On Aug. 25, 1991, Wayne Shorter went backstage at the Hollywood Bowl to visit with trumpeter Miles Davis, his old boss and good friend. Davis was getting ready to perform -- it would be his last concert; he died a month later -- and Shorter went to the dressing room, where "Miles put his hands on my shoulders, and he was looking me straight in the eye," Shorter remembers. "And he said, 'Wayne.' I said, 'Yeah.' He said, 'You need to be exposed.' "
It's not the first time Shorter has told the story of his last meeting with Davis. But he's telling it again, maybe because the tale has such a satisfying ending: At age 80, Shorter is exceptionally well "exposed," widely celebrated as a saxophonist, bandleader and composer. He is a "Jazz Master," a title given to him by the National Endowment for the Arts. But the honor only hints at the guru status he holds in the music world, including well beyond jazz.
Few figures in American music (Davis is another) have managed to pull off what Shorter has over the past 50-plus years: combining deep currents of innovation, oftentimes enigmatic, with popular success. He helped launch musical revolts with Davis' '60s bands and with the electric fusion group Weather Report, while also landing 10 Grammys. He has toured with Carlos Santana. His extended solo on Steely Dan's "Aja," from 1977, is one of the great pop instrumental statements. His "Aurora," composed by Shorter for operatic soprano and orchestra, was performed by Renée Fleming and the St. Louis Symphony in 2010. Now in his ninth decade, he's still innovating: His present quartet (which opens a sold-out four-night stand at the SFJazz Center in San Francisco starting March 27) is routinely proclaimed as the most important working band in jazz.
"No one imagines how much fun I'm really having," says Shorter in an hourlong phone conversation. A movie fanatic since childhood, he spends the first 10 minutes describing some of the films he's just been watching: "All Quiet on the Western Front," "Paths of Glory," "The Execution of Private Slovik." Music is important but not all-important: It's "a small drop in the ocean of life. I was told a long time ago that your horn, or whatever instrument you play, is a means to be in the world."
Musicians revere Shorter. They love his tunes: "Infant Eyes," "Lester Left Town," "Footprints," "Children of the Night." The songs are memorable, catching the ear in a natural way, though closer inspection reveals that his chord progressions often follow unusual paths, that his melodies grow across atypical phrase lengths.
"I can give you technical details about Wayne's music, but you sense there's something ineffable that he's put a finger on that touches us all," says trumpeter Dave Douglas, who, with saxophonist Joe Lovano, soon will release an album of new Shorter tunes. "When you're a player, you want to sound good. So you like playing Cole Porter tunes and Jerome Kern tunes and Thelonious Monk tunes, and Wayne's tunes make you sound good, you know? On one level, it's as simple as that. Why do people still play Beethoven?"
"He was a sharpshooter in the Army," says bassist-singer Esperanza Spalding, who has performed a good deal with Shorter over the last couple of years, "and that's how he is with everything he studies. He gets right on the mark of what he wants to convey." She calls his compositions "yummy," his sense of melody "sublime and so inspired. ... He's drawing in a different plane. We're all drawing between the lines, and he's drawing on the whole wall."
'I dare you'
Shorter likes to say, "Jazz means, 'I dare you,' " and his quartet, together since 2000, is a model for his motto.
All about process, its performances evolve like a "My Dinner With Andre" conversation, poking around, looking for new territory, trading information and prompts, the band members teasing and challenging one another with unexpected riffs or chords or percussive bombs. It's the Grateful Dead of jazz: Shorter (with pianist Danilo Pérez, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade) can noodle you to death; the group is willing to be a bore. But then, once the four musicians hit on something -- that eureka moment -- they can shoot you to the stars.
They sometimes work off Shorter's old compositions: "Orbits" and "Footprints" from the Davis era; "Plaza Real" from Weather Report. But the process can conceal the melody; they're working as much as possible from a tabula rasa -- "naked," as Shorter says -- without rehearsing or a set plan of attack. The group's most recent album, released last year, is aptly titled "Without a Net."
Comic book fan
During our phone conversation, Shorter -- who lives in the West Hollywood hills with his wife, Carolina -- was both elliptical and entertaining. He expounded (and sometimes noodled) on Buddhist notions of birth and death; he's practiced Nichiren Buddhism since the '70s. He also delivered perfect, comic imitations of friends Davis (that whispered rasp) and saxophonist Sonny Rollins (that amiable, husky manner of speaking, like poured molasses).
One might describe Shorter's conversation as "serpentine," an adjective that gets applied to his saxophone solos. He touched on novelist Victor Hugo and Superman, and mentioned that his next album for Blue Note Records, featuring his compositions for the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and his quartet, will come packaged with a sci-fi graphic novel by author-illustrator Randy DuBurke (of "Malcolm X" graphic bio fame).
Comic books and superheroes are a lifelong fascinations for Shorter, who seems always to have excelled at discovering prompts and channels for his imagination, including visual arts (he has drawn and painted since childhood) and comedy (to help him "get out of the ice box of seriousness").
He calls life "the ultimate movie," mischievously wonders if he is composing its score and suggests that "sometimes you have to consider that reality might be the fairy tale. We need the Knights of the Round Table today, and we need men and women of noble quests and honor -- the 'Impossible Dream,' that kind of stuff."
Here's his personal fairy tale: He grew up in Newark, N.J. His mother worked for a furrier. His father was a welder at a sewing machine factory. Shorter studied music composition at New York University, joined the U.S. Army, then went on the road with Maynard Ferguson's big band and joined Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. He became close friends with John Coltrane. He recorded a slew of classic albums for Blue Note and made history with Davis, crossing with the trumpeter from acoustic to electric settings. Then came Weather Report, recordings with Joni Mitchell and his gorgeous, make-you-cry collaborations with Brazilian singer-songwriter Milton Nascimento. He also has lived through sadness: his daughter, Iska, died as a teen from illness; his first wife, Ana Maria, died in the 1996 crash of TWA Flight 800.
Words of wisdom
Life is "the accumulation of the unexpected," he says. Grab it, and take the ride: "You're put in a place where you're going to do it or not, where you're going to go for it or not. But if you back away, if you find excuses to disappear from a situation, if you strategize so that the spotlight is not on you, because you want to be in your Sunday suit all the time -- that's not how it goes."
As you read this, he is on the road again, right now with the quartet, and soon as a duo with pianist Herbie Hancock, his best friend since their years with Davis. He's about to work again with Nascimento and Spalding, and he's composing a clarinet concerto for the British virtuoso Julian Bliss.
"I'm 80," he says, laughing. "Hey, when you get to be 80, you say, 'The door is right down the hall.' There it is. But there's more stuff I've got to do."
When: March 27-30
Where: SFJazz Center, 201 Franklin St., San Francisco
Tickets: Sold out; call the box office for returns at 866-920-5299