THE LANDFILL CHRONICLES: Conversations on Music Elevated to a State of Art

Chapter 2: Wayne Shorter

By Dan Ouellette

THE LANDFILL CHRONICLES is the work-in-progress book on Medium that continues for several weeks with archival articles on rock stars such as Frank Zappa and Elvis Costello and jazz greats including Don Cherry and Charlie Haden. The writing originally appeared in print magazines and newspapers that are now largely relegated to the landfill. These are all the writer’s cut — the version edited down for publication.

Chapter 2: Wayne Shorter Space Cowboy

Part 1 of 4 parts: First encounters

PREFACE

While many jazz stars in their elder years are content to let the tried-and-true music gently and predictably flow through them, Wayne Shorter — who turns 89 in August 2022 — continues to create in new and distinct ways.

Case in point: In 2021: Iphigenia, the jazz-meets-classical musical opera that Wayne co-created with Esperanza Spalding premiered on stage. The groundbreaking project featured orchestration fueled by improvisation and a radically poetic libretto. More than a decade earlier in 2010, I talked with then rising-star Esperanza about her first encounter with Wayne. At the time, she expressed her desire to connect with him and her nervousness about approaching someone she so esteemed. But soon, they ended up meeting over the miles. They talked on the phone for 45 minutes about “everything from his humanistic and spiritual perspectives to his music and career. It was lifechanging for me.” She added, “He’s the voice of music now that I most respect, flat-out in any genre. It’s not only his music, but also his character, his spirit. He’s the artist I most admire. He’s valid. He’s the real thing. He’s solid.”

They subsequently became good friends and that led to the newfangled style of opera they collaborated on.

My experiences with Wayne took place over a 10-plus year period in the aughts. What follows are snippets of my multi-universe journey with the genuine Jazz Space Cowboy.

During that decade, I talked with Wayne several times in a variety of settings. In 1999, we had a conversation about the 1+1 album he and Herbie Hancock recorded. That same year we linked up in person backstage at the Jazz in Marciac festival in southwestern France. In 2005, over the phone we conversed again for a Q&A column for Billboard. Later that year, we sat down with my microphone in the green room backstage at the Umbria Jazz Melbourne festival in Australia. Soon after, for my biography Ron Carter: Finding the Right Notes, I asked Wayne about his experience with the bassist in Miles’ classic ’60s quintet. We met up again in 2009 in his dressing room at the Panama Jazz Festival for a DownBeat feature.

•••

1+1 INTOXICATION

In 1997 on a warm summer night, I caught Wayne and Herbie, delivering a preview of their 1+1 album in the outdoors Lilian Fontaine Garden Theatre at the picturesque Villa Montalvo Arts Center nestled in Saratoga, California. The night was magical. At the back of the amphitheater, in the woods, a chorus of frogs started croaking in tune with the saxophonist and pianist. We were all enrapt in the pair’s improvisational epiphanies — except for a crowd of Silicon Valley types who left en masse three-quarters of the way through the show. The puzzled pianist saw the rude rush and jokingly commented, “What? Did we do something wrong?”

Not a thing goes wrong that night. Wayne, then 64, and Herbie, 57, capture the beauty and surprise of their music that evening in what would later become their studio album: 1+1. When it arrives soon after, the album is championed. Listening to it transports me back to the fleeting beauty of that warm summer night in Northern California.

The pair decides to hit the road to share 1+1 to large crowds, eager to engage in the incandescence.

In 1999, for one of the early 1+1 tour stops, the pair settles into Zellerbach Hall at UC Berkeley. I’m on assignment for a San Francisco Chronicle preview feature. I start doing my homework preparing for an interview with either Wayne or Herbie on their upcoming concert.

I set out to listen attentively. But even before the first digit registers on the CD player, I know the prospects are promising based on the Montalvo show. In the 1960s, Herbie and Wayne began their shared history as soul mates under the tutelage of Miles Davis in what was arguably the best jazz quintet ever (with bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams). That rarefied chemistry is vibrantly alive three decades later on this disc. The setting is intimate, the mood reflective, the emotion deep, the sound exquisite.

The ten pieces on 1+1 were recorded over a seven-day period in Herbie’s living room. None required more than three takes and none was overdubbed. Wayne and Herbie each brought compositions to the sessions, including the saxophonist’s “Aung San Suu Kyi,” his soaring tribute to the jailed Burmese pro-democracy leader, and the pianist’s moving ballad “Joanna’s Theme,” which the pair had originally recorded on Wayne’s Native Dancer album in 1975.

