Life lessons from Wayne Shorter

‘Play and write music the way you want the world to be,’ says legendary jazzman

Wayne Shorter Quartet

Where: Dominion-Chalmers United Church

When: Sunday, June 30, 6:30 p.m.

Tickets and info:

There was moment when pianist Danilo Pérez had had enough of the mysteries and confusions of playing in the quartet of Wayne Shorter.

It was more than a decade ago, early on during Pérez’s tenure in what some call the greatest small jazz group playing today.

Shorter, a musical living legend thanks to his revolutionary playing and composing with Art Blakey and Miles Davis in the 1960s and with the seminal jazz-fusion band Weather Report in the 1970s and 1980s, had assembled an elite group of younger stars, including Pérez, for his new acoustic band.

But to the surprise of Pérez, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade, Shorter barely rehearsed, preferring instead to share puzzling aphorisms and movie or book recommendations with his bandmates. The band’s concerts were filled with free-form explorations, rich in content but devoid of the obvious and comforting structures of jazz music.

“I felt like, ‘What the hell is happening?’ ” Pérez recalls. “It felt like an advanced ear-training class, just chasing each other around like crazy.

“I remember really saying to myself, ‘To hell with this. I’m tired of feeling this way. To hell with this.’ ”

Pérez recalls that during a concert in Denmark he saw a carousel ride and its horses, and the sight set him off. “I remember saying to myself, ‘Horses!’ I went ‘Neigh!’ and I just played whatever. He (Shorter) looked down and for the first time, he talked to me, he said on the bandstand, ‘That’s what’s happening! That’s where its at!’ ” Pérez laughs.

“He could really feel when I was disconnecting from doing a good job and just letting my imagination take over,” Pérez says.

Now, Pérez, 46, regards Shorter, who turns 80 this year, as a sage teacher and even a father figure, someone who dispenses advice through Zen-like epithets that pertain to not just making music, but to the art of living as well.

“Using the music as an excuse to become more human, I think that’s at the core of his teaching,” Pérez says.

“A lot of things he would teach us, like ‘Don’t hide behind your instrument.’

“He said, ‘Let’s make a movie.’ This made an impact on me.

“He said to me, ‘Play and write music the way you want the world to be.’ That made a huge impact on me from the beginning.

“He said to me, ‘What are you afraid of?’ Miles used to tell him, ‘Wayne, what are you afraid of?’ All these lessons from Wayne are from Miles, that have been passed along to us, are still being passed on to us. It’s fascinating, it’s amazing.”

Shorter’s recent recordings and song titles — Beyond the Sound Barrier, On Wings of Song, As Far As The Eye Can See, Without A Net, Zero Gravity to the Tenth Power, Unidentified Flying Object — suggest a view of life as perpetual striving and of confronting larger, greater forces.

“It’s really more the adventure and the desire to break the boundaries,” says Pérez. “Like trying to answer the question of what music is for, what music means in our life. And he’s always questioning that part. Music. Humanity. What is your story? Life is not always full of the same kind of feelings, you’ve got to struggle.”

In his life, Shorter has known more than his share of struggles, and indeed, profound losses.

In the late 1980s, Shorter overcame a decades-long drinking problem, described in Michelle Mercer’s book Footprints: The Life and Work of Wayne Shorter.

One of Shorter’s daughters, Iska, died in 1983 of a grand mal seizure. She was 14 and had been profoundly brain-damaged for almost all of her life due to a medical accident.

“Iska’s critical medical condition was devastatingly painful for Wayne,” Mercer wrote. “The tragedy caused him to question the meaning of everything: music, family, and life itself.”

Shorter’s only brother, Alan, a trumpeter, died in 1987 at the age of 56 after his aorta ruptured. Shorter’s second wife Ana Maria, the mother of Iska, died on July 17, 1996, a passenger aboard flight TWA 800, which exploded and crashed into the Atlantic Ocean minutes after taking off in New York.

Bolstering Shorter against these hardships and tragedies were his Buddhist practices. Since the early 1970s, Shorter and his close friend Herbie Hancock have been Nichiren Buddhism adherents, believing that through study and chanting they can achieve enlightenment.

To hear Pérez speak, Shorter is sharing lessons that enable his band to make incredibly molten music, driven by the spirit of discovery. Sometimes the group refers to Shorter compositions old and new, but more frequently it leaps collectively into the musical unknown, relying on incredible music instincts, reflexes and mutual trust.

“The way we play this music, people don’t even realized how improvised it is. The level of commitment that everybody has for what they are saying makes it seem like there’s even arrangements or something like that. It’s fascinating to hear and to see how this has evolved.

“Nothing has changed from the beginning except that we have grown as human beings.”

Pérez gives an example, not to brag but to share his own amazement. “This happens literally, not kidding. I go on the piano, he goes to the saxophone, we go, and 20 notes that we play, 15 notes are the same. Without talking about it. It’s like, ‘What?’ This is insane man, kind of like crazy, actually.

“And that’s happening with John, happening to me and Brian. We didn’t talk about it. We didn’t rehearse. We have created out of the trust — of course there’s a lot of individual work, I think — everybody has created this kind of frequency. It sounds like a piece that was written out, it’s getting to that crazy level, I don’t really have an understanding of it as a musician. I think it’s going to take years for me to put this in words.”

Pérez says that Shorter, apart from caring for some allergies, is in peak artistic condition.

“He’s playing amazing, fantastic — better and better. He just keeps going,” says Pérez.

Unlike many jazz elders, Shorter has not settled into a rut or a career based on nostalgia for jazz as it used to sound.

“He’s always on the renewal,” says Pérez. “He’s got endless energy. He’s in touch with his creative powers. There’s always this excitement. There’s always life to everything he does.”

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