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

Wayne Shorter Part 2 of Chapter 1 of The Landfill Chronicles

By Dan Ouellette

Robert Ascroft

Chapter 2: Wayne Shorter Space Cowboy

Part 2 of 4-part chapter: The Lone Voice in the Wind

Robert Ascroft

NEVER MIND THE LIFEJACKETS

Wayne Shorter always flies against the odds. Here are more snippets of wisdom that cross a decade’s worth of conversations.

**

In 2004, when journalist Michelle Mercer was writing the saxophonist’s biography, Footprints: The Life and Work of Wayne Shorter, I ask her about her experience with the iconic jazz master. “Wayne has always been elusive, enigmatic and sometimes difficult to approach,” she says. “I had to go into the stratosphere with him before getting him to come back to earth.” Now, doesn’t that sound familiar.

“I’m originally from Kansas,” Michelle adds, “so it was as if I clicked my heels three times and ended up in Oz with Wayne.”

**

In a 1990 conversation with pianist Renee Rosnes early in her career recording for Blue Note, she tells me a story about how Wayne enlisted her for an electric band he planned to tour in 1988. She had recently left tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson’s band, so Wayne asked her to join up with him. Renee says the only issue was that Wayne insisted that she play electric keyboards not acoustic. Of course, she complied, happily, yet cautiously.

She recalls that one rehearsal of the entire band at his Los Angeles home wasn’t proceeding very well. Wayne pauses and asks how many people in the room had seen the film Alien. None had. He stops the session and assembles everyone in his home theater to watch the movie. At the moment when the alien’s offspring surprisingly erupt from their host’s chest, Wayne freezes the screen. “This is what I want to have happen with this band each night,” he tells his team of explorers. In other words, unpredictability — and awe.

**

As for future jazz musicians, Wayne shares a few nuggets of wisdom at the 1999 commencement services at the Berklee College of Music (the Boston school bestowed upon him and rock star David Bowie honorary doctorates): “I told the young people to check out life because the act of appreciation is a foil to instant gratification. Instead of practicing all the time, do things that are real experiences. Go out into the woods or to a movie with your girlfriend or ice skating with your son or daughter. Practice is important, but it shouldn’t be church. Life is bigger than your music.”

**

In one of my earliest conversations with Wayne, he addresses the criticism he has faced over the years, in particular the response to his orchestral-fusion 1995 album High Life. It was ripped to shreds by several jazz critics who accused the saxophonist of selling out artistically.

“People have been telling me my entire life that I couldn’t go in certain directions with my music,” Wayne says. “You’re supposed to make music that’s a guarantee for the royalty conveyor belt. That sense of commerciality dictates what should be written, recorded, played and marketed for easy listening. If I had a record company, I would call it Nothing to Lose Records, with Going Down with the Ship Records in parentheses, followed by Never Mind Lifejackets in smaller parentheses and One Way Ticket Only in even smaller parentheses.” He laughs. “The ultimate astronaut. That’s what we all are.”

Robert Ascroft

THE ADVENTURE OF MUSIC

After being the go-to composer for Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in the late ’50s and early ’60s, Miles Davis convinces the drummer to let him bring Wayne aboard after trying out several tenor saxophonists — none to his liking. Art lets Wayne join Miles in 1964, the same year the saxophonist also signs with Blue Note Records. Concurrent with his Miles gig, he releases seven Blue Note albums and eventually eleven albums in 16 years as a leader. (Wayne returns to Blue Note in 2013 with Without a Net, his first recording for Blue Note in more than 30 years in celebration of his 80th birthday.)

After leaving Miles’ employ in 1970, Shorter co-founds the seminal fusion band Weather Report with electric Miles alum Joe Zawinul on keyboards and bassist Miroslav Vitous, staying with the ensemble until 1985.

In 2005, I ask him about the rumors circulating in the last few years that a Weather Report reunion was imminent. Not so, Wayne says. “That would be like starting over again. It would be like asking Mohammed Ali to go back in the ring.”

Wayne, who favors playing soprano saxophone later in his career, adds that he’d have to haul out his tenor saxophone again for a Weather Report show. “The tenor is so heavy I’d need a crane to hold it up,” he says with a chuckle. “It’s a whole different physicality. It’s like Miles before he died. He was in his sixties, and of course your bones and your embouchure aren’t as strong as when you’re in your twenties. But that didn’t stop the complaints from people who still expected him to play as fluid as when he was younger.”

**

Wayne truly becomes a free man as a leader when soaring into the stratosphere with his acoustic quartet comprising pianist Danilo Pérez, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade. It becomes a winning combination overnight and continues for the next two decades.

For Billboard in 2005, Wayne and I talk during the landslide of his quartet accolades. We focus on his challenging adventures — and his affection for films, especially sci-fi thrillers.

Q: From the beginning of your career, jazz records didn’t make lots of money.

A: People worry about missing out on that pot of gold. But what they’re really missing out on is the evolution of their careers. It’s like that movie Resident Evil with Milla Jovovich. Everybody was getting injected with something that made the people feed off each other like Night of the Living Dead, but it didn’t have the same effect with Milla. Her injection didn’t work. So, these guys were trying to destroy her because she wasn’t mutating to be some kind of war machine. But one guy said not to destroy her because she wasn’t mutating. She was evolving.

Q: What is it about Joni Mitchell’s music that attracted you to play on so many of her albums?

A: She’s talking about things in her lyrics, and she’s a fighter. She told me that around the time when she recorded Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter and Mingus that someone sent her a letter accusing her of playing a minor second within a chord and how that was destroying the pop feeling she was known for. It was like saying she was going over to some other side.

It’s like her song “Both Sides Now” that she wrote when she was 20 or 21. It was about an encounter she had with a man and the daughter she had. She recorded it, and a record executive said to her, “You know, don’t you?” She said she had to think fast, on her feet, so she said yes. And the executive detailed it out: We get young artists, squeeze the blood out of the stone, then throw them away and get another young artist. That’s what the industry is like.

Q: And you agree?

A: Yes, it’s like this record executive who came on American Idol one night who said he could see working in the studio with one of the contestants. It was if he was saying, “I’m going to show you how to judge.” The inference was that he could make this singer a star, that he could see and guarantee who could be a moneymaker. That’s what American Idol is about: giving someone all the responsibility to do the thinking, the marketing, the moneymaking, the making of the idol.

**

In an in-depth conversation in the green room at the Melbourne, Australia jazz festival in 2005, I ask Wayne, who was appearing there with his stellar quartet (Jason Moran substituting for Danilo), if it bothered him that when he first started making solo albums in the early ’60s that jazz was not a big seller. He’s relaxed and talkative. Not a care in the world when he’s talking about his music. He replies, “It’s just like what Art Blakey used to say: ‘You can make a billion dollars on Wrigley’s spearmint gum, but you can’t make money on jazz’ — and, I would add, on any kind of music that’s truly creative. If something makes a lot of money, it doesn’t make it cool. People worry about missing out on that pot of gold. But what they’re really missing out on is the growth of the creative process.”

I then ask him what he sees as the role of the artist. Wayne sagely replies, “Being the lone voice in the wind. To be on a mission and not be afraid.”

NEXT WEEK:

Chapter 2, part 3 — Wayne in Panama “There’s no such thing as a short story” — goes live on Medium next week.

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Dan Ouellette

Dan Ouellette

Dan Ouellette has been writing about jazz and Americana music for 30 years for such publications as Billboard, DownBeat, Quincy Jones’s Paris-based QWEST_TV mag