They also collaborated, combining sections of their individual compositions to create the introspective and passionate “Visitor from Nowhere” and “Visitor from Somewhere.” The one nonoriginal on the album, “Memory of Enchantment,” penned by the 1996 Thelonious Monk Composition winner Michiel Borstlap, gets rendered with wistful allure. Herbie and Wayne break the meditative spell by closing with a delightfully jaunty ride through “Hale-Bopp, Hip-Hop” — referencing the 1997 fascination of Comet Hale-Bopp that was the brightest comet to ever pass by the planet. Remarkably it was clearly visible to the naked eye. Wayne must have been in his spacetime glory.

The new album, 1+1, in essence, captures two colossal artists in the role of jazz emissaries.

The tour offers me the opportunity to talk to one of the two legends. It’s Wayne’s turn to have a press conversation about the alchemy at work. “We’ve been doing this since we were kids,” he says. “It’s the stuff we love to do. It transcends the record. It doesn’t have to be confined to a certain time or a certain place.” In other words, expect the unexpected of improvisation-fueled interchanges.

From there, my initial chat with Wayne leaves me a bit bewildered. First, he answers most of my questions by going into an elliptical thought pattern — cryptic parabolas start at one point, swing widely into the stars and then miraculously come back to earth with a soft landing of insight. After I get off the phone with Wayne, I worry that I don’t have anything to work with in writing a story given the oblique conversation.

But then after I review my notes and relisten to the audio tape, I realize that in unraveling Wayne’s thought process his responses are indeed quite brilliant — and bizarrely wonderful. And I discover that the way he muses on my questions are reflected in the way he expresses himself in his music with tendrils of tenor or soprano saxophone wisdom.

Preferring to talk on a philosophical level rather than discuss the particulars of his concert performances with Herbie, Wayne says, “It’s the determination to make music that has longevity. There’s a lot more to it than just creating something new. You have to ask the question, what is this music for, what does it mean? When we go on this tour, that’s what we’ll be reflecting on before we hit the stage.”

Wayne sums up the impact of collaborating in a duo setting with Herbie: “Sometimes two ambassadors, so to speak, can make more of a difference than an army of strings and horns.” He calls himself and Herbie “the ultimate astronauts.”

••• THE MILES EFFECT

They both got their flight training in Miles’ hand-picked quintet. The leader pushed his youthful collaborators — Wayne, 31; Herbie, 23 — to boldly explore with creative spontaneity and collective originality.

In Miles: The Autobiography, he gushed about the group: “If I was the inspiration and wisdom and link for this band, Tony was the fire, the creative spark; Wayne was the idea person, the conceptualizer of a lot of things we did; and Ron and Herbie were the anchors. I was just the leader who put us all together. Those were all young guys, and although they were learning from me, I was learning from them too.”

The rarefied chemistry from the classic quintet is vibrantly alive in Wayne and Herbie’s duo. “Life is something, isn’t it?’’ Wayne asks rhetorically when talking about the upcoming Zellerbach show. “It’s a great mystery. So, if it is such a great mystery, why not play it? That’s what we do. We express the appreciation for the mystery. We’ll be celebrating life and people.”

How often they will meet together in concert in the future is unpredictable. After their short North American tour concludes, they’ll be putting the duo on hold in lieu of other projects. “Herbie is composing music for dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov,” Wayne says. “And I’m working on a new orchestral work commissioned by the Detroit Symphony that will debut on January 2 in celebration of the new millennium.”

Even as busy as they are, they reunite when they can. Later in 1999, for example, they bring their mesmerizing 1+1 show to the giant tent stage at the Jazz in Marciac summer festival in the remote southwestern region of France. They arrive via a chauffeured van from the airport in Toulouse after traveling through miles and miles of sunflower fields in full bloom. They greet me backstage shortly before starting the show with two Wayne-composed tunes: the meditative “Meridianne — A Wood Sylph” and a buoyant take on “Footprints.” They hold the crowd, once again, in an enraptured state.

•••

Dialing back to February 1997, six months before the Villa Montalvo concert, Wayne and Herbie attend Tony Williams funeral at St. Ignatius Church, 650 Parker Avenue in San Francisco. He died at the age of 51.

They’re joined by Ron Carter and trumpeter Wallace Roney to bid farewell to their onetime bandmate. At the mass, the ensemble plays Tony’s “Sister Cheryl” not as a performance or as entertainment, but as a prayer, a communal expression of grief. That same purity of spirit, compassion and friendship is present on 1 + 1 as Hancock and Shorter converse together on piano and soprano saxophone. The integrity of performance makes for a quietly captivating listening experience.

END OF CHAPTER 2, PART 1

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Part 2 of the 4-part Chapter 2 on Wayne appears next week.

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