “What’s your name?” He’d state, “Abdullah Ibn Buhaina!”
Jackson: Was that during the Algerian War of Independence with France?
Shorter: Yes, 1959, when I got in his band. As Art left the room the promoter said, “You’d better stay in there, they’re very angry. We don’t know what they’re gonna do.” Art said to us — [and] I’d just got out of the Army, by the way — he said, “Gentlemen, are you ready to die?” I’d got that Army thing, I said, “Yeah!” And Art said, “Wayne, you walk beside me.” They were raising their fists and spitting at us. That night we went to a restaurant and all these little soldiers, walking around with machine guns, they knew who we were, but knew we were Americans. Art had a valet, they detained him at the airport. … He had a nose like a hook, and they thought he was Algerian. We saw cannons and bombs over the mountains. [Ahmed] Ben Bella fighting for freedom from France … boom-boom went the bombs!
Jackson: Not exactly “halcyon days” with Blakey in the early days then, but that was an organization with a mission.
Shorter: Once, we were at the Village Gate and here comes Robert Mitchum and Shirley MacLaine walking in, and Blakey got on the microphone: “Ladies and gentlemen, we are blessed with the company of [composer] Samuel Barber.” He’d been standing against the wall unnoticed. A lot was happening then: Leonard Bernstein going to the Five Spot, congratulating Ornette Coleman on accomplishing something musically.
Jackson: Hard-living days, though. I recall, I believe from Michelle Mercer’s book Footprints, something about you and Zawinul — Was it cognac-infused? — falling flat on your faces? And what about that showdown at Slugs’ [the notorious New York saloon where Lee Morgan was murdered], where you had recourse to pull out the hammer you kept in your sax case, right?
Shorter: That was McCoy Tyner’s gig. We were there six nights, and this gang came in from Brooklyn, the doors swinging, you know, like the Wild West. They came in real quiet and lined the walls. I had a hammer in my saxophone case and a big, long screwdriver, and Roy Haynes had these big long drumsticks made for the big tenor drums in marching. You can knock somebody out with those drumsticks! And McCoy and Ahmed Abdul-Malik on the bass, had something, too. Roy spoke up, “We know that some people are here to turn the place out. We don’t know what the reasoning is, but we’re here to tell you, we came prepared.” He took those big drumsticks from behind his back, I reached in my sax case, took out this hammer and the screwdriver; next thing we saw the doors were swinging again, they were on their way out.
Jackson: But you didn’t feel quite out of the woods at the end of the night, if I recall.
Shorter: I walked down the street to get a taxi, and I heard footsteps behind me. There’s a guy who worked at Slugs, C Sharp, he lived across the street, and on pay night they mugged him, took his horn, the money, everything. So I got under a streetlight in the rain, and I took the hammer out again and said [in malevolent voice], “I’m gonna get me somebody tonight!” Ha-ha! The footsteps disappeared, and I went and got my taxi.
Jackson: “Footprints” could have been “Footsteps.”
Shorter: All of this fantasy and ideas is how we make metaphors in the music. We did it a lot in the quartet with Danilo, Brian [Blade] and John [Patitucci]. I’d hear stories about Danilo growing up and Brian, I’d call him “razor blade,” he’s sharp on the drums, man. And John, he worked on my Phantom Navigator album [Columbia, 1986] at Chick Corea’s Madhatter Studios. He’d tell us about his family and how his mother knew how to make lasagna.
We’d have dinner at his house with Chick. Chick and I had camaraderie. We never talked about religion — Scientology, Christianity or anything like that. Whenever we saw each other, we’d make musical noises — oom-cha-gat, da-da, oom-cha-gat. Yay, Chick! His mother cooked lasagna, too. She’d call him, [sings] “Chickie-Chickie-Chick! Chick-ie, Chick-ie!”
We all met at the jam sessions with Tito Puente, the Latin bands, along with Count Basie and all that; there was Chick and Ray Baretto at Birdland and Joe Zawinul would come in off the road from Dinah Washington.
Jackson: Dinah was not to be trifled with, from what I’ve heard — or her father, for that matter. Jimmy Cobb told me once that he was married to Dinah, and I said, “Hmm, I don’t see that listed in her Wikipedia bio anywhere.” To which Jimmy responded, “Put it this way, whenever I went back to her place and bumped into her father, I had to tell him we were married!”
