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'Surprise of eternal adventure'

Jazz icon Wayne Shorter turns poison to medicine

Saxophone legend Wayne Shorter brings his quartet (left to right: Brian Blade, Danilo Perez, Shorter and John Patitucci) to the Wharton Center Friday.
Photo by Erica Gannett

Standard orbit is not Wayne Shorter’s style. Shorter, 83, reached escape velocity from his storied past a long time ago.

“We have to be cree-ayyy-tive,” he said, warping the word into a wormhole. “We have to keep watering the plants and keep making more, better telescopes. Better than Hubble!”

The saxophonist with the unmistakable, piercing, bird-like cry was a mainstay of Miles Davis’ second great quintet, flexed into flux with the fusion group Weather Report and made many landmark recordings in the heyday of Blue Note. Now he’s at the core of an all-star, interstellar quartet he will bring to the Wharton Center Friday, featuring Brian Blade on drums, John Patitucci on bass and Danilo Perez on piano.

A passionate follower of astronomy and science and a fan of science fiction, Shorter talked with City Pulse by phone last week. He was delighted to learn that his quartet will play across the street from MSU’s Facility for Rare Isotope Beams, an exclusive club where isotopes that exist elsewhere in the universe, but not on Earth, will be brought into existence to play very brief solos.

“All right!” he said.

It gives Shorter a kick to think that cutting-edge scientists are digging his music. The FRIB reminded Shorter of scientist and jazz fan Donal Manahan, a former dean at the University of Southern California and an expert on sea life.

“He’s crazy about — what it means to forge ahead and take the best of the past with you,” Shorter said. “Don’t burn the bridges behind you, but go ahead with all the humility you can muster.”

Manahan is an expert on sea urchin larvae that thrive in extremes, from hydrothermal vents to polar icecaps.

“He’s been in a submersible about five times in Antarctica,” Shorter said with admiration. “His whole thing is the origin of life and all that. From time to time he’ll take a paper he’s working on and give it to me, not knowing that I don’t understand all that stuff, but he said, ‘You’ve got the spirit.’” Manahan told Shorter he used to sneak little jazz breaks between zoology classes in his undergraduate days at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland.

“When his professor left the room, he and some other guys would put on their earphones and dial up some stuff,” Shorter said. “They’d be saying to each other in whispered tones, ‘Did you hear what Miles just played?’”

Recently, Shorter and his frequent collaborator and Miles Davis bandmate, keyboardist Herbie Hancock, had a ball hanging out with a group of scientists from Stanford.

“We developed a relationship,” Shorter said. “They’re telling us about their discoveries and stuff like that. They wanted to talk about improvisation in science.”

For a TV segment, astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson challenged Shorter to evoke the sound of a photon of light escaping the white-hot star where it is born and lives for millions of years.

Shorter pulled out his soprano sax and played one long note. Tyson got unusually quiet, as if he wasn’t sure whether Shorter was messing with him or not. Hancock looked on with a Cheshire Cat grin, knowing that Shorter vibrates on his own wavelength.

“In the movie ‘Mindwalk,’ a reporter asks a scientist — [actress] Liv Ullmann, I think — what’s the purpose of this whole thing, the universe and life?” Shorter said. “She says, ‘The universe wants to create.’”

He broke it down.

“Create what? Creating values?” He laughed. “Creating havoc? You find out that in Zen Buddhism, there is an opportunity in havoc, in negative stuff. You can change poison to medicine. In Sanskrit that’s ‘hendoku iyaku.’ I’m gonna do hendoku iyaku all day, man!”

There are usually ways to judge an experiment or an expedition as a success or failure. What about music? Shorter’s current quartet doesn’t rehearse or work from set lists. One “tune” can expand into a 90-minute nebula of sound. At the end of the night, does Shorter ever feel he’s found what he’s looking for?

“You carry one little baby thought — that there’s no such thing as a coincidence, no such thing as an accident,” he said. “The challenge of being in the moment onstage, whether it’s acting or being in the science laboratory, you’re working on a prediction. But before the prediction comes, you capture the simultaneity of cause and effect and transform it — before what you don’t know is going to happen, happens — and you get surprised!”

His words flowed faster, like notes in a solo, folding into a dense zone of dark matter.

“The eternal mission is the surprise of eternal adventure, where we transform ourselves and become eternally more human,” he said. “How much more human can we get? Just look around. We have a long way to go, but it’s got to be an adventure. There’s got to be some hurt and some negative stuff. But just like we’re playing music, the negative stuff is temporary. We don’t have to confuse that with being a constant.”

Shorter’s current quartet is so alert and alive that even people who haven’t reached escape velocity — who still expect to hear one of Shorter’s classic tunes like “Juju” or “Footprints” — stick with them.

“We hear this all the time — ‘Is that all? That was short, wasn’t it?’” Shorter said. “With that kind of music, with other people, it’s like, ‘Man, when is this going to end?’”

He loves to tell a story about an 11-year-old girl who visited him backstage with her mother after a recent European concert.

“I know what you’re doing,” she said to Shorter.

“When we’ve been playing lately, these last 15 years, nobody leaves,” he said. “What we get from them is like, ‘We want to see what’s going to happen next.’ It’s good that we don’t know what’s going to happen.”

With a combined experience on the bandstand that’s off the scale, what’s happening on stage might seem like far-out rocket science, but you don’t have to earn a degree in jazz, or anything else, to take the ride.

“They’re looking at us, not knowing the notes, not knowing how to play music, but they’re seeing John laughing when he’s playing the bass, looking at Danilo,” Shorter said.

“If I want to turn a light on in my house, I’ll just turn on the switch,” he added. “I don’t get a book on electricity and see how the light works. We get on a plane and the pilot flies it; we don’t. You enjoy yourself, enjoy your trip, enjoy your life.”


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