Music helped saxophonist Wayne Shorter work through life's tragedies
Had Wayne Shorter hung up his horn in 1996, no one would have begrudged him his retirement. On July 17 of that year, his wife Ana Maria and their niece Dalila boarded a TWA flight from New York to Rome, where he was performing, but an apparent short circuit brought the Boeing 747-131 down shortly after takeoff. No one survived.
Shorter was bereft. And having already achieved more than most musicians could dream of—first as a key component of Miles Davis’s 1960s quintet, and then as cofounder of Weather Report—he could easily have said goodbye to the road.
Fate had other plans.
“If I’d done anything else, gone crazy or something like that, that’s not paying any homage to the life of my wife,” the saxophonist says now, reached at home in Los Angeles. “That would have been a slap in the face of her life. So when they passed away, I kept hearing in my head—and I was probably saying it to myself—‘Do the work. Do the work.’ ”
And that’s just what Shorter has been doing in the years since the tragedy. In 2000 he convened a stellar acoustic quartet with pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Patitucci, and drummer Brian Blade, and with that group, at 78, he’s making some of the most probing music of his career. The Wayne Shorter Quartet’s 2005 live recording Beyond the Sound Barrier won a Grammy for best jazz album, proof positive that jazz musicians really do reach their peak in their 70s.
Some of the credit for his survival, and his ongoing artistic growth, can be given to his Buddhist faith. “I’m looking at tragedy, perceiving it as temporary, and pursuing the constant,” he says, in characteristically elliptical fashion. “People might say it’s abstract, but it’s not abstract when you take one sentence by Shakespeare and really listen to it and say, ‘Hey, there’s four or five ongoing things in this sentence here.’ It’s not just a sentence: it’s a person, and you see that person’s life.”
Although happily remarried, Shorter still hears Ana Maria’s voice, urging him to keep going. And there’s another ghost, it seems, who’s willing to lend a helping hand.
“If Miles Davis was here, he’d say, ‘Play that,’ ” Shorter adds, in a pitch-perfect imitation of his former employer’s distinctive rasp. “He would say, ‘It would be hip if you could do a soundtrack to what you wish—and keep yourself out of it.’ You know, don’t play stuff because it’s convenient for you to entertain yourself. You might have to play something that’s going to be hard to look at, but play it. It might lift somebody else up.”
Shorter’s often been called “the greatest living jazz composer”, but he just might be the music’s finest philosopher, too.
The Wayne Shorter Quartet plays the Vogue Theatre on Tuesday (June 26) as part of the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival.