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Archive interview: Wayne Shorter

Wayne Shorter with pianist Danilo Perez (Photo copyright John Watson/jazzcamera.co.uk)

Photo location: Town Hall, Birmingham, 2012

Interview location: Ronnie Scott's, London, 1972

(Article copyright John Watson)

'I don't need diamonds and money, and all that. If I got diamonds and money, I would use them to buy more elusiveness.'

Wayne Shorter is relaxing in the bandroom at Ronnie Scott's Club in London, before beginning a performance with a band that has made a huge impact on the jazz world, Weather Report. He is a deeply thoughtful and spiritual man, who often talks in metaphor and strives to avoid saying the obvious.

The saxophonist left the quintet of trumpeter Miles Davis, took a long holiday to reflect on a career that began as a sideman with the Maynard Ferguson Big Band and blossomed with one of the great small groups of jazz, Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers.The holiday, in the Caribbean, followed years of making ground-breaking recordings with Miles - from Live At The Plugged Nickel to the rock-influenced In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew, and almost constant performing at clubs around the world.

Direction

Shorter had his tenor and soprano saxophones with him on the break in the islands, but did not play them. He swam, ate, drank and thought about music, about a new direction. Keyboards player Joe Zawinul, with whom Wayne had played in trumpeter Ferguson's big band and in the studio on In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew, had left the group of alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley, and was also contemplating his next move in the music world. Bassist Miroslav Vitous knew them both well, and suggested they get together in a co-operative group. After a brainstorming session they rejected Triumvirate, The Audience and The Six O'Clock News as names for the new band. Wayne suggested The Weather Report, and they all said 'Yeah!'

When the group arrived at Ronnie Scott's for their British debut at the Soho club, they already had a critically-acclaimed album, simply called Weather Report, released by Columbia, and their second [I Sing The Body Electric] was in the can. The group had already parted company with their original drummer on the debut studio album, Alphonse Mouzon, who did one European tour with them in 1971. He was replaced by Eric Gravatt, who had been working with pianist McCoy Tyner. They had also parted company with the debut album's Brazilian percussionist Airto Moreira, who did not want to leave the band of Miles Davis to go on the road with Weather Report. Moreira recommended a fellow Brazilian drummer, Dom Um Romao, to play percussion.

The music is unlike any which has gone before, combining electric and acoustic instruments in an intense storm of improvisation, with the emphasis not on solos - as it has been in jazz since the 1920s - but on interplay. [Zawinul later sums up the approach as: 'We always solo and we never solo'.]

Classes

I asked Wayne why he had decided on a co-operative group rather than forming a Wayne Shorter Band after leaving Miles. 'It was hard to find the kind of musicians to work with, with the ideas I had in mind,' he said. 'A lot of the musicians, working for me as sidemen . . . if I had been a leader, I knew I would have to do a lot of breaking down of barriers to stop - I'm trying to avoid the word "teach" - to stop most of the musicians from playing the way they know. It would have taken a long time, because we would have had classes every night! The habits, the cliches, I had heard, musical habits, were so strongly embedded. The only musicians I could find that could something about working away from this, who knew how to break away, were the musicians I had just been working with.

'When you leave Miles you have been very spoiled from the company that Miles had, like Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams, Chick Corea, Dave Holland and all those guys - and you go out, and all the musicians you keep thinking about are the ones you just left. They were really probing, and breaking away from all that. With Weather Report, we attempt to make the music the product, the star, the universal life. Of course, whatever we need, we need ego sometimes . . . we need ego a lot in the United States. But we can still do things together and use that ego to our best advantage, channel it into a direction to make it flower, instead of letting the ego use us. So we can get into the music, I mean really get into the music, and if you can get into the music you can get into life.

'We don't have any barrier with harmony, with the vocabulary. All we think about is the music. We try to pick our time to write. Right now we are in favour of the sea, we have to be by the sea. Josef Zawinul also likes to be near the mountains, the woods, and lakes, streams.

Insight

'So at one point, at an earlier point in life, we may have thought "That's being selfish, we should be able to do our work, do what we have to do, under any conditions." But now we don't want it to be that way. When I am going to write a tune, this tune is the most important thing in life. The music will lash over into many areas. The form will be subject to change.'

He offered a remarkable insight into his approach to improvisation. His virtuosity as a saxophonist gives him total assurance, total freedom from conscious use of chord changes and scales, to explore a dream-like state, to work with feelings, shapes and musical colours. 'I am not conscious of harmony, not so much now. I don't look to the logic in harmony any more. I use whatever gives me a sensation, an insight . . . something that you can't even put your hand on it, it's so fleeting. When that sound comes it's so fleeting that you can just about grab it. I am more satisfied with that than the sound that seems to be captured more logically. I don't want to let logic capture me . . . so, harmonically, anything might happen at this point. Say you play with pain. Well, some people will say "That's beautiful" or "That's ugly, but I dig it."

