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

Wed, Jun 11, 2014, 01:00

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.”

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