Shorter: Curtis Fuller, the trombonist, told me that when he was working with Quincy Jones’ big band, they all went to Dinah’s wedding to a young Mexican actor. He was in the movie 12 Angry Men with Henry Fonda. At the time, that Flower Drum Song was a big hit, and all the girls from the musical were at the reception getting around the groom. Dinah walked over into the center of the girls and said to the star, Nancy Kwan, “Aloha, bitch!” Ha-ha! “Get your hands off my man, aloha!” Dinah knew how to swing. If she got angry, she couldn’t stop swinging. Her voice, her sentences, they had that musical swing. Miles was like that, too. He didn’t talk much, but whatever he said had a swing to it.
Someone would come in the dressing room unwarranted and Miles would say, [gruff-voiced Miles impression] “How did you get in here? Get him outta here!”
Jackson: I had a similar experience with Jimmy Smith, I was introduced to him in the green room as the guy from DownBeat. He wasn’t well, had a newspaper over his head at the time and grunted, “DownBeat? Get the fuck outta here!” Later we spoke on the phone, and he offered, “If I was Miles Davis, muthafucka, I’d shoot you!”
Shorter: I knew Jimmy Smith pretty well. He said he would never smoke, drink or get involved with drugs. We flew to Japan for a concert that was cancelled because of a typhoon and had to fly back to the U.S. together. He was smoking and hitting the scotch. On another occasion we were at Ronnie Scott’s Club. George Harrison was there, and Roberta Flack. I think Dizzy Gillespie was on the stand with Stan Getz. Jimmy was at the bar holding court, showing people his karate moves. He’d put his foot way up in your face — “Haaaaaa!”
Jackson: It didn’t matter that you’d met Jimmy before. He was, “You’re not Leonard Feather!” Miles was not impressed with hearsay either, so I gather.
Shorter: Here’s the way Miles would ask about somebody. … He’d hear about somebody that he should investigate. “Everybody’s talking about this new guy on the saxophone. You gotta check this guy out.” And Miles would say, “Well that’s all right, but can he see?” They didn’t know what he was talking about.
Jackson: Can he scan the dots, right?
Shorter: Because everybody who worked with Miles and Gil Evans, that big band stuff, you had to read. Philly Joe Jones could read good. Miles could read. But one night he was talking to Trane at the Blue Coronet in Brooklyn. We were up on the bandstand doing a new tune I wrote called “Paraphernalia,” and he read the music but was stumbling a bit in memorizing it. He stopped the band in front of the people — and this was the only time he had done this — held the music up and said, [another Davis impression] “Let’s start it again.” I mean, they called him a king, but that would have been considered vulnerable. He was a human being.
Beethoven suffered a lot writing what he did, but you hear schools and professors say, “This was pure genius. This music came from above.” Had you heard Beethoven himself, it would have been: “Man, I was in trouble. I was fighting this stuff!”
Jackson: Two watchwords that come up in reference to the sonic adventures with your last, long-running quartet are “zero gravity” and “optimistic chaos.”
Shorter: Optimistic chaos is a term Frank Gehry came up with. I lived at Frank’s place in Santa Monica with my wife and Esperanza [Spalding] for three months. I was working on an ending to the opera, and said, “I want the ending to be like chaos, all kinds of brrr, brrr, brrr.” And Frank said, “You mean like optimistic chaos?” So I’m working on that now for a classical pianist I’ve been asked to write things for in Holland. He doesn’t improvise, so I’m working with optimistic chaos. But I’m writing out everything that he could choose to play. There’s 10 other instruments with him and the piano.
Jackson: [Gehry] had this fad of making fish-shaped structures at a certain point in his career but failed to unite the concrete tail with the head of the fish for this important project in Japan. Ultimately he decided to make the building snake-like, despite what had been commissioned. It’s been lovely talking to you, as a non-sequitur, which I’m sure you’ll approve, I recall you once said, “Water is something a fish knows nothing about.”
Shorter: Yes, but does the water take the shape that the fish makes, or does the fish make the shape that the water takes?
It was always both intriguing and entertaining to converse with Wayne Shorter and to listen to his visionary music. Forlorn fans can take heart from some of his last words, “Remember to be a warrior, not a worrier.” He communicated that message to Rob Griffin, his road manager and audio engineer for 30 years, just 10 days before passing away in Los Angeles. Griffin worked on Shorter’s final album, Live At The Detroit Jazz Festival (Candid), an all-star affair with Terri Lyne Carrington, Leo Genovese and Esperanza Spalding, earning Genovese a 2023 Grammy for Best Improvised Solo. DB
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