Friday, April 3, 2015

Footprints: The Life and Work of Wayne ShorterFootprints: The Life and Work of Wayne Shorter by Michelle Mercer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Wayne Shorter is one of the greatest innovators in the music that is broadly defined as jazz. He is a most influential saxophonist whose tenor playing builds upon the foundations laid by earlier masters from Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young to Coltrane. On soprano, he was the foremost pioneer since the late 1960s. Most importantly, he is an extraordinary composer with an amazing breadth of knowledge and influences from Western classical to Brazilian music. Born in 1933, Shorter is also one of the last of the generation that revolutionized jazz who is left with us. The biography by Michelle Mercer is, thus, a must read for everyone interested in the evolution of music and the role of this giant in it.

‘Footsteps’ that takes its name from one of Shorter’s most famous compositions follows him from his early days in Newark, NJ, until almost today. Mercer has spent plenty of time with the man himself, as well as those close to him, gleaning tremendous amounts of information and an obvious love and admiration for him. The biography takes us through the major bands with which Shorter was affiliated throughout the 1960s to 1980s, all of them central to the development of contemporary music. First there was Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in which young Wayne soon assumed the role of a prominent composer and musical director. Then came Miles Davis’ Quintet, which to me personally was arguably the best combo ever, with Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams completing the roundup of geniuses. Wayne stayed with Miles to innovate with the new electric experiments on ‘Filles de Kilimanjaro,' ‘In a Silent Way’ and 'Bitches Brew,' turning to the soprano.

To the larger audience, Shorter is probably most known as a founding member and co-leader, with Joe Zawinul, of Weather Report. The band was active from 1971 to 1986 and achieved unprecedented commercial success for a “jazz” outfit. This was largely due to Zawinul’s directions that took the band from its early free electronic avant-garde increasingly towards funky beats and catchy vamps (think, ‘Birdland’ from the 1977 album ‘Heavy Weather’). When the super-bassist Jaco Pastorius joined Weather Report in 1976, he and Zawinul formed a powerful axis in the band’s music. In the later years, Shorter’s role in the band was audibly diminished, which has led many to speculate about the reasons. Given the centrality of Weather Report to Shorter’s career over a decade and a half, Mercer spends a significant portion of the book exploring the period providing many interesting insights.

It is also interesting to read about Shorter’s ventures crossing over to rock, and his thoughts about them. He had a long-term and very productive relationship with Joni Mitchell producing some beautiful music together. He also collaborated with Carlos Santana whose appreciation of jazz and musical inclinations coincided with those of Shorter, despite their different points of departure. Both, for examples, admire Coltrane. Arguably the best saxophone solo ever on a rock record (the only one competing I can think of is Fred Lipsius’ alto solo on ‘God Bless the Child’ by Blood, Sweat & Tears) was by Shorter on the title song of Steely Dan’s extraordinary 1977 album ‘Aja.’ It was very interesting to learn that it was constructed of fragments of several solos improvised by Wayne. Shorter would have had much demand as a session player for rock stars, but hesitated to sell out and declined almost all offers. The fact that he did collaborate with Mitchell, Santana and Steely Dan is testimony to the latter artists' musical sensibilities.

Throughout the years Shorter has made his own recordings, starting with ‘Introducing Wayne Shorter’ in 1959. His discography thus far contains some 25 titles under his own name as leader, the latest being ‘Without a Net’ (2013) with his permanent quartet with Danilo Perez, John Patitucci and Brian Blade. Many critics and fans welcomed the quartet when it was formed in 2000 as the first fully acoustic group that Shorter played with in a long while. He himself appears extremely satisfied with the group of younger but by now established musicians each with their own credentials as leaders.

‘Footprints’ is an intimate book with a close look at Wayne Shorter’s personal life. He has had his share of hardships, including the illness and death at 14 of his daughter Iska with his beloved second wife Ana Maria with whom he spent nearly three decades until she perished on the TWA flight 800 that exploded off Long Island in 1996. Over long periods of time, Shorter also struggled with creativity as a composer, only to find that it would always come back propelling him to write ever more inspired and complex music. In 1999, Shorter remarried and appears to be at peace with himself. He is a practicing Nichiren Buddhist and active member of the lay Buddhist organization Soka Gakkai (alongside many other artists, such as his close friends Herbie Hancock and Tina Turner). Here one would have wished the biographer take a bit more distance and not reporting everything about Soka Gakkai in such gushing terms. An interesting insight from the biography is also how films have provided important inspiration to the composer.

Reading the book made me go back and listen again to many of Wayne Shorter’s recordings from the celebrated old favorites ‘JuJu’ (1964) and ‘Speak No Evil’ (1965) to his latest with the new quartet. In between I rediscovered the ethereal beauty of ‘Odyssey of Iska’ (1970). The near magical wonder of ‘Native Dancer’ (1974) featuring Milton Nascimento’s unique and haunting singing I have been lucky never to lose in these intervening years. Like for many others, the following productions in the mid-1980s following a decade with no records under his own name had always left me somewhat cold, although I do remember hearing the Wayne Shorter band live in Rome, Italy, soon after the release of ‘Atlantis’ in 1985 and raving about it. I am yet to go back to that and other records from the period, which sit on my shelf waiting for me to gather the courage.

I did go back to listen to Weather Report. Not the all too familiar funk albums but the early ones that had been overshadowed by the later, flashier productions. The original eponymous album from 1971 rekindled the magic with its sparkles and lightness. With the third founding member, Miroslav Vitous (with whom the band would later break acrimoniously to follow Zawinul’s vision for a heavier, funkier sound) played a key role, as did the percussionists Alphonse Mouzon and Airto Moreira. There still were no synthesizers, with the Fender Rhodes and the occasional bass guitar as the only electric instruments. The subsequent albums – ‘I Sing the Body Electric,’ ‘Sweetnighter,’ ‘Mysterious Traveller’ – that appeared annually after the first album continued in the footsteps of the original. I am not saying that the later Weather Report productions were bad – on the contrary – but I personally miss the free-flowing mysticism of the early ones.

Amazing beauty and creativity can also be heard on one of Wayne Shorter’s newer recordings, ‘Alegria’ (2003), which contains the master’s compositions featuring, in addition to his regular quartet, a large orchestra with horns, woodwinds and strings, and additional guests, such as Brad Mehldau, Terri Lyne Carrington and the Weather Report alumnus Alex Acuña.

Wayne Shorter has had a long, varied and incredibly productive career. He has been, deservedly, recognized by the Thelonius Monk Institute of Jazz with a Lifetime Achievement Award (2013) and with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award (2014). We must be grateful to Michelle Mercer for bringing us a biography that is well-researched, intimate and provides the readers and listeners a look into the life and mind of this creative genius.

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