Monday, December 01, 2008

His path, his pace

Quietly, Wayne Shorter savors a pressure-free approach to life and music

Wayne Shorter talks like he plays. Sitting on the couch in his living room high in the West Hollywood hills, the legendary saxophonist is asked to explain his philosophy when it comes to leading a band. Speaking softly, Shorter drops references to actor William Shatner and Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel before settling, of course, on Miles Davis.

That's when the story, just about to roam too far, gets hauled back in. Shorter uses his time as part of the trumpet icon's celebrated quintet to make a point about his own current foursome.

"One night we were playing the Plugged Nickel," he explains, "and Tony [Williams] was playing and hitting a cymbal hard and somebody yelled from the audience to turn the drummer down. Miles walked by the microphone and said, 'Leave the drummer alone.' "

Leave them alone. This spirit drives Shorter's now eight-year-old quartet, his first permanent acoustic group. The band, made up of pianist Danilo Perez, drummer Brian Blade, and bassist John Patitucci, plays Wednesday night at the Berklee Performance Center. It's part of a tour celebrating his 75th birthday, though the date was actually in August.

The quartet is more of a democracy than you might expect in a group led by one of the last remaining jazz giants. There's no planned set list. And each musician, not just Shorter, can cue the next tune. A concert becomes a seamless, unbroken round of acoustic jazz.

"When I play in this band, I feel like the sky's the limit," says Patitucci, whose resume stretches from Chick Corea to Sting. "Anything could happen. I feel like all the other experiences have prepared me for this in a way."

For Shorter, the road to this ensemble has taken him from New Jersey, where he was born and began to play saxophone, through stints with Art Blakey (1959-1964), Miles Davis (1964-1970), and Weather Report (1971-1985). He's played tenor and soprano, bounced from Blue Note bop to jazz fusion, and, the night before he plays Boston, he will have a classical composition premiered during his New York concert by the Imani Winds quintet.

"What's remarkable is that Wayne is doing this at 75 years of age," says pianist Herbie Hancock, Shorter's off-and-on musical partner since their days together with Davis. "How is that possible? The thing is, it is coming from someone who is very young. It's the young Wayne Shorter at 75."

Shorter's quartet emerged after a period of relative inactivity.

He had released "High Life" in 1995, which itself came seven years after his last album. Then, in 1996, Shorter's wife, Ana Maria, died in the crash of TWA Flight 800. It was not long after that, Shorter recalled during an hourlong interview, that Shatner knocked on his door.

The musician had never met the former Captain Kirk. But Shatner apparently knew Shorter lived nearby. Invited in, the actor talked about writing, and asked Shorter if he could listen to a recording of "High Life."

"He listened to the whole thing, then he started talking about writing novels, and he said, 'When you get away from an unfinished novel and some months pass, then you come back and' - he did his Captain Kirk voice - 'How do you continue? What do you do?'

"And I was thinking - and this is just me speaking - maybe he was asking, 'What do you do, how do you continue when someone close to you passes?' "

Three years after his wife's death, Shorter remarried, to one of Ana Maria's friends, Carolina Dos Santos, and they moved to Florida. She wanted to be closer to her native Brazil. They lived there until 2006, when Shorter and Dos Santos moved back to his home, which is near the top of a windy stretch of road high in the hills. With the French doors open, a slight breeze blows in, and you can smell the smoke of the wildfires burning miles away.

"I've been all over, but there is something about being here," he says.

There's the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and there's also his friend Hancock, with whom he's often recorded. Over the years Hancock has become the more famous of the Davis Quintet graduates, thanks to his eclectic tastes, which mix pop singers with jazz and embrace electronic rock.

Shorter, with his quiet sense of humor, prefers to lay back and make music at his own pace.

"Why isn't he recognized in the same way?" asks Hancock. "For one thing, he's not looking for celebrity. [His approach] doesn't fit any of the guidelines of what could lead to an immediate commercial kind of recognition. My feeling is he's doing what he wants to do."

Shorter no longer hears people asking him to re-create his classic, Starbucks-friendly '60s sound. He doesn't feel pressure to sell albums or to look back at his musical history. Jazz, Shorter says, is about life moving on.

"If you're playing something that's supposed to sound like it's supposed to be . . . and you're perfecting this mandatory expression with mandates all around it, it's nothing more than a statue," says Shorter. "Like polishing a statue."

At 75, he says he feels as healthy as ever. He does walk slowly up the stairs, and admits that, at times, he has to lean against the piano because of the horn's strain on his back. But he quit smoking in 1990, and no longer even drinks casually.

When will he retire? He doesn't answer directly. Instead he talks of feeling strong, saying he doesn't need to "go around advertising I'm an old geezer."

Later during the interview, Shorter recalls listening to legendary conductor Arturo Toscanini on the radio. He remembers a day in 1954, a day that turned out to be the then 87-year-old maestro's final concert.

"He turned to the audience and . . . the commentator said, 'He's slowing down, he's slowing down,' " remembers Shorter. "He just put his baton on the podium and turned and looked at the audience and said, 'Adieu.' "

By Geoff Edgers, Globe Staff boston.com

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