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Sunday, January 30, 2005

Sun Herald.Com > Wayne Shorter's philosophical mind and abstract jazz

Wayne Shorter's philosophical mind and abstract jazz

Posted on Sun, Jan. 30, 2005

Wayne Shorter's philosophical mind and abstract jazz



'Footprints: The Life and Music of Wayne Shorter'

by Michelle Mercer (Jeremy P. Tarcher, 301 pages, $24.95)

In describing the remarkable saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter, Czech bassist Miroslav Vitous - a founder, with Shorter and Joe Zawinul, of the pioneering jazz/fusion band Weather Report - once said, "Wayne, he is like the wind."

It's an intriguing statement, worth considering. Acclaimed for his singular compositions and his potent performances, with Miles Davis, Art Blakey and with Weather Report, Shorter is quick to move from one place to another - musically, in his witty-to-warm-to-serious conversation, undoubtedly in thought. His ideas can be hard to decipher, enigmatic, but can also smack you right in the face. He's a highly philosophical, gifted artist with the power to affect lives.

Whether Shorter ever heard Vitous' description, he would probably find it fitting. He embraces the word and the ideas it suggests, naming his second daughter Iska, "Wind" in the Nigerian Hausa language, and calling one of his tunes "Wind."

Vitous' metaphor also rings true in Michelle Mercer's comprehensive, if uneven, biography, "Footprints: The Life and Music of Wayne Shorter." Based on interviews with Shorter, his colleagues and his personal circle and on arduous research, the book helps us understand this complex, important American musician.

"Footprints" follows Shorter from his earliest memories growing up in Newark, N.J., where he was born in 1933, to his current status as a jazz icon revered by musicians and fans alike. If for years Shorter was not a major name and needed to be exposed, as Davis told him shortly before his death in 1991, he is now, and Mercer's book will surely further that exposure.

Shorter didn't begin his study of music until the relatively late age of 15. Music touched Shorter first via film soundtracks; from hearing Count Basie, Tommy Dorsey and Thelonious Monk on radio programs his father listened to; and from catching Basie, Stan Kenton, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and others at the Adams Theater, when he cut class from Newark Arts High.

It was at Arts High that Shorter, then a clarinet student, joined a class in music theory in the middle of the school year - and scored 100 percent on his final exam. "I walked home with a new awareness of music, with a vague but deeply felt sense that music was the direction I was supposed to go in," he recalls.

Soon, Shorter was a saxophonist, playing around Newark. He began composing during his mid-'50s stint as a music education major at New York University; by then his saxophone prowess had earned him the sobriquet "The Newark Flash."

During his tenures with Blakey (1959-64) and Davis (1964-70), and on the Blue Note albums made during that period, Shorter wrote many of the numbers that are now part of the jazz repertoire. These include "Speak No Evil," "Children of the Night," "Infant Eyes" and "Footprints."

Mercer tracks Shorter's 1970-85 Weather Report years - he called the band "a soundtrack of the imagination" - and devotes an overly long section to "Native Dancer," Shorter's 1974 Columbia album with Brazilian singer-composer Milton Nascimento.

Shorter's brief late-'70s-'80s forays as a cameo soloist on non-jazz recordings and occasional performances with Mitchell, Santana and Steely Dan are examined.

Also documented are Shorter's unique electronic-orchestral albums for Columbia (1985-87) and Verve (1995). The musical survey ends with two Verve albums - "Footprints Live!" (2002) and "Alegria" (2003).

Between the musical material, Mercer weaves Shorter's personal story. His wide-ranging, filmic imagination can be fascinating; no wonder his artistic endeavors have been so varied. He's a shy man, often reticent, though neither he nor Mercer ever really explains why.

Shorter's conversion to Nichiren Buddhism, and the tremendous impact it has had on his life, is explored in depth. Shorter has had tragedies, and these are not shied away from. Iska suffered brain damage after a tetanus shot when she was 3 months old, and his second wife, Ana Maria, died aboard TWA Flight 800 when it crashed off Long Island in 1996. In both cases, Shorter's practice of Buddhism helped him to get past sorrow and stay steady. As he explains his beliefs, his ultimately upbeat moods seem quite apropos, even admirable.

Mercer can write lucid, flowing prose, as in this description of a Shorter band performance: "Their passages denied expectations of the usual musical techniques, such as crescendo and decrescendo, and tension and release."

But too often she undermines the book's impact with loose transitions, florid statements and cliches. For example, she refers to the "sprawling cruelty" of Stravinsky's dynamic "Rite of Spring."

And there are numerous errors, small but annoying: Newark's McCarter Highway is called "MacArthur"; John Coltrane's album "A Love Supreme" is called a song.

Still, if you're interested in a man who is "like the wind," then this book is the place to find the story.


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