Wayne Shorter: A dialogue with the unknown

At 80, the jazz luminary maintains a childlike wonder

Hearing Wayne Shorter speak is like watching a music history book burst to life. To put it simply, he's a living giant. The career of the illustrious jazz saxophonist straddles two centuries and his influence is sure to straddle countless more. He was one of the few to bring compositions to Miles Davis that didn't get changed, he penned solo albums that have since become standards, and he helped reinvent what jazz means countless times over.

Shorter's entry into jazz lore began when he strolled the famed 52nd street in post-World War II New York City before the reign of financial districts when a lucky patron could stumble from club to club hearing legends like Billie Holiday, Thelonius Monk, and Charlie Parker all in the same night. At the age of 15 he wandered this fertile breeding ground, soaking in the talent he would one day surpass. "Seeing Charlie Parker, J.J. Johnson, Dizzy Gillespie's big bands in the New York City clubs — those guys took the place of Batman, Superman, Captain Marvel, and all that," Shorter says. "They were superheroes to me."

When Shorter first picked up his horn, he gained a superhero-like nickname of his own as "the Jersey Flash," due to his breakneck soloing. The heroes of his youth have long since passed, but even today he still values their daredevil spirit. His most recent album, 2013's Without a Net (Blue Note), embraces that spirit by taking its title from a comment that actress Vonetta McGee made after hearing him play in San Francisco. "She knew that when we hit the stage we hadn't rehearsed, there was initially no plan, because everything she heard was unfamiliar and she liked it," he says. "She walked up and said to me, 'You guys are playing without a net.'"

With his talk of embracing fearlessness and making friends with the unknown, it's easy to forget that Shorter has anxieties of his own. Specifically, his fear that people are sucking the humanity out of modern music. "We've been well-trained historically through 100 years of radio to stay with a formula," he says. "This song 'Happy' by Pharrell has a different kind of harmonic story and it's repeated and repeated and repeated. But we can repeat something too long and that's another kind of hell. You stay in hell so long you think it's heaven."

Shorter's continuing relevance stems from his desire to never repeat himself. He says, "The first time is for real, the second time you say something is imitation, it's entertainment." At 80 years old, he is a man of the present and a champion of the future. Like Miles Davis before him, Shorter is reluctant to reflect on his legacy that shadows him everywhere. "Someone asked Davis what he wanted his legacy to be. He said 600 years from now he didn't want anyone to think he was Norwegian." Though Davis was notoriously staunch about never revisiting his back catalog, Shorter believes his own discography defies any notion of beginning or end.

"There's no such thing as a beginning to end in life," he says. "The words beginning and ending are so superficial. It really doesn't mean anything when something continues when a continuation can be mistaken as moving away. A song is never finished."

Like his playing, his conversation veers off course in any number of directions. Keeping up with his train of thought is like following a meteor whizzing through the cosmos. His oration falls somewhere between a Zen philosopher dazzling his pupils with paradoxes and a proud reverend uplifting his congregation with divine rhetoric. In an instant, Shorter jumps from reflecting on his love for Laurence Fishburne's performance in Event Horizon to how he picked up curse words from hanging out with Richard Pryor to recommendations for building up karma.

To those uninitiated with his non-linear ebb and flow, it's as if he's barely interested in music. He rarely speaks about jazz in terms that bare any resemblance to the genre. He is more comfortable talking about the inner workings of the universe than, say, how he managed to come up with the labyrinthine harmonies for his seminal 1965 release, Speak No Evil. "It's not enough for me to speak about music," he says. "For me just speaking about music is a drop in the ocean of life."

Shorter's compositions are most comfortable when exploring the upper echelons of space, fluctuating between chaos and near silence. Shorter is an honorary member of the Planetary Society, originally founded by Carl Sagan and currently headed by Bill Nye. He even maintains a close friendship with acclaimed astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, who sent Shorter a copy of his book, signing it, "Congratulations on your 80 trips around the sun." The one science concept Shorter obsesses over the most is the singularity. In its most bare-bones definition, a singularity can be thought of as a location where the density of space-time becomes infinite. While not exactly a perfect interpretation of the concept, Shorter's takeaway is the idea of infinite possibilities. Always the optimist, he believes that a creative and spiritual singularity, that is, an endless array of possibilities, awaits inside us all. "The singularity is not being brought about like an earth-shattering meteor that's going to wake everyone up, but each individual training for the well of potential they have for wisdom. The doorman, the cabdriver all have the eternal artistic potential that has to wake up," he says.

Shorter speaks about science with the wild-eyed curiosity of children stumbling into a world far grander than they can comprehend. He even acknowledges his own childlike wonder, joking that he is constantly "at odds with acting 8 and being 80." But it is that same eagerness to learn that keeps Shorter always on the cusp of innovation, never letting his ego become inflated by his latest success.

His constant humility is so jarring it can seem insincere. But the maestro insists that he is "always learning so much about things that I used to take for granted. I'm learning that nothing is thrown away, nothing is destroyed. When you discard something, you just haven't found the most creative use for it."

There is one childhood quandary that 80 trips around the sun have managed to answer. As a child, he would ask, "Where do our words go?" Now he knows, "The words that we speak are eternal."

Just because he constantly ruminates on the future of science and the progression of his own self-discovery does not mean that his superheroes of yesteryear don't stay with him every day. One of the few past reflections he does share comes from a dream he had following Davis' death in 1991. In the dream, Shorter, along with pianist Herbie Hancock, drummer Tony Williams, and a host of other jazz greats were about to take the stage with legendary deceased saxophonist John Coltrane and Davis. But as they neared the stage, Davis and Coltrane stayed behind. "Coltrane and Davis said, 'We can't go with you, but you guys can do it.' That was really clear," he says. "We walked out and the audience was as far as the eye can see. It was an eternal flow of people. An eternal horizon."