Wayne Shorter: Part 4 of Chapter 2 in The Landfill Chronicles

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

Photo by Christian Weber

By Dan Ouellette

Chapter 2: Wayne Shorter Space Cowboy, Part 4 of the four-part chapter: “Disagreeing With the Status Quo”


While talking with Wayne in Panama in 2009 after his triumphant festival show, he intersperses the conversation with tangential bits and pieces of hearsay, news items and real sci-fi. He’s excited.

Wayne finds it very intriguing that scientists recently discovered plumes of methane gas rising from the surface of Mars. The speculation behind the findings is that this may suggest the presence of water and perhaps even evidence of past life on the planet. “Oh, oh, methane on Mars?” Wayne says with a beaming smile. “Now, that’s stuff that dreams are made of.” (Given that he’s a self-proclaimed “sci-fi kind of guy,” it’s likely that he might be fascinated by the story in the next day’s international edition of The Miami Herald about researchers at Duke University creating metamaterials that deflect microwaves around a three-dimensional object, thus rendering it invisible.)

Even more out of the ordinary, Wayne excitedly talks about people encountering a huge spacecraft the size of two football stadiums. “I heard this solid,” he says. “We can decide to deal with this or not. Two or three people were standing in this open space when this huge spaceship came hovering over them. They started receiving words, and then a huge light came down. One of the people became a channeler who said that the occupants are calibrating the crystals. Apparently, there are five giant crystals, and that the occupants of the spaceship are getting ready for the change. The light went out, and then there were more lights of many colors as if they were showing off with a light show.”

Wayne shyly grins, then adds, “I’m going to write music that has all of this in it.”


Wayne’s most challenging work that he says will bring together “everything” he’s been talking and thinking about musically throughout his life — an orchestral work for Renée Fleming — is today being pieced together bar by bar with a 2010 premiere target. “There are eight notes in a scale, but there are so many different combinations,” he says. “What I’m doing is pounding at the door of creativity. That takes curiosity and courage to turn the handle and go through it. I want to let people know the door is there.”

That “everything” production comes at the prodding of the classical soprano whose story includes a stint as a jazz singer during her college days. “Renée comes to see the band in Vienna,” says quartet bassist John Patitucci. “She’s intrigued by Wayne as a composer and is very open to collaboration.”

Wayne’s first contact with Renée came in 1997 after he and Herbie had recorded their 1 + 1 duet album. She wrote him a letter and asked him if he’d consider writing some music for her. Then he saw her perform in Andre Previn’s opera of Tennessee Williams’ play A Streetcar Named Desire. Wayne was impressed not only by Andres’ “contemporary, atonal” musical score but also by Renée’s vocal prowess.

“Writing music for Renée has presented me with a way to try to put into action a lot of things I’ve been talking about and wishing for,” Wayne says. “I want to have music and voice do something that inspires people to shoot for the impossible outside of themselves. People are looking for a utopia or a perfect tale, but there’s a lot of evil stuff going on. I suppose I’m looking for a dream, like Martin Luther King had. I want the music to do that, but the music itself won’t be dreamy. Or ethereal. There’s going to be a lot of dissonances going on that will seem contrary to dreaming.”


Wayne says the music he’s creating for the production is “the most chance-taking stuff I’ve ever written.” This is spurred on in part by Renée, who, Wayne notes, has been known for sending material written for her back to the composer. “Renée doesn’t want someone being careful or polite when they write,” Wayne says. “She loves a challenge, but it has to be through real, sincere collaborative action. She’s open to new things. She’s not a victim of protocol. She’s not going to fall for the old axioms. She’s ready to make room for a new world of vocalists. She wants to speak to the terms of today’s events. When we talk, we talk as collaborators, with mutual respect. I consider her family.”

Photo: Christian Weber

Wayne describes his Los Angeles studio which he’s eager to return to after the festival. In the space he says that he surrounds himself with score paper, orchestral books and symphonies by other composers (“I want to make sure I don’t write something that’s already been written”). Also, in the room are stacks of sci-fi, philosophy, fantasy and fairy-tale books as well as a huge film encyclopedia (a birthday present). He has a box of pastels should he feel inspired (“You have to remember that before I started playing jazz I was an art major”) and usually has the TV turned on to CNN.

He says that so far, the writing has been going slowly. “The orchestral work for Renée is complex,” Wayne says. “But I’m aiming for the simplicity in it. I’m attempting to compose a great eternal adventure. While I’m writing, I’m disagreeing with the status quo and trying to express that in music, whether it’s in the sequence of the harmonic story or having new melodic content.”

He’s aware that 2010 is just around the next bend. ”That’s why I’m writing as fast as I can right now,” he says. “But I can stay on one measure for two weeks. Recently I spent the whole day on one note. But one incident in my little room becomes huge when I come upon something. I have to keep going without repeating myself. You write something, and it’s electric. The music is telling me something, but how do I get it all down without my horn. I have a keyboard, but I don’t play the piano. Sometimes there are three or four things merging, like galaxies crossing through each other, and you have to get it down — and quickly because it can shut off fast. You think you have the answer, but then it’s gone.”

Wayne is doing his best to explain the zigzags of his creative process, but he grows weary, finding himself at a loss of words beyond saying that what he’s working on now is “involved.” He’s reminded of what Tony Williams used to tell people when they asked him what he was thinking about when he played the drums: “If I could tell you, I wouldn’t have to play it.”

Bandmate John says that one of Wayne’s favorite lines is “There’s no end to a composition.” He adds, “Wayne wants his writing to be adventurous and not complacent.”

Wayne seconds that: “I like to take chances with a lot of imagination.” He pauses, smiles and relishes the thought of the experience. “I sit still and imagine, and I think, ‘Oh, oh, this looks dangerous.’”


Writers only rarely hear plaudits for their efforts. But after my Wayne story from my time with him in Panama ran in the May 2009 issue of DownBeat, one reader wrote to editor Jason Koransky: “Dan Ouellette’s feature on Wayne Shorter was one of the greatest articles I’ve ever read in your magazine. Wayne is such a beautiful soul, one who embodies all of the best aspects of jazz music. Reading his words is every bit as exciting as hearing his music. He’ll surely go down in history as one of jazz’s greatest musicians as well as one of its greatest thinkers.”


  • In 2010, right on time, Wayne composes “Aurora” for Renée and orchestra that premieres in the opening gala for the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra season. Inspired by the poem “The Rock Cried Out to Us Today” that Maya Angelou wrote for Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1992, “Aurora” is a project Renée and Wayne discussed for over a decade.
  • In 2018, Wayne releases the ambitious Emanon three-album project of live recordings of his quartet and orchestra. The package also includes a 74-page graphic novel/comic book about a futuristic fantasy.
  • And then, of course, where this chapter opens: Iphigenia, the jazz-meets-classical musical opera that Wayne co-created with Esperanza Spalding. It debuted onstage in 2021 and continues to be performed into 2022.

#Wayne Shorter — Chapter 2, part 4, in the book-in-progress #TheLandfillChronicles on Medium. Please CLAP at the end on the left. Subscribe for free by clicking on the “Follow” button as well as the next green “Envelope” button underneath my caption on the right. You will have access to all parts of the chapter. You will also be notified by email on an array of such other Landfill Chronicles artists as #DeeDeeBridgewater, #David Byrne, #ReginaCarter, #Elvis Costello and many others — based on stories that have long been buried in the landfills.


Chapter 3 of The Landfill Chronicles: The long-form, writer’s-cut piece on the last major interview with Frank Zappa.



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