It goes without saying that an institution of musical thought and creative generosity has left the planet. But, on a positive note, also left behind is a body of work that will serve as a source of musical study, musical inspiration and enjoyment. Maybe until the end of mankind.
Before Wayne came along, a lot of jazz evolved around musical callisthenics. Virtuosity at the highest level, peppered with interludes of heartfelt blues and infectious swing—particularly amongst saxophonists. Not to misconstrue what I'm saying in terms of virtuosity. Wayne had plenty in the bank.
Here's how Wayne differed. His virtuosity surfaced as a byproduct of making a solid musical statement. It wasn't about running the horn, or making the changes. Even though those two performance practices were on heavy display. Instead, it was about making music inspired by the moment, never to be reproduced again.
When we're taught to improvise in the early stages of our development, we're taught that jazz improvisation is a spontaneous creation of a melody. That's the rhetoric, anyway. However, that intention quickly becomes a lifelong devotion to arpeggiated lines that outline the chords, with a side order of chromaticism that alludes them. Not in Wayne's case. His music was the embodiment of this definition of jazz improvisation. This is heard from the early days with Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers, through Weather Report, to his last working quartet. No matter what group Wayne played with, he was always the voice of musical reason. Whenever he started to play, there was always this feeling like, "OK, things are going to be ok now."
When I was a young Berklee student, Wayne was my go-to guy for when I needed a musical pick me up. When you're at institutions like Berklee, surrounded by many high-performing students, it can play mind games on you. One begins to think that if you can't play fast or "Cherokee" through the keys, maybe a music career is not for you. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, many of those high performers did not become the jazz stars that their peers anticipated. My theory: Flash and virtuosity can't sustain a career, only great music. Listeners get bored of being wowed. Eventually, they want to be moved. And this is why Wayne Shorter mattered. He taught us that improvisation has to be nuanced with emotion and vulnerbility, subtlety and fire, whispers and roars, and most of all, patience. It's not about showing your musicianship but your humanity. Only a small number of us were born with the ability to be virtuosic, being able to regurgitate musical information in an encyclopedic fashion. But everyone has humanity. A lesson taught by Wayne Shorter every time he graced the stage. Playing his memorable solos that were often simple, in terms of notes, but deeply profound in terms of meaning and emotional impact.
Wayne will be missed. His sound, melodic compositions, harmonic sophistication, cryptic way of speaking, and of course, his warmth and unwavering generosity.
R.I.P. and thank you!