The outer limits: oblique answers and dark matter in Wayne’s world

Saxophonist Wayne Shorter has been at the heart of jazz for six decades. His tunes are like Beckett plays in melody and harmony, and his answers aren’t exactly straightforward either


For Wayne Shorter, the past is not just another country, it’s a distant galaxy. Only now matters. It’s what you would expect from an iconic jazz musician – particularly one who is a practising Buddhist – who has seen most of his contemporaries die young. But it’s a bit of a challenge if you’ve been tasked with interviewing him about his career.

Born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1933, Shorter has had one of the most influential careers in jazz history, and has been the artistic catalyst in some of its most important groups. Dozens of his compositions have passed into the standard repertoire. For six decades, he has been at the beating heart of the art form: playing with John Coltrane, sharing a stage with Miles Davis, pioneering jazz fusion with Weather Report, contributing to key recordings by Joni Mitchell and Steely Dan, and above all, being his own man and speaking with his own unique voice.

But it’s not a voice that likes to talk about all that illustrious past. He is unfailingly polite but resists any invitations to revisit the past or talk about the critical praise heaped upon him. Read the biography, he seems to say: I’ve moved on.

“If there’s a lot of praise,” he says, laughing mischievously, “where are the record sales? I’m not knocking it, but sometimes the praise is all talk and no action. It’s not real. It only goes so far. Praise should be in line with courage – having courage to act on whatever you’re praising, that’s the thing. Whatever you’re championing, you’re actually championing that thing within yourself, you know?”

Bonn vivant

Shorter answers questions like he plays the saxophone: obliquely. He engages, but not in the way you might expect. At any moment, he is likely to change the subject, switch gear or veer into some wholly unrelated topic.

When we speak, he’s in a hotel room in Bonn, up bright and early and still buzzing about last night’s concert. For all his 80 years, he’s like a kid with a new toy as he talks about getting back with the members of his quartet.

“We hadn’t played together for at least two months, and the first 45 minutes was all total improvisation: that kind of story telling, listening and trusting, giving our individual commentaries on what has been happening. Danilo [Perez, the Panamanian pianist and UN goodwill ambassador] has been to Africa, and I’ve been to Japan, and [drummer] Brian Blade has been going around doing all kinds of things, and in those first 45 minutes we’re bringing those experiences to that moment.”

It’s a challenging combination, to be utterly committed to creating music in the moment, and to also have a towering reputation as contemporary jazz’s greatest composer. His tunes, full of wide leaps and precise harmonic instructions, are like Beckett plays in melody and harmony, and they have defined jazz since the 1960s. So how do Shorter the improviser and Shorter the composer get along?

“They can’t run away from each other,” he says, laughing. He laughs a lot. “The challenge is to keep them well aware of each other. No matter what happens there should not be any concerted effort to explain the differences. There shouldn’t be a concerted effort to define the differences between Jekyll and Hyde – just leave them alone. I think this whole mystery of life – the mystery of us, I call it – is enough of an adventure to live itself out rather than, you know, just to know what it is. What ‘it’ is can get in the way of the adventure of ‘it’.”

At home with astrophysicists

Earlier this year, Wayne was invited to Stanford University to share his insights into creativity with the scientists in the physics department. For the lifelong science-fiction nerd whom school friends used to call Mr Weird, (“because I said I wanted to go to Saturn”), it was a dream invitation. He is an aficionado of Irish sci-fi pioneer Lord Dunsany and he namechecks Bram Stoker. So what was he doing at the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology at Stanford’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory?

“Not the whole department,” he says. “It was just the ones that are, you know, left alone. The astrophysicists and all that sort of stuff. Really top-drawer guys. And they wanted us to get a view of what they’re doing with the accelerator. They have a sister system, like the one in Cern, Switzerland. And I’m telling you, man, dark matter and all that.”

Dark matter indeed. This is a musician who has always specialised in the dark and mysterious in music. His tune titles alone – Super Nova, Dance Cadaverous, Witch Hunt, Prince of Darkness, Speak No Evil – suggest a mind familiar with dark matters. So did he feel at home among the astrophysicists?

“You know what they said to us? They were actually saying, the new younger scientists, that they’re doing what we’re doing. They said, ‘We’re doing what you do when you throw something out there and see where it goes. We’re throwing theorems out there.’ And you know, recently through that kind of experimentation, they came up with a perfect match of something that’s related to the origins of the universe. So they’re not going to give up.”

What has he learned from six decades at the forefront of American music? It’s the one straight answer he gives all morning.

“When you’re starting out, you’re kind of wrapped up in yourself, wrapped up in how you perceive things. I think you have a limited perception of what it means to play music and what it means to be creative. You have a limited perception of it. But now, I want it to be limitless. The creative process is not about just playing music at all. The doorman or the cab driver, they all have to realise the creative doorway they can walk through in their lives. How you speak to someone else, how people date, boys and girls, what are they saying when they’re dating. The more unscripted, the more daring, the more you come from behind your mask, the better.”

“I liked it when Meryl Streep was asked, ‘Miss Streep, when you’re acting, is every new acting part that you play like putting on another mask?’ And she said, ‘No. It’s like taking them off.’ And that reminds me of something Art Blakey used to say to musicians: ‘You can’t hide behind your instrument.’ ”

Wayne Shorter Quartet play the National Concert Hall on Saturday night,

FIVE TO FORAGE FOR: Seminal Shorter on record

Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers Ugetsu (1963) Shorter joined the Jazz Messengers in 1959 and became its musical director; his tunes for drummer Art Blakey’s band defined the hard-bop style.

Miles Davis Quintet ESP (1965) This group, once called “the great 1960s quintet”, featured pianist Herbie Hancock and drummer Tony Williams, and is widely regarded as the high-water mark of small-group jazz.

Weather Report Heavy Weather (1977) With keyboardist Joe Zawinul, Shorter led the group that invented the jazz-fusion genre.

Joni Mitchell Both Sides Now (2000) Shorter was choosy about which pop records he played on, but he repeatedly worked with Mitchell; check out his sparse, achingly beautiful solo on the title track.

Wayne Shorter Quartet Without a Net (2013) In the past decade, Wayne’s new quartet, with pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade, has blazed a new trail, and is regarded by many musicians as the finest group working in jazz today.

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