'We don't react to the audience much, to people. Sometimes we react to different colours we see in the audience, to different styles of clothes, we react to the way a person is made differently, and we react to the beauty of people, their peculiarities, their structure, the way they move.

Inspired

'That's how we react, and that way we feel that we can know everybody without disturbing their privacy - as long as they don't intrude on ours, shouting out "Dig it!" or "Play it" like in the old days. In South America, we played differently. South America really inspired me, in many kinds of way. The greenness of it, the vegetation, palm trees, high mountains, deep valleys, different wind currents . . . people have different rhythms there. They move differently, talk differently.

'The mountains of Mexico inspired me to write The Moors [later released on I Sing The Body Electric]. I was thinking of the Moors going over into Spain, and the mixing of races there. I dig mixtures. Something happened to me when I was walking around the Aztec pyramids in Mexico, something that inspired me to write than tune.'

He senses great changes to come in music and in the business machine which makes creativity possible as profession. 'We have to have some kinda changes in the next few years, I mean big changes. There is a very definite chance to do something special with your leisure time; more music, more art, more everything creative.

'They are starting to push music more now. Jazz, anything to do with more creative music, is on a definite upward curve. There's a consistency about it, like an engine that won't stop. I see a variety in the lifestyle of young people taking more shape now. The business people still want to rely on the old reliables, but the kids are pointing them in a new direction, not just wanting something that the people can dance to. The kids are seeing that dichotomy right there.

'The music business people say, "We have to have something commercial". But the kids know that they can sell anything that they want to sell. The record companies, if not going all the way out for creativity, may at least do it token-wise.'

Writing

In the past, he has set out his thoughts on music and the jazz business in writing, penning one album sleevenote and contributing an article on the status of the artist in society, published in the American jazz magazine Down Beat. 'It's a subjective expression of what the music is about, like telling a story. That's what I like to do sometimes, use other means of expressing ideas other than using a sound. I guess if more musicians could use those kind of dimensions, alternative dimensions, maybe there could be more appreciation of culture, more understanding of what it's about, especially in the United States. It would get a better place in society.'

Wayne began his musical odyssey by playing in a rehearsal group, and then joined the Jackie Bland Band, experimenting with bebop, in his home town of Newark, New Jersey. 'The first instrument I really played was the clarinet. I was playing in a band in Newark, and we only had one trumpet player in a 15-piece band, so I would take the clarinet and play the lead trumpet part.

'It helped me to develop an openness in the sound. I just made believe that the clarinet was a trumpet, and when I played those high brassy parts people said: "How can you get that big wide sound out of a clarinet? It sounds like two trumpets up there." That was when I was 16 going on 17. So when I first got the soprano saxophone it was like going back to some beginning, a rebirth. When I got a soprano in 1969 it was like that first training on the clarinet came back, like the instrument was reincarnated and made itself into a soprano. When people heard it on record they said: "It sounds like another trumpet, or some other instrument, like an amplified violin, with a mute on and no vibrato!"'

With Weather Report, Shorter's tenor sound has also become more open, more powerfully brassy in character. In his days with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers he had been strongly influenced by the legendary saxophonist John Coltrane, and people in the audience would shout 'Play it, young Coltrane!'. Blakey told Shorter: 'You got your work cut out. You got to get past John Coltrane, you got to get past Sonny Rollins . . .' The message was clear: a musician has to find his own style.

Colours

When Wayne joined Miles Davis' quintet, a new dimension, a dimension of fantasy, developed in his playing. As the saxophonist put it: 'The colours started coming'. His sound still had strength, but its steely edge was often wrapped in a cocoon of air, a soft outer core. Saxophonists call it sub-tone, a breathiness around the nucleus of the note. Shorter's solos took on a pastel quality, and with the greater tonal warmth came an almost dream-like structure, daring use of space, fluttering multi-noted runs, unexpected twists in the phrasing, all given greater weight by the complex interplay and rhythmic tension which the quintet developed.

As a saxophonist and as a composer, Wayne Shorter's music has reached a new level with Weather Report. In their music there is chaos, there is mystery, there is awesome power. 'I like these intangible things, things you can't even touch or reach out for them,' he told me. 'Emotionally, what comes out, what I'm trying to do musically, what we're all trying to do, is something to do with that. An elusive thing.'

(Article copyright John Watson)