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By Tom Murphy
Wayne Shorter didn't start out playing the saxophone -- or even music. His first mode of expression as a teenager was the graphic arts. "Back in 1949, I did a lot of drawings," says Shorter, now 69, as close to a jazz legend as anyone alive could claim to be. "As a matter of fact, I used to draw science-fiction comic books."
Shorter's distinguished reputation as a player, composer and innovator of jazz in no way prepares you for the sound of his voice piping in over the phone lines. It's pinched and raspy, a little cracked around the edges, and he speaks with the genial wisdom of a Buddhist monk or a Jedi master. He emphasizes certain words with hushed volume and a prolonged hiss of breath; others he pounds into your eardrum with an ecclesiastical yelp. "Yeah, there's a connection between painting and writing and music, all those things," he explains thoughtfully. "When you talk about connecting things, connecting dots and stuff, that's just intelligence. But human beings have been very busy historically -- I'm talking about hundreds of years -- with disconnecting dots."
Shorter's own history is a lesson in the art of connection. Throughout his 45 years as a professional musician, he has hooked up with some of the most celebrated ensembles in the jazz pantheon: Weather Report, Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, Miles Davis's mid- to late-'60s group -- not to mention his own acclaimed bands as a leader. In each incarnation, he has brought together many elements of style, technique and concept, synthesizing bebop, avant-garde, Latin, funk and rock; he's even played with Steely Dan and Joni Mitchell. Underlining it all, though, has been his faith in the science and religion that is jazz.
"One time my music teacher at NYU was teaching this advanced harmony class, and she asks us, 'How many of you students have a hard time at math?' About half the class raised their hands. And she said, 'Well, you're doing math now,'" Shorter, a New York University alumnus, remembers with a laugh. From his hard-swinging days on the Jazz Messengers' front line to the abstract intensity of his work on such Davis landmarks as In a Silent Wayand Bitches Brew, he has restlessly explored the arithmetical dimensions of lyricism, balance and tonality in jazz. His own masterpieces as a leader, including 1965's bewitching Speak No Evil and 1974's chart success Native Dancer, were always a couple decimal places away from the mainstream, adding soul and mystery to melody and rhythm.
"Using numbers to me is just another way of having fun. Sometimes you have to go through all this mathematics and planning to get to that gut feeling," he says. "When you can go and reach that deep, then you know you've answered the question 'What is life?' What most people don't realize is, the answer is the question."
Shorter's explanations of his music, like his songs themselves, often start out as simple, friendly conversations before trailing off into complex and extended narratives on the nature of life, death and the reality of the cosmos. No doubt he absorbed some of this philosophical mysticism during his long friendship with John Coltrane. Though they never appeared on the same record, the two saxophone luminaries developed their respective revolutionary styles while practicing and performing together in the early '60s.
Still, Shorter warns against the mistake of whittling away one's creative impulse with too much rehearsal and scale-running.
"In some instances, practice does not make perfect," he says. "You have to be very careful about this. The element of surprise has something to do with more than practice: becoming aware. You can practice something and still have tunnel vision. You become a tunnel visionary."
Shorter uses both alto and soprano saxophone to probe the depths of texture and emotion, shifting from a sparse and lonesome ghostliness to jumbled runs of notes and harmonics, but his playing in later years has kept mostly to the minimal. He is also known for his equal strength as both composer and improviser, though Shorter sees the dichotomy of freedom versus structure as "an illusion" that becomes revealed through the act of performance. "Improvisation slowed down is composition. Composition speeded up is improvisation," he says sagely. "But that's actually leaving a lot of other components out. One big thing is story, the storytelling aspect."
And how exactly does one tell a story through a saxophone?
"How do you do it?" Shorter echoes incredulously, as if startled that the answer isn't common knowledge. "Why, you have to forget all of your training, that is, all of your academic training, all of the patterns and cliches and risks. If you want to tell a story through music -- and tell a hell of a story through music -- you have to make music that doesn't sound like music. Like Miles used to say, 'I get tired of hearing music.' That means all the hit stuff, those songs on American Idol, all that stuff that's singy-songy, dingy-dongy."
Shorter, accordingly, is an avid reader, citing as favorites Frank Herbert's Dune and Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead -- two allegorical epics dealing with the social and moral destiny of humankind. "I think a real story has something which brings value to the surface," explains Shorter. "By the way, we need more novelists. We need more people on this side of the fence ready for the great surge into the galactic unknown. It's life's adventure, life's eternal adventure."