2005
Reviews

footprints: The Life and Work of Wayne Shorter
by Michelle Mercer
Wayne Shorter — the elusive master jazz musician, saxophonist, improvisor and composer of “Footprints”, “Orbits”, and “ESP” — is now the front-and-centre subject of Michelle Mercer's new biography, footprints: The Life and Work of Wayne Shorter.

Notice that the title says the ‘life’ and not just the ‘work’ of Wayne Shorter.

Happily, Mercer has produced a biography that de-emphasizes the dramatic aspects of the struggling jazz musician and instead concentrates more on the highly imaginative and spiritual planes of Wayne Shorter’s world.

But it’s not like anything is left out, either. You read about Shorter’s past drinking bouts, for example, alongside his constant dialogue with movies and books. Shorter has books and DVDs all over his house. Sometimes he’s reading ten books at the same time. He’s always looking to inhabit alternate realms.

“ ...I like to make music like that... Musical motion pictures without movies. And life has become my own motion picture. That’s ‘some thing’”.

Yes — that’s ‘something’: To view one’s life as a movie. ‘That’s a jazz musician's ultimate act of improvisation,’ says biographer Michelle Mercer.

Upon re-reading this recently — ‘a jazz musician’s ultimate act of improvisation’ — I visualized Wayne dressed in his favourite Superman T-shirt, and he might deliberately bump into walls, sliding along them like a kid who never gave up on make-believe....

In another part of the book, Michelle Mercer firmly puts Shorter’s work into perspective: he's a living link to the last fifty years of jazz history “...he's beyond compare as a composer and improvisor... and he’s able to find hilarity or profundity in almost every moment, often both at the same time.... He’s had a long struggle with plenty of personal loss along the way.”

At one point, Mercer also offers a highlighted résumé of Wayne Shorter as a player: 1959–64 with Art Blakey, 1964–69 with Miles Davis, 1970–85 with Weather Report, and more recently since 2001, he's had his own democratically run touring band with Danilo Perez on piano, John Patitucci bass, and Brian Blade on drums. They play together intuitively.

But that’s just a small part of the story.

Shorter has played with the great names in modern jazz, and that's one of the exciting things about this book: you get to listen in on Miles Davis, for instance, offering what sounded like career counselling to Wayne in 1991. Miles said to Wayne, looking Wayne in the eyes, “You know, you need to be exposed.”

To which Shorter has observed, “When Miles said ,’You need to be exposed,’ he had a lot of confidence in his eyes. He wanted me to know that he knew that I knew that. In a funny way he was trying to tell me that I was special.”

To which Joni Mitchell has elaborated on Miles’s final tête-à-tête with Wayne. “It was like Miles knew he was going,” Joni said. “And with him gone, Miles would have known that Wayne was the great voice left. And that Wayne should do all in his power to bring that into the forefront.”

We constantly experience Mercer’s information-rich biography as the product of a multi-tasking mind writing about Wayne Shorter and his multi-tasking world of sound. It's so sympathetic.

Or, as Michelle Mercer tellingly puts it: “As a biographer, you're almost guaranteed to overidentify with your subject. I got a lot more than I bargained for when I signed up to write a book about Mr. Shorter. I had to go through my own kind of awakening before I could appreciate what makes him great.”

For the serious music fans, there's a reproduction of Shorter's well-known tune, "Footprints" at the front of the book, and a reproduction of his 5-page manuscript of “Flagships” at the very back.

Plus there are sixteen pages of really good black-and-white photo reproductions — Mother, brother Alan, friends and associates, Wayne's first professional gig, Wayne's hand-drawn comics about alternative worlds, laughing onstage with Miles — the visual information is so rich.

And you'll notice that Ms. Mercer doesn't hesitate to share with you her diligent journalistic tour of duty: “Unless cited below or attributed to other sources in the text, all quotations in this book are from my original interviews. Between 2003 and 2004, I conducted more than seventy-five interviews with various sources, and had at least that many discussions with Wayne Shorter himself. My musical analysis is based on a study of Wayne's original scores whenever possible. Discussion of live performances in Wayne's early career is based on viewings of bootleg videos. I periodically accompanied the Wayne Shorter Quartet on tour from 2001 to 2004.”

This is what Wayne Shorter writes about Michelle Mercer’s biography in his Preface: “Michelle Mercer has captured the essence of my story unedited. She did not attempt to dramatize my life based on professional achievements and fame; instead, she did the kind of research that would be true to the realities we all encounter in life’s endeavor (a baseball player’s baseball story alone does not sufficiently constitute his ‘life’ story).”

Let me summarize.

Preface by Wayne Shorter... Foreword by Herbie Hancock... Text by Michelle Mercer... The literature of music... Footprints. It's a book I wouldn't mind reading again. Consider that a recommendation.

p.s. — I can't resist quoting one more gem from footprints. Here's a typical conversation between Wayne and Miles Davis.

“Miles used to bring up Humphrey Bogart in those mystery movies he played in. Miles would say, ‘You see the way Humphrey threw that punch?,’ and I said, ‘Yeah’, and he said, ‘Play that’.”

Report by David Fujino — davidfujino@thelivemusicreport.com

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