Completely exhilarated but not all the way clear, I tried to confirm what he meant: “So when your mind quiets down, you feel like the meaning of life is approaching, but it disappears when it gets too close?”
Shorter replied, “I think it happens to a lot of people, but nobody talks about it.”
Having spent the past few years trying to untangle this generous knot of metaphysical chitchat, here’s where I’m at: According to Wayne Shorter, the meaning of existence is not only available to the high seers of jazz, but to you and me, too — with the caveat that it remains just outside of everyone’s grasp. So instead of seeking the big answer, let’s all just slow down and allow it to come to us, let it get as near and clear as it can, and make sure we keep listening for it, too, because our music might contain life’s meaning in ways that our words cannot.
Shorter — the empathic saxophonist and composer who died in Los Angeles on Thursday at 89 — loved dishing out words, even when it felt difficult for him to locate the right ones. He was a garrulous jazz philosopher whose dizzying oratory often whirled in the opposite direction of his music, which, at its finest, felt so lucid, so logical, so clarifying, so edifying, as if casually laying life’s deepest mysteries bare. Shorter knew that if there were words available to describe all this, it wouldn’t need to be music.
His sound wasn’t esoteric, though. Check out the elongated melody line that Shorter and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard throw down at the outset of 1966’s “Speak No Evil” and it’s so easy to imagine a freshly washed car gliding down a boulevard of green lights, or a lazy wave rolling onto a moonlit shoreline, or a bird tracing an arc across the sky without bothering to flap its wings. And it’s all of those things, obviously. Shorter held a fundamental belief that “everything is connected” — a concurrently modest and complicated idea that set his music apart from the questing saxophone heroism of Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane, making him one of the most celebrated composers in jazz history along the way.
Which is funny because Shorter loved superheroes. He grew up devouring comic books in his native Newark, establishing a lifelong affection for characters with powers beyond themselves. But he eventually converted his faith to heroes with horns, got serious about his playing and ultimately earned his place in two different supergroups, enlisting in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, a roaring engine of a hard-bop troupe, in the 1950s; then joining the Miles Davis Quintet in 1964, a legendary ensemble whose pursuit of “anti-music” allowed Shorter to throw his intuition in reverse and see which way the music might go.
By the time the 1970s rolled around, Shorter’s sound had begun to feel like an omnidirectional thing. As a member of Weather Report, the bonzo-successful jazz fusion band he shared with keyboardist Joe Zawinul, Shorter brought the most empathetic and absorbent elements of his playing to the fore, providing the music with its aura more than its architecture. If you listened close enough, you might have heard him basking in the infinite space of unknowable possibility. Or, as Shorter once put it, “‘Potential’ is another way of saying ‘mystery.’”
That enigmatic sense of endless potential saturates even Shorter’s most forthright compositions, too. Just listen to the sublime version of “Footprints” from Shorter’s 1966 album “Adam’s Apple.” Notice how the song’s main melody feels as solid as the world beneath your feet. Then keep listening. This music is moving. We’re moving. Slowly, yes, but surely. Toward what? And why are we headed there? What will we find? Why is there anything? It’s strange, man. Strange!