When Shorter Dissects His Jazz, He Breaks It Down to Its Essence


Wayne Shorter, in New York to prepare a new band for touring, takes a break from rehearsal to field a phone call from a Times reporter. The saxophonist-composer, despite a reputation of congeniality, seems particularly defensive, deliberately confusing the name of the reporter’s paper with that of the New York Times, then insisting there’s no difference between them.

“They’re the same,” he said. “They’re of the same kindred spirit. All media controls all art.” Then after a pause, and in a dramatic voice, “Throughout history.”

Shorter has good reason to be suspicious of a journalist’s intent. A New York Times story earlier this month used Shorter’s new album “High Life,” his first in eight years, as the focus of an attack on the fusion movement spawned by trumpeter Miles Davis and his cohorts about 25 years ago. Writer Peter Watrous calls Shorter’s first Verve release “an eager-to-please instrumental pop album” and “a waste of time.”

But Watrous may have dismissed “High Life” too easily. It’s true that the album contains the gloss of synthesized keyboards and occasionally moves to the kind of direct backbeat favored by today’s commercially oriented fusionists.


But Shorter’s quirky, geometrical style of composition and vast sense of orchestration (different tunes feature a 30-piece orchestra section pulled from the L.A. Philharmonic and as many as six percussionists) make the disc an ambitiously detailed, though not inaccessible effort.

“It’s not worth speaking about,” Shorter said of Watrous’ comments. “He hasn’t lived the feeling, lived the life, lived in the neighborhood ghetto. He doesn’t know the necessities that were needed to predicate the birth of modern jazz.”

Like his music, Shorter’s mode of conversation is wide-ranging and many-layered. Themes are turned and twisted and his explanations are rife with imagery. Just as different musical lines resurface throughout “High Life,” Shorter often returns to favorite themes to explain his thinking.

For example, Shorter, who premieres his new septet tonight at the Coach House, likes to emphasize that different musical styles are really only formalities and that some intangible “essence” is the goal of his music.


“We don’t try to duplicate what’s on the album [with his touring band],” he said. “That’s not the agenda. That’s just an attachment to form and formality. The essence, each time, is what we’re after.

“There’s so many expressions of the essence. It takes the spirit of adventure and discovery, which gives us reason and credence to break through, to bring to life the use of our senses, to responses, that may have been numbed over the years. Like the song on the album, ‘Pandora Awakened.’ ”

Besides, Shorter doesn’t think the album’s sound would translate even if he wanted to replicate it in concert. “If we had the strings in person on stage, you would never hear what is done with them,” he said. “It would be too much sound.”

On the album, Shorter and producer Marcus Miller weave the sounds of synthesizer, bassoons, horns and strings into a tapestry that finds the different sounds threading their way in and out of volume.

“It makes what you can call a seamless process,” Shorter said. “But I’m not going to look at that with a magnifying glass. That’s still formality, and you have to watch out for that. A lot of religions have lost their way while focusing on formality. They forgot what the real essence is.”

Critics have accused Shorter of losing that essence when he left the mainstream tradition in the late ‘60s and set off to pursue a more contemporary tack, first with Davis on the groundbreaking “Bitches Brew” album, then later during his collaboration with keyboardist Joe Zawinul in the group Weather Report.

Before that, Shorter had gained a reputation as a dynamic composer and the first original voice on saxophone since John Coltrane. While he was with Davis--making such classic albums with trumpeter as “ESP,” “Miles Smiles” and “Filles de Kilimanjaro,” often with his tunes playing a central role--Shorter also recorded a string of strong albums under his own name for the Blue Note label.

Again, Shorter sees the critical devotion to form, in this case the mainstream-jazz tradition, as a formality.


“Keeping something in its pure form,” he said, “is like creating a statue, something frozen, like a lake, with no exit or entrance.” And here he moves into slow, serious tones. “All creative life will die.”

The recent reissue of 1967’s “Schizophrenia” makes for revealing then-and-now comparisons between the saxophonist-composer’s current work and his direction of nearly 30 years ago.

“I still hear [the old music] in my head. It’s fun to watch people listening to it. It’s symbolic, like watching an old movie. But I’m looking for the latest techniques, the latest advancements. Come on, bring on all the new inventions and let’s see what we can do with them.”

Since leaving Weather Report in the middle ‘80s, Shorter has recorded infrequently. Before “High Life,” his last release was 1987’s “Joy Rider” (Columbia).

Why the eight-year hiatus?

“There wasn’t a record company good enough to accommodate the works that I wanted to do, a company brave enough, sensitive enough. Wasn’t anybody around who was courageous enough to lose their job for music. So Polygram [which owns Verve] emerged. They approached me with a reciprocal attitude of freedom, accompanied by the most judicious kind of responsibility.”

* The Wayne Shorter Septet and the Mark Isham Band play today at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. 8 p.m. $19.50. (714) 496-8930.