June 2005

Wayne Shorter: Still Smilin' Through

In the foreword to Michelle Mercer's revealing book Footprints: The Life and Work of Wayne Shorter (Tarcher/Penguin), Herbie Hancock says, "Wayne is a transformer....He can transform, elevate and awaken your life...and he's getting better and better at it. He takes you outside the box and into expanded possibilities."

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Henry Leutwyler

Wayne Shorter

Shorter's latest quest into expanded possibilities is the live Beyond the Sound Barrier (Verve), which captures the risk-taking chemistry of his tightly knit working quartet: bassist John Patitucci, pianist Danilo Perez and drummer Brian Blade, the same lineup that appeared on the saxophonist's acclaimed 2002 Verve release, Footprints-Live! "We're playing a similar outline in different cities, but we're getting farther and farther away from anything sounding the same from night to night. We don't have any mandates in this band. Our attitude is, 'Let's paint in watercolors, use good oils or get white-out, if that's what you want to use.'"

Throughout Beyond the Sound Barrier the quartet sparks the same kind of magical group-think that Shorter struck with the Miles Davis Quintet on Live at the Plugged Nickel, though exploring a decidedly different vernacular. Their high degree of interplay on new Shorter compositions like "As Far As the Eye Can See," "Adventures Aboard the Golden Mean" and the title track are marvelous examples of collective improvisation, while their deconstructionist take on Felix Mendelssohn's "On Wings of Song" is as expansive as it gets. "That Mendelssohn piece is something that I remember hearing in 1995," Shorter says. "I still lived in California then, and I was driving home when I started thinking about old movies I had seen, and this song popped into my head. It was from a western movie-something with the fort, the union soldiers, and they were having a ball. John Wayne would be waltzing with Maureen O'Hara, and this song would be playing in the background. So when this song came to me, I stopped the car, found a piece of paper and wrote down the first few notes so I wouldn't forget that I thought about it."

"Smilin' Through," which kicks off the CD in open-ended, probing fashion, is the title tune from an old movie that film buff Shorter had absorbed years ago. But the song's composer, Arthur Penn, would be hard-pressed to recognize the saxophonist's interpretation. "That's an old Irish song from a movie with Jeanette MacDonald and Brian Aherne," he says. "At some point in the movie she's at the piano and plays this song, 'Smilin' Through.' The message of that tune is whenever a tragedy comes, can you smile through it? And that really stuck with me."

The all-acoustic quartet resurrects two older Shorter compositions with stunning results-"Over Shadow Hill Way" and "Joy Ryder," both from Joy Ryder, his synth-laden 1988 Columbia album. Regarding the notion of reinterpreting his older compositions (which he also does on Footprints as well as on 2003's Grammy-winning Alegria), Shorter takes a philosophical stance. "Since I don't believe in the words 'beginning' or 'end,' then nothing is ever really finished. A tune may be put aside, but in reality there are still things there that are worth investigating and developing. Gustav Mahler used to go back and look at stuff he had written when he was a kid. It was supposed to be finished, but then he would incorporate it into other pieces, developing it in his adult years. Beethoven too, and Mozart. So it's a continuation." In that vein, Shorter developed "As Far As the Eye Can See" on the new CD from a fragment that originally appeared in the tune "Go" from Footprints-Live!

He adds with a laugh, "I'm 71 now; I ain't got nothin' to lose. I'm saying, to hell with the rules. A lot of musicians today are too worried about protecting what I call their musical foundation. They want to be minding their Ps and Qs onstage, putting their best foot forward, their best runs, their best whatever. But it's OK to be vulnerable, open oneself and take chances, and not be afraid of the unknown."

Meanwhile, Shorter is already well into his next musical adventure. "I want to see what it's like to develop 'Nefertiti' with an orchestra. Well, you say, that's what solos do. But there's a trillion ways of going about it with an orchestra. And really, it's all the same mission, fighting the good fight."

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