Wayne Shorter: Other Worlds

A youthful passion for comic books meets mature music-making on the saxophonist's three-disc set (plus graphic novel) Emanon

Wayne Shorter (photo: Robert Ascroft)

Tucked into the fine-print liner notes of Wayne Shorter’s latest project, Emanon, is an unusual advisory: “This package is intentionally designed to reveal its dormant possibilities as it travels between alternative realities of the multi-verse.”

And … we’re back! Welcome once again to the decidedly asynchronous, defiantly expansive musical realm that Shorter—voracious reader, idea hoarder, gifted composer, jazz legend—has inhabited for decades. The world of Super Nova and Atlantis and “Dance Cadaverous,” brought to life by a musician who has always been tuned to the remote frequencies and trace fragile sounds beamed from alternate realities.

Still, even by his standards, this disclaimer—and/or warning—is curious. Maybe it’s a kind of spoiler alert. After all, the three-disc Emanon, a combination of live and studio recordings, is bundled with an allegorical science-fiction graphic novel, drawn by the acclaimed Randy DuBurke (Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside ShortyThe Mood Ring, DC’s Action Comics) and written by Shorter and screenwriter Monica Sly. What are his compositions if not recipes designed to awaken dormant possibilities? Or maybe this is some record-label thing, added by Blue Note’s legal department to shield the company against lawsuits arising from mishaps in the multiverse?

The 85-year-old saxophonist is not amused by this last suggestion. “It’s pertinent to whatever it’s pertinent to,” he snaps. There’s an awkward silence. Then he laughs. “There was a stretch there in the ’60s where they probably should have warned people … you know, that they might not be ready for some of the music.”

That’s still true where Shorter’s current quartet is concerned. The group he formed in 2000 has become arguably the best living exponent of jazz’s minute-to-minute universe-reordering potential. To watch Shorter playing with pianist Danilo Pérez, bassist John Patitucci, and drummer Brian Blade is to encounter some essential ideas about the temperament and comportment necessary for high-level communication across space and time. As they converse and react, each carefully considered gesture creates conditions to be seized and reshaped within the next moment. The terrain shifts without warning. The weather changes in an instant.

Within a performance, you sense that each player is invested in this zone of possibility, this particular cosmology Shorter created not just with his compositions, but with his penchant for endlessly revising and rethinking them in the unfolding now. Blade once described the musical environment as “immersive and exhausting,” explaining the quartet’s dynamic this way: “We all feel a oneness in rendering a piece of music, and that is a result of Wayne having equal regard for the improvisatory chasm and also the melodic song that is simple and direct, without any jewelry or adornments … It’s why I love this band. We might stretch a piece way out, or focus on this melody and only this. You have to be alive to all of it.”

Blade is describing a habit of mind, a way of thinking that requires flexibility, empathy, the ability to follow long arcs of ideas, the willingness to move forward, backward, or in any direction without losing contact with the flow of time. As the live material on Emanon makes clear, these four musicians have refined this approach to a level of high art, a realm of growls and lullabies that yields differently thrilling results every night.

Shorter could ride into the sunset just doing that, but that’s not his temperament: He remains locked on next. And one obvious next step was to enlarge the canvas. Emanon situates the wildfire-brisk interactivity of the quartet within a vast—and, for jazz musicians, somewhat alien—realm of colors and textures, provided by the 34-piece Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. Some passages are entirely written out, some are entirely improvised, and some exist in an invitingly open middle zone, where beautiful washes of sound inspire arrestingly melodic ad-libs. The quartet has been described in language that connotes upheaval and anarchy, and while that severity is part of the deal, here the dynamic is also structural: This is what it sounds like when maps are redrawn.

The complete <I>Emanon</I> package
The complete Emanon package

“It’s important to look in a deeper way. And that’s related to what artists do. They’re trying to bring out something that’s the closest thing to creation.”

 

JazzTimes: How did this music of yours bloom into such a multimedia endeavor?

Shorter: First of all, the music is not a soundtrack to the graphic novel. And the novel isn’t just a story. They’re related but they’re not synced up in any way. It’s like if you have a record, you are expected to have liner notes that describe the music. This is the same but different … we wanted the graphic novel to sit alongside what we were doing.

So you weren’t thinking in terms of comic-book gestures and visuals.

Maybe a little bit. Like that energy you see on some covers, where the characters are coming out of the frame, or the title is coming at you. There’s some of that kind of stuff, and we all are thinking about dynamics … Brian, he plays with such sensitivity and then, all of a sudden, he drops one of those explosions that make you turn your head because everything changes. We play with a lot of dynamics, and in a way that’s similar to the way some of the classic comics are drawn. It’s not just in-your-face all the time.

How did you balance the spontaneous playing of the quartet with the written material?

