What kind of artist was Wayne Shorter?

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What kind of artist was Wayne Shorter?

One thing that comes to light in Dorsey Alavi’s three-part documentary Wayne Shorter: Zero Gravity (out on Amazon Prime this Friday) is that the late, great jazz saxophonist and composer was, not to underline, maniac. Born in Newark in 1933, he grew up a fan of comic books and fantasy films, and with his older brother, Alan, set up a cosplay theater in a nearby vacant lot that, he recalls in the film, sometimes served as the Desert Sahara and sometimes like Mars. He was a precociously talented child, although at first this talent did not express itself as musicality, but as an extraordinary gift for art. When he was twelve, he won an art competition and was accepted into the Newark High School of Art. He copied images from comics, then started drawing comics himself. A surviving specimen seen in the film is impressive for its intricate and complex artistry, but most of all for its sheer exuberance.

Shorter was also a lover of the cinema and, curiously, it was the cinema that awakened his musical vocation. He began skipping school to go to the movies, where between shows there was often live music, sometimes by famous jazz bands. When he was brought before the vice-principal, the woman with Solomonic wisdom decided not to punish him but to encourage him and sent him to a music class. At fifteen, Shorter began playing the clarinet; a year later he switched to tenor saxophone. In the film, he says that his talent more or less surprised him. Praised in front of the class by a music teacher as the only student to get a perfect grade on an exam, he had an intuition: “You better not ignore that.”

With Allen (then also a saxophonist, later a trumpeter), Shorter formed a band that played modern jazz. The brothers built a reputation as oddballs, wearing exotic costumes of brimless hats and floor-length coats and scrawling nicknames — “Doc Strange” and “Mr. Strange” — on their saxophone cases. Wayne went to New York University and studied music composition. At that time, his performances already attracted the attention of leading modern jazz musicians, who called him “the flash of Newark”. In 1959, at the age of twenty-six, he was invited to join drummer Art Blakey’s hardbop group, the Jazz Messengers, for which he soon became the main composer. His compositions are revealed to be as distinctive as his improvisations. In 1964, he joined Miles Davis’ new quintet and immediately became its lead composer. The band gave him a chance to expand his music intellectually, and in the film the quintet’s pianist, Herbie Hancock, provides a valuable anecdote about Shorter’s growing up, which incidentally answers a question he’s long harbored about a favorite record – “The Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel 1965,” an eight-disc set of the Davis quintet performing two nights at the titular Chicago club. To me, these discs have always seemed to capture the band at their most radical extreme, the closest I’ve ever heard to the multiple energies of free jazz. Now I know why: Hancock recalls that before the gig, the quintet’s drummer, Tony Williams, said, “It’s getting too easy. I have to play things that are unexpected.” Hancock continues: “Tony called it ‘anti-music.’ Okay, I’ll also play some anti-music.” They pitched the idea to Shorter, who “didn’t say much” and bassist Ron Carter, who agreed. But a surprise awaited them in the club: it was full of recording equipment. Unbeknownst to them, Davis had arranged for Columbia Records to record the concert for an album, and Hancock wondered if they should abandon their plan. But, he recalls, “Tony said, ‘I’ll stick to my guns’; Hancock agreed, and “nobody said anything to Miles.”

Shorter was with Davis when, in the late sixties, the band turned to rock music with electric keyboards and guitars, but without sacrificing intensity or freedom. In 1970, encouraged by Davis to form his own band, Shorter co-founded Weather Report, which similarly blended rock and jazz, but with less dissonance and less fury. The results proved less challenging for Shorter, but earned him a currency for pop music rare for jazz musicians. He played on Steely Dan’s “Aja” and in 1977 played as a sideman with Joni Mitchell, beginning a collaboration that lasted twenty-six years and ten albums. Mitchell, interviewed in Zero Gravity, provides important insights into Shorter’s art, saying that he is essentially a visual artist: “I thought of him as a paintbrush; it wasn’t like music, it was like painting, which is accurate. So I let him paint on my canvas. Larry Klein, who was married to Mitchell and produced several of her albums with Shorter, believes that “he thought more like a screenwriter than a saxophonist.”

