Wayne Shorter Weekend

Friends and collaborators hail ‘the Newark Flash’ through four days of jazz


“Get ready,” said Esperanza Spalding, “to get healed from things you didn't even know ailed you.”

With that, 84-year-old jazz icon Wayne Shorter and his quartet took the stage in Shorter’s home town, Newark, as the capstone of a weekend-long celebration, honoring the ten-time Grammy winner’s decades as one of the preeminent performers — and composers — of jazz.

Grammy-winning bassist Spalding was only one of the jazz-world luminaries on hand to laud Shorter, talk about his music, sense of humor and cosmic philosophy --and play alongside him -- during a four-day stretch of shows dubbed the Wayne Shorter Weekend at NJPAC. The five-concert celebration was produced in association with The Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University-Newark and WBGO Jazz 88.3FM, as a mini-festival centerpiece of the TD Jazz Series.

Spalding and fellow bassist Christian McBride – NJPAC’s Jazz Advisor, the artistic director of the Newport Jazz Festival and a Grammy winner as well – served as emcees for the weekend’s grand finale: A concert featuring the Wayne Shorter Quartet, as well as Shorter’s longtime collaborator, Oscar- and Grammy- winning pianist and composer Herbie Hancock. 

"Just to see Wayne Shorter anywhere is such a joy, but to see him in his home town – well, you’re in for a special night,” McBride told the audience at the Sunday night performance in NJPAC’s Prudential Hall.

The big night

Armed with both a tenor saxophone – his original instrument – and an alto sax, Shorter played two sets during the hours-long concert. Once known as “the Newark Flash” because he played so fast his fingers appeared to blur, Shorter seems to have resisted slowing down with age.

He first appeared – as McBride and Spalding, both longtime collaborators, made we’re-not-worthy bows from the wings – to perform with Hancock, his band mate from their days in Miles Davis’ Second Great Quintet, which played throughout the 1960s.

“We have this friendship I cannot explain to anyone. Wayne lets me play anything I want to play,” Hancock noted, smiling. “I don't bring any music out there, we just play something. Should we do that again? Alright.”

After the set with Hancock – during which Shorter’s horns both wailed and whispered over Hancock’s thundering chords and synthesizer beats -- McBride and Spaulding chatted with the Newark legend.

Among the topics touched on: One of the pieces Shorter and Hancock played was the premiere of Shorter’s most recent composition, Scout, named for the young heroine of To Kill A Mockingbird. Well, in a way.

In his interpretation, “Scout, she’s Gregory Peck's daughter, but she's also an astronaut, in the guise of a scout, who penetrated the deep space of the heart,” Shorter explained.

Although he sat for most of the concert, Shorter’s voice rang loud and clear as he bantered with his friends – and his trademark sense of humor was readily apparent.

“How’s it feel to be back in Newark?” McBride asked him.

“Oh, I’m back here waiting for Dr. Frankenschtein to arrive – he should be here shortly, he’s waiting for his compadre Igor, Herr Doctor Frankenschtein,” Shorter said, laughing. (This was almost certainly a nod to another legend headed to NJPAC this spring: Mel Brooks, writer and director of Young Frankenstein, who will screen and discuss his 1974 comedy classic on May 21.)

A music-filled weekend

In a more serious vein, he spoke about admiring jazz composers who “were guys who knew what was needed….Jay Jay Johnson, Charlie Parker, Dizzie Gillespie, Igor Stravinsky, Mozart too -- Mozart was a jazz musician, man! There's some drum beats in there, dig it!”

The concert ended with the Wayne Shorter Quartet – featuring pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Patitucci, and drummer Brian Blade – performing a series tunes that ranged from quiet, autumnal melodies to a frantic whirlwind of sound that seemed to pull Shorter out of his chair and onto his feet, as his band mates rocked and swayed over their instruments.

It was an electrifying end to the weekend, which featured a number of extraordinary concerts: Shorter’s never-recorded composition The Universe – which he wrote for Miles Davis – was performed by Davis’ protégé, trumpeter Wallace Roney. McBride led a group of luminaries including Rachel Z, Joe Lovano, Steve Wilson, Omar Hakim and Manolo Badrena in a concert of songs from Shorter’s years with his fusion group, The Weather Report.

Before Shorter took the stage Sunday, he was preceded in Pru Hall by jazz singer-songerwriter Gretchen Parlato, who set lyrics to some of Shorter’s early compositions, like title track from his 1965 album, JuJu. And another vocalist, Cécile McLorin Salvant, performed in NJPAC’s  Victoria Theater earlier in the weekend, accompanied by Nawlins piano wunderkind Sullivan Fortner and the Emmet Cohne Trio; their performance was part of the felicitously-timed Champions of Jazz gala, a fundraiser for Newark’s longtime jazz station, WBGO.

Getting acquainted

But perhaps the most personal -- and charming --  introduction to Shorter’s quirky personality was a “One on One” concert with Spalding and McBride, also at Victoria Theater, when both discussed how they came to work with the legend.  

Spalding recalled her trepidation when she first met Shorter at his home, and how she nervously complimented him on the vista from the windows.

“First thing he said: ‘We got the house with the view so we could watch for aliens,’” she remembered.

She ended up working with Shorter extensively, including one stint when she spent 18 months writing lyrics for his compositions.

“The human education that I got from being in his presence -- it was such deep school, such deep life school,” Spalding said.

McBride remembered his first time playing with Shorter and “shaking in my pants, because I don’t want to mess this gig up.” He asked other band members for help, but they couldn’t offer anything useful. (One said: “I’d give you some sheet music, but we no longer play what’s written on the paper,” he remembered.)

Finally, he asked Shorter himself for advice. After a long pause, Shorter replied.

“I know you like those comedians, I know you like Redd Foxx and Flip Wilson. Play that,” McBride recalled, laughing.

“So I gave the sonic interpretation of Redd Foxx. I was so scared and excited, it’s still a blur.”

At the end, after playing Shorter’s Fee Fi Fo Fum with Spalding, McBride said: “I’m not sure this felt as much like a concert as we just invited a bunch of people into our practice room.”

No matter the format, it was -- like the rest of the Wayne Shorter Weekend – a singular opportunity to get intimately acquainted with one of Newark’s living legends of jazz.