Jazz Legend Wayne Shorter: "Jazz to Me Means, 'I Dare You'"

The 80-year-old saxophonist, who played with Miles Davis and Art Blakey and was a co-founder of Weather Report, brings his quartet to Houston tonight.

By Justin Mitchell April 4, 2014

Wayne Shorter Quartet
April 4 at 8
Cullen Theater, Wortham Theater Center
501 Texas Ave

“To me, life is the ultimate adventure,” mused tenor and soprano saxophonist Wayne Shorter in a recent phone interview. After a brief pause, he laughed and repeated himself, as if awed by the truth of this observation: “The ultimate adventure, man!” His words hardly came as a surprise. After all, Shorter’s music career is the stuff of legend. The Newark native got his start fresh out of NYU’s music program in the late ’50s playing with Maynard Ferguson, one of the era’s most prominent big band leaders. He then joined the Jazz Messengers, an outfit founded by the powerhouse drummer Art Blakey, and spent four years churning out tunes that helped permanently cement the group’s status as the standard-bearer of ’50s and ’60s hard bop.

Next, he went on to play a central role in the development of jazz fusion—first as a sideman on Miles Davis’s groundbreaking albums of the late ’60s and early ’70s, including the controversial Bitches Brew, and later as the co-founder of Weather Report, arguably the genre’s most well-known band. The phenomenal success of Weather Report brought him to the attention of jazz-curious pop musicians and he subsequently appeared on albums by Joni Mitchell, Steely Dan, and Carlos Santana. And then there’s his rich collection of solo work, which spans five decades, from ’60s gems like Speak No Evil, widely regarded as one of the most influential jazz albums of all time, to last year’s Grammy award–winning Without a Net.

Like a handful of other jazz giants also in their 80s, such as pianist Ahmad Jamal and fellow tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins, Shorter, who performs with his quartet in Houston this evening, has not slowed down musically over the years, as his recent Grammy win suggests. In fact, his last four albums, all featuring Danilo Perez on piano, Brian Blade on drums, and John Patitucci on bass, amount to nothing short of a late-career renaissance. Without a Net, for instance, a collection of performances from a 2011 European tour, not only features new compositions that are among the best he has ever written, notably an epic piece commissioned by Imani Winds called “Pegasus,” but also some of the most vigorous and challenging saxophone playing he has done since the ’60s. How does Shorter continue to produce such mind-bending work at 80 years old? Perhaps the answer lies somewhere in his mind-over-matter approach. “80 is the new 8,” he said, only half joking. A longtime practitioner of Nichiren Buddhism, Shorter refuses to believe that anything truly comes to an end. “I’m thoroughly convinced that death is temporary,” he explained, “and that the thrust of life is pursuing something called the constant.” 

Of course, in life change is the only real constant. Hence, Shorter also speaks passionately about our collective duty to “negotiate the unexpected,” to “delve into the unknown, as compadres" and, in the process, shed our old ways of thinking about the world we inhabit. Over the years he has strived to communicate this basic idea in his music. It is a mission he first began to take seriously during his stint with the Miles Davis Quintet. “Whenever I used to talk with Miles—whenever we touched on something like that—he would say, ‘Why don’t you play that? Why don’t you write that?’ That’s the challenge that we’re at with the quartet,” he said. “Just trying to do some music that triggers the desire to go through the doors, the portals, with courage and be more fearless and confident. I always say there are all kinds of people who hide in closets. You don’t come out of the closet when the coast is clear.”

Shorter’s headlong forays into the abyss often produce songs that bristle with tantalizing ideas and take startling twists and turns, music, in short, that is anything but comfortable or staid. If his music does not meet the standards of so-called jazz purists, then so be it. “Jazz to me means, ‘I dare you,’” he told me. Its purpose is to spread the gospel of possibility. “Jazz itself,” he went on, “is like another phrase for ‘Don’t forget to be creative.’ I think there’s like this little jazz bumblebee that goes from flower to flower. It goes to the flower of country and western, the flower of bluegrass, the flower of pop, the flower of blues and rhythm & blues, and says, ‘Don’t forget to be creative.’” Over fifty years after he first came on the jazz scene, one can still hear that message loud and clear in Shorter’s music.

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