It started with the four of us. As we were formalizing what the album should be like, it seemed like we should have something from just the quartet … I knew at one point I wanted the quartet to rise out of the Orpheus chamber spaceship, and for everything to change in that moment. So suddenly it’s this other experience, like “WHEEEE-YAH.”

Why a graphic novel?

Don Was [president of Blue Note records] suggested it a while ago. He showed me another book the artist did, about Deadeye Dick, a black cowboy [Best Shot in the West: The Adventures of Nat Love, published in 2012]. That caught my attention—here was somebody using color in different ways, and who was interested in making the reader think. He knew I used to draw, too. I did a comic book in 1949 called Other Worlds. It was a 56-page book about traveling to other worlds. Neil DeGrasse Tyson [the astrophysicist and science journalist] came to interview me, and I showed it to him. I think it surprised him. He said, “Wait a minute, you have a spacecraft with women in charge?”

What made you stop drawing?

I didn’t exactly stop … exactly … I just got involved with music, and back then for me, it was all about the joy of discovering sound coming out of different instruments. It was an active thing to do. I started to study art. It was a—how do I put it?—lonely existence. Solitary. Music brought me in contact with other people.

Did you have specific themes or topics you wanted to be included in the Emanon narrative?

Nothing too specific. One of the first things was that title [“no name” spelled backwards, and also the title of a Dizzy Gillespie tune that Shorter has admitted elsewhere to being inspired by], and what goes along with that is the idea of trying to understand yourself. Understanding the function of the human being, like in a general sense, and then the more specific questions like “Why are we here?” I think about that … Instead of going around repeating what other people tell us [about] what we should do and how we should act, it’s important to look in a deeper way. And that’s related to what artists do. They’re trying to bring out something that’s the closest thing to creation.

It sounds like you’re talking about self-discovery. Becoming aware of what makes us individual…

When you do that, you’re bringing out your own authenticity. You are sharing some part of what you learned about yourself. People respond to that. The “looking deeply” thing becomes important, in all kinds of missions and jobs. It’s like how they talk about the artist being on a solitary quest—I think that’s why people are inspired by Superman and those kind of movies. The process of discovering special powers is inspiring, but then [the character] is confronted with [the question], how do you move forward with that and also be human? [Making] the choice to share those things, to not keep ’em to yourself.

Did you see Black Panther?

Yes … it has some things going on with music that surprised me … snuck up on me … you know, excitement comes in various forms. A lot of times, the excitement train is missed by the blockbuster films, with the same big explosions, the same three or four chords. In [Black Panther], when music happened it was not overbearing. Even when it got to forte, it still had subtlety of movement.

A page from the <I>Emanon</I> graphic novel (illustration: Randy DuBurke)
A page from the Emanon graphic novel (illustration: Randy DuBurke)

“The way Danilo [Pérez] and I were playing, it was not with a strict beat. It was free, a little like those streamers coming out of a tube at holiday time.”

 

The suite featuring Shorter’s quartet and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra was recorded in 2013, one day after a combined performance in New York. Like most of Shorter’s compositions, the four pieces (“Pegasus,” “Prometheus Unbound,” “Lotus,” “The Three Marias”) are built on clear structural frameworks. Each features a wide chordal palette and a film lover’s sense of slowly mounting tension and its inevitable release. The piece opens with agitated piano chords from Pérez and a giddy, childlike response from Shorter on soprano; their duo conversation gives way to lavishly orchestrated passages that twist and push the melodic themes further. The overall tone is not some gently swinging Bird with Stringscurio, or a brainy Frank Zappa conceptual concoction: It’s an organic, fully through-composed Shorterian whole, with wonderfully capricious exposition sections and ad-libbed skirmishes that exude a deep sense of freedom.

Shorter says that when he first listened back, the biggest surprise was how comfortable the Orpheus players sounded, as though they’d become an extension of the quartet. That’s no small feat, given that many of the cues and handoffs have to happen with no fixed tempo or meter. “A lot of times,” he notes, “the way Danilo and I were playing, it was not with a strict beat … it was free, a little like those streamers coming out of a tube at holiday time … Well, [without a clear tempo] it could be hard for them to make entrances. The way they entered was really cool, very tuned into what we were doing—at not just a high point, but somewhere that felt right—that felt like a landing spot.”

What did you say to the Orpheus players in rehearsal to prepare them?

Not too much. They heard the quartet, that was it.

They don’t have a conductor—the group functions democratically, and essentially leads itself. Did that present any challenges in performance or recording?

Not really. It’s a great way of working—everyone has a voice and is comfortable to share ideas. Somebody would stand up and make a suggestion, and we’d try things out … No one criticized anything in rehearsal. The ideas were aimed at making the music clearer and richer. There was no ego. As we got into it more, it was interesting to see what a powerful thing trust is. The four of us are gentlemen, and Orpheus was the same way. Everybody was deep into the music, but there was a nice feeling of respect in the air. It showed me how we need more civility.

