With Wayne Shorter’s cooperation, writer Michelle Mercer has put together a hip and solid book, entitled Footprints, taking its name from one of Shorter’s most famous compositions. Shorter himself was interviewed extensively for the book. Between the lines, readers will see that, if anything, Mercer succeeds in helping us understand the complex personality of a jazz legend who is, shall we say, far out.
Now in his seventies, Shorter has been in the midst of a career renaissance. Behind his so-called comeback might be a moment in 1991, when Shorter paid a visit to his longtime friend and creative collaborator Miles Davis. Davis said what would be the trumpeter’s final words to his friend. “You know,” he told Shorter, “you need to be more exposed.” From that point, you might say, Shorter has tried to find his way back to his jazz roots of composition, an eclectic interest in world music, and acoustic playing. And that has made all the difference. This fall’s release of a two-CD career overview, also entitled Footprints, is another part of this process of Shorter’s genuinely humble approach to staking his claim as being a living legend.
Born in Newark, New Jersey in 1933, Wayne Shorter was on the fast track to becoming a jazz legend, it seems from the very start. Raised in a family that cultivated his interest in visual art, movies, literature, and music, Shorter was always confident in his creative abilities. Growing up in Newark and studying music at New York University also meant that Shorter was as close to the most innovative music of the day – bebop – in his formative years. In a sense, having his formative years coincide with those of bebop encourages in Shorter an ongoing drive in his music for finding new realms of music to explore.
By the late 50s, Shorter was playing tenor and contributing his own compositions to Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, and from there he moved to the celebrated Miles Davis Quintet of the mid-60s – a band which featured, as most will know, not only Shorter, but Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams. With Shorter writing for the group and serving, in Davis’s words, as the “intellectual musical catalyst,” the Quintet experimented with what they called anti-music, that is, improvisation with the idea of taking apart the structure of the song. Listen to the Shorter composition, “Dolores,” on Miles Smiles and you’ll hear a hint of things to come. Much of what the Quintet began exploring in those few memorable years led to Davis’s work on Bitches Brew and afterwards, as well as Shorter’s next group, the fusion conglomerate Weather Report. When any discussion of jazz history gets to fusion – mercy, things get uncomfortable. Fusion, as this book presents it, was a by-product of money, ego, and technology that, in the end, led to the dissipation of the talents of many jazz musicians. Fortunately, Shorter did manage to play with his old Quintet buddies (along with Freddie Hubbard) in VSOP during those years. But, Mercer’s biography is charitable when dealing with Shorter’s years among the stadiums, synthesizers, and studio services -- although he was always writing his own music, and, occasionally, recording. It hasn’t been until recently that Shorter has found musicians – those relative youngsters in his current Quartet – who seem technically and creatively capable of keeping up with him in a live and acoustic setting. Wayne, some of us have wanted to ask, where have you been?Of course, Shorter had just been getting on with his life, and there’s plenty of material other than music in this biography. We learn of Shorter’s interest in Buddhism, of his love of movies, and of his personal struggles and family tragedies. But for Shorter, it seems, the footprints of his life never stayed far from the path of music. The music, in the end, always led him back home.
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