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Shorter Over the Long Haul

Faced with the tragic death of his wife, saxophone titan Wayne Shorter chooses life.

By almost any measure, Wayne Shorter, 64, is among the most influential jazz musicians of the past two generations. The saxophonist first made his mark during a late Fifties/early Sixties tenure with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers. Then, in 1964, he took on the nearly impossible task of filling the chair vacated by John Coltrane in Miles Davis's band, and while he didn't erase memories of Coltrane, the series of records he made with Davis and stellar instrumentalists Tony Williams, Ron Carter and Herbie Hancock are rightfully regarded as classics. (So, too, are many of Shorter's compositions, including "Footprints," "One by One" and "Sanctuary.") Shorter subsequently co-founded Weather Report, a combo credited with proving that the fusion of electric rock and jazz could be as aesthetically pleasing as it was commercially successful, and made a series of post-Weather Report solo recordings that earned him three Grammy awards and a reputation as a player for the ages.

Shorter's winning streak continues to this day. He's featured on three songs from Bridges to Babylon, the new Rolling Stones CD, and is scheduled to add his elegant musicality to an upcoming platter by Joni Mitchell. Furthermore, he and Hancock just collaborated on 1+1, a release on the Verve imprint that's as enriching as any jazz platter currently on the market. But this last achievement is one that Shorter cannot help but see as a mixed blessing. After all, it was inspired by Ana Maria, his beloved wife of 26 years, who perished in the explosion of TWA Flight 800 off the coast of New York in July of last year.

In dealing with that tragedy, Shorter turned to both his art and his faith. He's a longtime member of Soka Gakkai International-USA, a Buddhist sect whose philosophies inform his beliefs and color his conversation. At times his descriptions of his principles can be difficult to follow, but even at their most opaque, they reflect the bottomless emotions of a deeply spiritual man.

"Enjoy what you will enjoy and suffer what you suffer," he says, adding, "To me, suffering is a part of the whole eternity of life. But instead of staying in your suffering, you have to find the gem, the illumination, that's hidden in suffering. This is something that you must do by yourself--and a lot of people don't do it. But once you acknowledge that it is something that you must do alone, the beauty of a realization begins, and you see what it really is. Like coping: You don't cope with anything, and you don't settle or come to terms. You realize. And this realization will happen to everyone who has ever lived, even though they may think they can't handle it.

"Some people jump off a cliff or commit some other type of suicide because they think they just cannot live without a person," he goes on. "That's attachment, and that's negative--which is why it has to come to a point of realization. Then the ingenuity of the human being comes into play. It starts working, and you find that you graduate. You realize that when a person leaves you, this person is not gone. This person is living within you forever, and you live within that person forever. You will walk somewhere together in the universe eternally."

To Shorter, this vision of metaphysical reincarnation--or, as he refers to it, "continued carnation"--is not wishful thinking, but a literal manifestation of the future that lies before him. The possibility that anyone might see his convictions otherwise makes him a trifle defensive. "Don't mistake this for rationality," he warns. "With rationality, you think of things, and a clever psychiatrist will come along and say that whatever you are speaking about borders on denial. But that is just one of the many little demons that try to keep you in the world of the familiar. You see, suffering has a language. If you're suffering too much, you can't hear the language. So you have to be still, be quiet, when you're suffering. Then you start going beyond your six senses and you start to perceive the language that's being spoken within your suffering. And it's not frightening or miserable at all, because it's a language that's been a part of you since before you were born. You can't remember it, but the DNA of remembering is there when you need it. When the wisdom comes to you, that's a part of what you learned from your eternal past up to the present."

The 1+1 recording is an attempt to tap into such ancient verities. The material on it was spontaneously created by Hancock (on acoustic piano) and Shorter (on soprano saxophone); the songs, such as they are, sprang from pure improvisation. In lesser hands, this tack likely would have yielded music that was harsh and inaccessible, but thanks to the skills of the musicians involved, the CD is intense, soulful and stark in its beauty.

So confident in their abilities are Hancock and Shorter that they have taken their approach to 1+1 on the road with them. As Shorter explains, "The parameters were that there are no parameters. All you've got to think about is whatever phrase goes through your head. For example, you go, 'Okay, what did Shakespeare read?' And you go as far as you can with something that sounds like a ridiculous thought, but it's not. Or you go to the other end of the spectrum--like, 'What are you going to do?' We are all faced with an unknown quality, an unknown entity, an unknown place in this world, in the universe, in our life. So we thought of our shows as stripping ourselves of the known--of playing with bass, drums and piano or playing with other musicians, whether there are five or five hundred. And after every time we've finished, we couldn't remember what we did. And to me, not remembering is one of the keys to having no parameters.

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