So they would suggest changes to you?

I wrote the music without any instructions or notes as far as how it would be played … so there would be questions like “Can we make this phrase triplets?” Like that.

We’ve seen these kinds of projects that come off like a kitchen-sink “worlds colliding” smashup of jazz and classical music. Was this a concern of yours, having too much going on in the frame?

The line between the jazz world and the classical world has never really been a line. [There’s] much more overlap than you think. A lot of people I know from classical are doing inventive things with improvisation. And then you have what [David] Bowie was doing, thinking melody and creating a picture around it. He went those other ways, the path less trodden … it was so strong people just followed it.

And some of the Miles Davis/Gil Evans collaborations go into similar territory.

Miles and Gil were into this type of thing—what Gil writes has massive floral colors, just pure beauty. Miles liked all the instruments, and the other sounds. Before he passed away, he said, “Hey Wayne, write something for me with orchestra … just put a window in there so I can get out.” We talked one time about Beethoven. What I like about Beethoven is he doesn’t sound like he’s composing on piano. He placed his attention on the French horn, the low strings, stuff like that.

Wayne Shorter (photo: Robert Ascroft)
Wayne Shorter (photo: Robert Ascroft)

Before Miles passed away, he said, “Hey Wayne, write something for me with orchestra … just put a window in there so I can get out.”

 

Laced throughout the Emanon suite are references to earlier Shorter compositions. The introduction to “Witch Hunt” from the 1966 album Speak No Evil surfaces as a motif for strings. One hears traces of the modal schemes of “Adam’s Apple” and other tunes from his early Blue Note period. And there are two versions of “The Three Marias” from 1985’s Atlantis, one with Orpheus and one with the quartet recorded live in London.

The repurposed melodies move like echoes passing slowly across mountains, and they give the project a time-travel-in-the-multiverse effect, with new themes swirling around and sometimes haunting (or taunting) older ones. It’s as though Shorter wants to see how his melodies might resonate after they’ve been pulled apart and not quite fully reassembled. In many interviews over the years, he’s talked about his tunes as being unfinished, despite the fact that he’d documented them on recordings. His current thoughts on that subject involve metaphysics—big surprise!—and the idea that music only becomes alive at the moment it’s being played.

What did “The Three Marias” have to teach you this time around?

It’s still unfinished. There’s not such a thing as a beginning and end, it’s like we pick up an idea and keep it going. When we do it as a quartet, we’re visiting it. It’s open for discussion because we are people who can add to the conversation. What strikes me right now about it is how it has something to say about dignity, and how that’s not determined by your financial status but what’s inside.

The orchestral version adds a lot of exposition—the themes undergo significant elaboration and development. Is that closer to what you heard or envisioned when you wrote the piece?

Hmmm … I’m not sure. [Long pause] I know there is no such thing in life as a short story. [Popular culture] is so good at disconnecting things, taking them down to the smallest unit. But everything exists in relationship. There’s no such thing as one item without another item. It’s like, you go get a haircut. The hair that falls down on the floor, it’s going somewhere. You don’t think about it, just goes out with the trash … Nothing is wasted. Nothing disappears.

I appreciated those “quotes” from your older tunes in the orchestrations. Are you aware of having a signature as a composer?

I don’t think about that. If you hear something that’s a signature, then it’s a signature. Sometimes with a quote or a little bit of an idea that comes along in, you can’t help it … If we do something that has an idea from a so-called non-sellable jazz record, is it really a reference to something else? Millions of people have not heard it. To quantify it in terms of the population, you’re like the only one who knows about it. So it’s still unknown, it’s not been served to the masses yet.

I wonder if it’s even possible to get this music in front of the masses right now. What is your perception of what’s going on in the place where music and commerce intersect?

Well, I never did approach this whole thing of music to make millions of dollars. [Laughs] In this time, it’s a time for people to keep doing what they’re doing without the whole publicity thing and marketing thing.

That seems like a considerable challenge right now.

Years ago, record companies would sign somebody and if the music was … let’s say difficult to market, they became resistant to that creative stuff. They went for sellable stuff. And guys would cuss them out. In Buddhism, it says, “An airplane needs resistance to take off.” To me, that means each person has to become aware of the resistance that’s in front of them. The record company? Their function is to make money … and that’s different from what the artist does.

So the artist’s response is to ignore the conditions on the ground?

No! It’s to make that resistance into sound. Work with that. Let’s go as far as we can. No matter what happens, there’s room for us. If there is no room, we’ll make the room.

Tom Moon is a regular contributor to National Public Radio.