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Wayne Shorter On Jazz: 'How Do You Rehearse The Unknown?'

Feb 2, 2013
Originally published on February 2, 2013 6:41 pm

The New York Times doesn't mince words when it writes, "Wayne Shorter is generally acknowledged to be jazz's greatest living composer."

Going back to his days jamming with John Coltrane fresh out of the Army, Shorter has seemed to move, Zelig-like, through some of the most important combos in jazz — from Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, to his days with Miles Davis, to the groundbreaking fusion band Weather Report.

As Shorter approaches his 80th birthday, he's just reunited with the label that championed him as a bandleader back in the 1960s, Blue Note Records. On the new album Without a Net, he leads a quartet with whom he's spent more than a decade through live recordings and some striking new compositions.

Speaking with NPR's Laura Sullivan, Shorter says he absorbed a common principle from Davis, Coltrane, Blakey and his other great peers and mentors: They left their musicians alone.

"The six years I was with Miles, we never talked about music. We never had a rehearsal," Shorter says. "Jazz shouldn't have any mandates. Jazz is not supposed to be something that's required to sound like jazz. For me, the word 'jazz' means, 'I dare you.' The effort to break out of something is worth more than getting an A in syncopation.

"This music, it's dealing with the unexpected," he adds. "No one really knows how to deal with the unexpected. How do you rehearse the unknown?"

Hear more of the conversation, including Shorter's Miles Davis impression, by clicking the audio link on this page.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LAURA SULLIVAN, HOST:

In case you're just tuning in, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Laura Sullivan. And it's time, now, for music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "ORBITS")

SULLIVAN: The New York Times went all in when describing Wayne Shorter. The paper said he is generally acknowledged to be jazz's greatest living composer. Starting with his early days jamming with John Coltrane, Shorter seemed to move Zelig-like through some of the most important combos in jazz history, from Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers to the groundbreaking fusion band Weather Report, and, of course, his legendary years with Miles Davis.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "ORBITS")

SULLIVAN: You're listening to a piece he wrote for Miles, called "Orbits." Now approaching is 80th birthday, Wayne Shorter revisits that composition on his latest album, "Without a Net." However, you may have a hard time recognizing it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "ORBITS")

SULLIVAN: I talked to Wayne Shorter earlier this week as he prepared for a show in New York City. He's been an avowed Buddhist for almost 40 years now, and he's pretty Zen about reimagining some of his old work.

WAYNE SHORTER: Nothing is thrown away. Nothing goes away. It's - ice is getting ready to change to water. I used to ask, when I was a kid, where do our words go? And I'm finding out.

SULLIVAN: Where?

SHORTER: They don't stop. They initiate cause and effect.

SULLIVAN: Some people might find it boring to go back and revisit an old song, or to take a song that - especially one like "Orbits," that is so well-known. But for you, it's not boring. It's something else.

SHORTER: No. When you say something's boring, that means you haven't even scratched the surface of something. And boring is a trademark of being arrogant and complacent.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SULLIVAN: I mean, you're leading an incredible band on these sessions. You've been with them for more than a decade now. And, I mean, it seems to me that jazz has a really strong tradition of apprenticeship. You know, you study under great bandleaders, and then you yourself became a great bandleader. What kind of aspects of working with John Coltrane or Art Blakey or Miles Davis that you receive that you are now passing on to young musicians today?

SHORTER: The one thing they had in common was leave the musicians alone. He would say - Miles would say: Leave the musicians alone. Someone would yell out to Tony Williams: The drummer's too loud. And he said - Miles would say: Leave the drummer alone in the microphone.

(LAUGHTER)

SHORTER: With Miles, the six years I was with Miles, we never talked about music. We never had a rehearsal.

SULLIVAN: So let me see if I understand this. Miles Davis and you, Wayne Shorter, some of the greatest musicians of our time, sitting around together for years, but you're not talking about music.

SHORTER: No. We never really talked about - we never talked about music.

SULLIVAN: Wow.

SHORTER: I'm just thinking about that now. It's pretty amazing.

SULLIVAN: How did you know how to play with each other?

SHORTER: You know, what I found out what we're doing? We were actually playing music as we were talking. When we talked on the phone, Miles would say: We're going to record next week. I had a book - a book that I wrote music in - and he would say: Bring the book. When he said bring the book like that, when we got in the studio, there's a point at which we played like that (humming) ta-da-da-da da-da, like that. And it just came out.

And Tony would say: I'm tired of playing ding, ding, di-ding, ding, di-ding, ding, di-ding. And Herbie would say: I don't know what to do with my left hand. So Miles said: Don't play with your left hand anymore on the piano.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SULLIVAN: I'm speaking with composer, bandleader and saxophone player Wayne Shorter. His new album is called "Without a Net." When you perform with the wind ensemble, Imani Winds, on the piece called "Pegasus," I mean, it seems like they are probably, as a wind ensemble, a little more used to the classical structure. I mean, there's not a lot of improv that's going on on stage. Did you have to work with them differently than you would with your regular bandmates?

SHORTER: No. Jazz shouldn't have any mandates. Jazz is not supposed to be something that you're required to sound like jazz. For me, the word jazz means, I dare you. And the effort to break out of something is worth more than you getting an A in syncopation. And this music, it's dealing with the unexpected. No one really knows how to deal with the unexpected. How do you rehearse the unknown?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHORTER: The challenge is you have to be in the moment. Classical guys, they got in the moment too. (Unintelligible) got in the moment. Einstein got in the moment. You're getting in the moment.

(LAUGHTER)

SHORTER: You better. The moment's going to get you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SULLIVAN: The legendary Wayne Shorter. His new album is called "Without a Net." This weekend, you can sample every track at our exclusive first listen. That's on nprmusic.org. Mr. Shorter, it's been such a pleasure. Thank you so much.

SHORTER: OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.