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Interview:
Wayne Shorter plays new orchestral piece for the world
 

By GARY GRAFF
@graffonmusic, Facebook.com/Gary Graff on Music

» See more SOUND CHECK

Wayne Shorter is not exactly dialing it down for his ninth decade on the planet.

The saxophone great -- a veteran of Miles Davis' groundbreaking Second Great Quintet during the 60s bands and the equally barrier-busting Weather Report -- turned 80 in August and has spent this year unveiling projects that are only adding to an already landmark five-plus decade recording legacy. In February Shorter released the criticall lauded "Without a Net," his first album for the venerable Blue Note label since 1970 and a formidable platform for his latest quartet that includes pianoist Danilo Perez (this year's Detroit Jazz Festival Artist in Residence), bassist John Pattitucci and drummer Brian Blade.

On top of that, Shorter has rolled out "Gaia," a new orchestral-with-vocal piece -- spotlighting fellow Grammy Award-winner Esperanza Spalding, who also wrote the libretto -- that debuted during February with the Los Angles Philharmonic and will be played for a fourth and final time this weekend with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

Clearly the guy has no intention to start acting is age; in fact, he even says that 80 "is comparable to being eight years old."

"When I was eight, that's when things started opening up to me," explains Shorter, a Newark, N.J., native who started playing saxophone as a teenager and, after a two-year stint with the U.S. Army, played with Horace Silver, Maynard Ferguson and Art Blakey before joining Davis in 1964. He also holds a degree in classical composition from New York University. "Eight is when I started drawing without tracing paper. That's when I'd just look at something and draw it and learn about doing things in my own way. That's when I started seeing the world a little bit larger than the street I grew up on.

"I feel the same way now. I feel like I'm still seeing things and finding new things to do and new ways to express myself."

Spalding, 29, notes that while "most people are familiar with Wayne's works in the context of jazz," "Gaia" is a piece that establishes him as "a total musician. The core of his being is uncategorizable. He's a musician. What the does...breaks any of those stigmas, those assumptions, those associations the come when you assign a word to it, like 'jazz' or 'pop' or anything else.

"To me, experiencing Wayne and his quartet with the sympnony, it's an example of what's possible when you leet go of the commonly agreed upon barries around what a genre is and what a player is -- or isn't. And the results are just phenomenal."

Shorter says "Gaia," named after the Greek goddess of the Earth, was commissioned by Herb Alpert's organization specifically for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, with orchestras in Washington, D.C., and Nashville as well as the DSO ultimately jumping on board. The saxophonist enlisted Spalding and the project has only moved forward since.

"The idea was to get people across the board involved and all put things into the pot, so it's not all just coming from one source," Shorter explains. The "Gaia" piece itself -- which rolls between 25-30 minutes depending on the evening -- is conceputally high-minded and conveys a message similar to the philosophy Shorter applies to music in general.

"I think everything has a purpose and everything has multi-uses," Shorter says. "To me, 'Gaia' is the planet we live on, and the fact we're all here is symbolic of the limitless description of what life is about. What the libretto is saying is 'wake up and dream,' and the challenge is to bring that consciousness to anyone who's taking for granted the surroundings that we live in and the planet that we live on and the universe that we're in and the people we encounter...

"In other words, if we succumb to illusionary stuff and we become victims to a limited view of what life is supposed to be like, where are we? How do we progress? It's not enough to be comfortable. We have to reach beyond. That's what this piece is saying."

Spalding says that "Gaia" itself has lived up to Shorter's ambitions, too, with changes but significant and subtle during its three previous performances. "He wanted it to be a living organism, like Gaia, and to evolve and change according to what was happening at every live eprformance of it," she says. "It's a phenomenal experience to sit through and listen to -- and I get to sing through it, too, which is just incredible."

Critics have largely agreed. Variety dubbed "Gaia" "big-thinking fusion" and lauded Spalding's performance as "luminous," while JazzTimes [cq] affirmed that the piece "reaches high and gets where it wants to go."

Shorter -- who will be performing some of his other music during the concert -- says there are "plans" to record "Gaia" at some point, though nothing is yet set in stone. Meanwhile, he's already plotting out future projects, including one soon with New York's Orpheus Chamber Orchestra as well as a graphic novel he'll be working on to indulge his other interests in science fiction, comics and superheroes.

As Spalding says, ""I don't think you'll see (Shorter) stop until he's not with us anymore."

The Detroit Jazz Festival presents the Midwest premiere of Wayne Shorter's "Gaia," featuring Esperanza Spalding and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, at 8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 2, at Orchestra Hall, 3711 Woodward Ave., Detroit. Tickets are $36-$130. Call 313-576-5111 or visit www.dso.org.

Web Site: dso.rog

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