During a two-night appearance at last month’s Umbria Jazz Melbourne ’05 festival in Australia, Wayne Shorter, jazz’s pre-eminent saxophonist, was an intrepid astronaut navigating the musical cosmos with improvisational brio.
With his band –bassist John Patitucci, drummer Brian Blade and pianist Jason Moran (subbing for regular Danilo Perez) — Shorter provided the climax of the 11-day international festival. The group performed music from its live CD, “Beyond the Sound Barrier” (released June 14 on Verve).
A film aficionado and longtime fan of superheroes, Shorter came up in the late ’50s with drummer Art Blakey’s seminal band the Jazz Messengers, became a key member of Miles Davis’ classic ’60s quartet, co-founded jazz-fusion supergroup Weather Report and then launched a solo career, crowning critics’ polls in recent years. He also recorded with Steely Dan and regularly contributes to albums by Joni Mitchell.
Backstage after the second evening in Melbourne, Shorter landed on Earth long enough to talk about the current state of the recording industry and his mission in music.
Q: As a jazz artist, do you feel your music is a hard sell for record companies because sales are lower for jazz than for pop?
A: It’s just like Art Blakey used to say: “You can make a billion dollars on Wrigley’s spearmint gum, but you can’t make any money on jazz?” — and I would add, “on any kind of music that’s truly creative.”
Q: When you started recording solo in the early ’60s, was it like a playground, a place to be free with your music?
A: It was, in a way. I recorded a lot with Blue Note. The two guys who ran it then were Alfred Lion and Francis Wolfe. They didn’t play like the majors. They were recording mavericks. They went against the grain and stuck with it.
Q: Even back then, though, jazz records didn’t make lots of money.
A: If something makes a lot of money, it doesn’t make it cool. People worry about missing out on that pot of gold. But what they’re really missing out on is their creative process. It’s about evolving. It’s like that movie “Resident Evil” with Milla Jovovich. Everybody was getting injected with something that made the people feed off each other like “Night of the Living Dead,” but it didn’t have the same effect with Milla. Her injection didn’t work. So these guys were trying to destroy her, because she wasn’t mutating to be some kind of war machine. But one guy said not to destroy her because she wasn’t mutating, she was evolving.
Q: That’s what happens in your live shows — the music evolves.
A: That’s right. We’re all evolving. And there’s a faith in eternal existence. I try to do that onstage, intimating that there’s no such thing as a beginning or end. That’s why I don’t want to play songs anymore. They’re cute and nice. I’ve learned things that have a beginning and end, but they’re artificial. A lot of people give their lives for artificial reasons. It’s like, are your thoughts your own or someone else’s? It’s as if every generation is being hijacked from the cradle, like those [newborn] sea turtles that get hijacked when they try to make their way to the sea. So for us it’s a matter of waking up and not being devoured.
Q: So, do you see that happening in the recording industry?
A: Yes. I don’t know a lot of those people in the industry, but I ask the executives I know if they speak out in meetings. And they say, yes but they play with caution.
You know that label Nonesuch? They’re doing something. I heard Pat Metheny’s new record, “The Way Up,” and I called him up and said, “Pat, now we’re talking.” Instead of songs that were three-minute tracks for a single, he had “Part 1,” “Part 2” and so on.
Q: Joni Mitchell is also on Nonesuch. What is it about her music that attracted you to play on so many of her albums?
A: She’s talking about things in her lyrics, and she’s a fighter. She told me that around the time when she recorded “Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter” and “Mingus” that someone sent her a letter accusing her of playing a minor second within a chord and how that was destroying the [pop] feeling she was known for. It was like saying she was going over to some other side.
It’s like her song “Both Sides Now” that she wrote when she was 20 or 21. It was about an encounter she had with a man and the daughter she had. She recorded it and a record executive said to her, “You know, don’t you?” The words struck him on a business side. She said she had to think fast, on her feet, so she said yes. And the executive detailed it out: We get young artists, squeeze the blood out of the stone, then throw them away and get another young artist. That’s what the industry is like.
Q: And you agree?
A: Yes, it’s like this record executive who came on “American Idol” one night who said he could see working in the studio with one of the contestants. It was if he was saying, “I’m going to show you how to judge.” The inference was that he could make this singer a star, that he could see and guarantee who could be a moneymaker. That’s what “American Idol” is about: giving someone all the responsibility to do the thinking, the marketing, the moneymaking, the making of the idol.
Q: What do you see as the role of the artist?
A: Being the lone voice in the wind. To be on a mission and not be afraid. It’s like Bela Lugosi saying, “Do not be afraid.” But you’re on your own these days. Even the rap guys start off doing their own stuff but then the trap door opens. You don’t have many knights or superheroes anymore.
Q: Herbie Hancock is banding together the Headhunters for a few shows. Will you do the same with Weather Report?
A: No. This coming-back-together stuff doesn’t do what the mission is. I need to stick to exactly what I’m doing and [co-founder Joe Zawinul] needs to stick with what he’s doing. To get back together is an ambush. It’s a nice trap based on financing. There’s an underwriting. Like getting the Beatles back together used to be the big deal. But that’s looking backwards, and I believe we should move forward.
Excerpted from the June 25, 2005, issue of Billboard. The full original text is available to Billboard.com subscribers.
For information about ordering a copy of the issue, click here.