On Sept. 28, Los Angeles’ posh Bel Air neighborhood played host to a fundraising dinner and concert in support of Wayne Shorter: Zero Gravity, filmmaker Dorsay Alavi’s in-progress documentary on the life and music of the game-changing composer and saxophonist.
Presented on a breeze-kissed outdoor stage at the estate of Dr. Frank and Shelley Litvack, the evening united longtime and latter-day Shorter collaborators for a program of tunes mainly composed by Shorter, along with interview clips from Alavi’s film.
The music kicked off with an enigmatic solo feature from pianist Herbie Hancock, who thanked an audience brought together by “love of the arts, love of humanity … love of Wayne.” (Among those in attendance were architect Frank Gehry and actors Alfre Woodard and Don Cheadle; the latter is director and star of the upcoming Miles Davis biopic Miles Ahead, for which Hancock composed the score.) The performers, under the direction of drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, paid tribute to Shorter’s musical and metaphysical breadth. Vocalist Lalah Hathaway graced the Gershwin/Heyward standard “Summertime” with acrobatic melismatic effects and a wistful wordless solo, while Hancock and bassist Marcus Miller worked Shorter’s “Beauty and the Beast” into a righteous groove, flecked with spacey extrapolations from keyboardist Russell Ferrante. Lizz Wright’s vocals quite appropriately soared on Neville Potter’s lyric for Chick Corea’s “Open Your Eyes, You Can Fly,” her powerful voice complemented by an intensely felt solo from guitarist Matthew Stevens. Simply commanding the stage, Dee Dee Bridgewater was simultaneously regal and heartbreakingly vulnerable on “Long Time Ago,” her marriage of Shorter’s “Footprints” with lyrics about her own African ancestry, and she was joined by the funkified alto saxophone of Josh Johnson for a ripping medley of Horace Silver’s
“The Jody Grind” and the Davis/Ron Carter composition “Eighty One.” The evening featured commentary from Blue Note Records president Don Was, who reminisced about rediscovering his sense of self during his hardscrabble Michigan college days through repeated listens to side two of Shorter’s Blue Note classic Speak No Evil. Actor/comedian Sinbad garnered guffaws when he attempted to play one perfect note on a trumpet “I bought last week.” The interview clips from Alavi’s documentary showcased collaborators like Wayne Shorter Quartet bassist John Patitucci, who declared that “the spirit of God was resting on the stage” when they first played together, and notables like Berklee president Roger Brown, who praised Shorter’s encouragement of young musicians to “play music for the kind of world you want to be in.” Also from the film, operatic soprano Renée Fleming said Shorter “lives on an artistic plane most of us can’t comprehend,” while singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell compared his “onomatopoeic” conception of musical color to that of Debussy and Beethoven.
Praising his stature within the jazz community as “interstellar … universal … definitely eternal,” bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding welcomed Shorter to the stage. The guest of honor was his mysteriously compelling self, reminding the audience that “we’re all on this spaceship Earth together. … We have to transition from being mostly followers to leaders.” Shorter joined the band for Milton Nascimento’s “Encontros e Despedidas,” his spare, passionate soprano saxophone in a pas de deux with Spalding’s emphatic yet lilting Portuguese vocal. British songstress Corinne Bailey Rae caressed a yearning rendition of Mitchell’s “River” and her own composition “Like a Star,” for which she took up the acoustic guitar.
Throughout Rae’s numbers, Shorter evinced a mastery of space equal to that of his old bandleader Davis; his phrases were judiciously placed, sharp yet ever attuned to the music’s emotional moment. The finale saw Shorter in duet with longtime colleague Hancock, the two musicians trading ethereal and haunting bursts of song.
The program’s speakers and performers made clear the necessity of completing a film like Zero Gravity to preserve the now 81-year-old Shorter’s legacy for future generations of jazz players and listeners. But they also frequently evoked the concept of eternity as the evening celebrated Shorter as one of jazz’s most enduring exploratory forces. Summing it up best, Hancock said, “I’ve known him for almost 50 years … and he’s only 8 years old.”