With all of the sudden twists, vertiginous swoops, and conceptual leaps to seemingly unrelated themes that eventually circle back to his initial notion, a conversation with Wayne Shorter can feel a lot like one of his saxophone solos. Over the past 20 years I’ve interviewed him more than half a dozen times, and the experience is always a little disorienting as I trot behind him and try to keep up with his playful and disarmingly ingenuous turns of phrase.
A musical and intellectual explorer, the 82-year-old Shorter is far more than one of America’s greatest living composers. He’s an improviser working at the outer limits of group communication in a volatile quartet that often turns his classic, era-defining compositions into barely recognizable sonic fragments. Featuring Panamanian-born pianist Danilo Pérez, East Bay-raised bassist John Patitucci and Louisiana drummer Brian Blade, the band opens a four-night run at the SFJAZZ Center on Oct. 15.
A creative force ever since joining drummer Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in 1959, Shorter has exponentially expanded jazz’s frontiers from deep within the tradition. He’s a sci-fi buff who often hangs out with scientists, and a famous cinephile who has spoken about the formative impact of seeing The Red Shoes, Michael Powell’s classic 1948 film about a young ballerina’s sacrifices for her art. So it’s not surprising when he reframes my question about the quartet’s new music to explorer much larger, elemental ideas.
“My thing is not so much about sound and technique,” Shorter says, speaking by phone from his home in Los Angeles. “It’s what is music for? It doesn’t sooth the savage beast. People go to war beating drums. Like the two astronauts said as they got further and further way from Earth and see that blue dot, can you imagine fighting over a parking space?”
After the recent death of Ornette Coleman, Shorter and Sonny Rollins remain the last two titans on the scene who transformed jazz in the 1950s and 60s (the seemingly indestructible drummer Roy Haynes started shaking things up in the 1940s). And while Shorter isn’t deeply associated with the rhythmic, structural and harmonic freedom ushered in by Coleman, and expanded upon by John Coltrane and Albert Ayler, I couldn’t resist asking him whether he’d happened to catch Coleman's epochal 1959 engagement at the Five Spot.
“I didn’t see him at the Five Spot, but it was a welcoming thing for me to hear Ornette, Trane, and Albert Ayler,” Shorter says. “The bands we were playing in, the Jazz Messengers, in a solo or a jam session we would put some of what we thought they were doing in a solo, but it was never recorded. Lee Morgan would say 'Damn! We should have recorded that!' In the studio we wondered if anything new from 1960-62 would be picked up 20 to 40 years from then.”
The answer to that question is a resounding yes. Shorter’s albums for Blue Note and the pioneering 1970s fusion band Weather Report, which he co-founded with Austrian-born pianist/keyboardist Joe Zawinul, continue to exert a profound influence on musicians around the world. But in the 1990s, Shorter was celebrated mostly for his past accomplishments -- until he assembled his acoustic quartet with Blade, Pérez and Patitucci in 2000, a vehicle for radically reinventing his jazz standards like “Footprints,” “Orbits,” “JuJu” and “Sanctuary.”
The band has developed a group approach in which the players don’t so much solo as ease to the foreground. Shorter’s saxophone playing is more unpredictable than ever as his lines unfurl at an unhurried pace, pausing and then stutter-stepping ahead, only to twist in an unexpected direction. It’s as if this most elusive of jazz giants has decided to delve even more deeply into the mysterious places that produced his greatest work.
“Wayne's thing is that he wants to hear the struggle, he wants everybody searching for it,” Patitucci told me in an interview several years ago. “Wayne says, ‘I don't want you to play safe. Ever.’ He's always been a big influence compositionally on me. But it's tricky because you're playing these amazing compositions, and then you go back and start writing some of your own music, and at first it felt like everything I came up with was trivial. I have all these Wayne melodies dancing around in my head.”
Each musician in the quartet is the center of his own bustling creative world. Patitucci recently released a gorgeous album, Brooklyn, featuring his Electric Guitar Quartet with Blade. Blade leads the gospel-steeped Fellowship Band, and has emerged in recent years as a startlingly soulful singer/songwriter with his Mama Rose project. And Pérez, who runs the activism-oriented Berklee College of Music Global Jazz Institute, founded the Panama Jazz Festival, which brings impoverished young musicians into contact with top-flight jazz players. The three musicians also recently released Children of the Light, a consistently enthralling trio session dedicated to Shorter.
Shorter continues to ponder the big questions, knowing that seeking answers is more important than finding them, on and off the bandstand. “I think eternity is good thing to contemplate,” he says. “Life is so mysterious. We shouldn’t lock ourselves into what we’re doing in life as if we’re so sure of the dimensions of a certain kind of box we live in. You’ve got to get out of the box, and the sphere too.”