The insight, returning to Shorter’s primal artistic passion, clarifies a crucial element of Shorter’s musical style—his sense of abstraction. Writing in Shorter’s memory earlier this year, I described his “sonic elusiveness” with solos that seemed “in two places at once.” Mitchell and Klein provide the perfect metaphors for his musical manner—because, unlike musical performance, painting and film do not involve the physical presence of the artist; the director is behind the scenes, the artist is in front of the canvas, and the result is a finished product that suggests the artist’s presence without embodying it. In short, improvisation has little lag time, delay. It’s the sound of a thinking man stepping back even as he freely creates, resulting in when he lets it go and rushes forward in the moment, the sense of reckless abandon all the more exhilarating.

The three parts of Alavi’s documentary run over three hours and made me feel somewhat snookered. I had watched the documentary because, although I love Shorter’s music, I knew little about his life or the finer details of his career and had rarely heard him speak in interviews. It turns out that the film covers this topic in an encyclopedic way, and it does so at the expense of filmed interviews. The interviews themselves are rich and varied. Shorter discusses his life and work, and we hear from various friends and family members. There are revealing insights not only from Hancock and Mitchell, but also from a whole host of colleagues, including Sonny Rollins, Reggie Workman and Esperanza Spalding. It must be an extraordinary experience to spend time in the presence of such people, and the material calls for a way of filming that captures that sense of experience, a method of editing that maximizes the emotion of the moment. But Alavi, concentrating on the overarching story, films the interviews indiscriminately and cuts them up into excerpts, treating them as interchangeable sources of information, useful only for what they tell us about this or that episode. (She also mines them for something less than information—namely, a vague and intrusive praise that might embarrass Goneril and Regan.) In trying to heighten the drama of Shorter’s long life, she omits the drama of it being the first the work of a documentary filmmaker who interviews to find out: these meetings and discussions are themselves dramatic events, real-time connections between the interviewees and the director.

Shorter’s music doesn’t fare much better, often used as a backdrop over which the interviewees’ voices are allowed to intrude. And the film uses a range of other visual trappings as screen wallpaper to escape the talking heads: reenactments, animated sequences, archival footage, stills, a bag of decorative methods that represent the familiar homogenizing conventions of documentary. Not that such re-enactments and animation are inherently worse than images of people talking, but the documentarians who use them venture into the realm of fiction, and few non-fiction filmmakers meet the creative and stylistic expectations that the viewer brings to a dramatic movie.

The film’s failings in form and style are unfortunate, because Alavi ultimately delivers a portrait of Shorter that is both enlightening and moving. (At times it expands or refines themes discussed in Michelle Mercer’s excellent biography, Footprints, and Mercer, who is often interviewed on screen, is also consulted on the film.) Among other things, Zero Gravity conveys the immense burden of loss and the grief that Shorter experienced during his career. Had a difficult first marriage in 1961 to Irene (Teruko) Nakagami. Shorter was romantically inexperienced and shy, and Terrocco, feeling unhappy in his relationship, began to disappear for extended periods, which he bore stoically until their separation in 1966. That same year, Shorter’s father, Joseph, was killed in a car accident, while driving home from one of his son’s concerts. Shorter also met the woman who was to become his second wife, Ana Maria Patricio. Their first child, a daughter named Iska, was born with brain damage. From infancy, she suffered dozens of seizures every day—the stress of which caused Shorter and Anna Maria to drink heavily—and died at the age of fourteen (reportedly from a seizure, though the film attributes her death to an accidental overdose of prescription drugs that she found at home). Shorter’s brother Alan died in the mid-fifties; the film says too little about him, but the moment when Shorter, filmed seemingly casually in the backseat of a moving car, discusses this loss is memorable—one of the rare scenes that conveys a sense of spontaneity and personal connection. Another crushing blow came in 1996 when Anna Maria was killed in the explosion on TWA Flight 800. Shorter speaks of these losses with a rare philosophical composure, saying that “tragedy is temporary” in light of the “constant” that is “waiting for us to figure it out.”

The film offers a spicy portrait of Shorter’s later years, which now seem almost like a return to the source: his visual talent has not left him, and in 2018 he created a graphic novel as part of his album Emanon. It maintains a rich collection of figurines from a wide range of fantasy sources. For a long time he focused on superheroes and then, as seen in the film, he switched to fairies. There are also surprising insights into crucial inspirations for Shorter’s later work. We see Shorter working on a composition while a CNN show is playing on the TV in his office. His third wife, Caroline, says: “Television is actually a very important component of Wayne’s work universe, if you like. He usually writes…’ and Shorter cuts him off to say no. It is in such interstices and asides that the film brings Shorter and his world, inner and outer, to life most vividly. ♦

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