FOOTPRINTS by Michelle Mercer


The Life and Music of Wayne Shorter
Email this review


Music writer and NPR commentator Mercer provides an elegant, questing biography into the mindset of the great jazz sax man.

How do you get into the head of an improviser? It isn’t easy, especially when the subject is given to speaking in runes. But the author acquits herself admirably, going straight at Wayne Shorter as he veers this way and that, musically and verbally. Here is a man who takes naturally to harmonic complexities, convoluted melodic lines, and shifting accents, all expressed with confounding metaphysical gravity. This happy jazz buddha is comfortable discussing pre-Socratic ideas or music as a found object (even though he’s fully cognizant of the hard, hard work of composing). Exploration, Mercer demonstrates, is Shorter’s leitmotif: pursuing instantaneous harmonic ideas, polytonal orbits, and Latin bossa nova beats, he finds the center through all the chord changes. How he comes up with the music is a mystery, but it has as much to do with Buddhism (which he began practicing around the time he formed Weather Report with pianist Joe Zawinul), his family, and his literary probings as it does with exposure to musical forms from classical to bop and all around the musical block. Shorter’s work is also stretched by his skepticism of compositional limits: Why eight bars? Why not more or fewer? It can be difficult to make sense of the saxophonist’s cerebrations: playing “the barely comprehensible chaos of the world” with Miles Davis, he says, “I felt like a cello, I felt the viola, I felt liquid, dot-dash and colors really started coming.” Still, if Shorter remains an enigma, his journey is given color and arc by Mercer, who fills in when the music doesn’t speak for itself, providing lightly handled dispatches on familial influences, reviews from the music press, and the world of Brownian motion inhabited by her subject.

Shorter winds his own clock, but Mercer gathers the influences that make him tick. (16 pp. b&w photos, not seen)

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 2005
ISBN: 1-58542-353-X
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: TarcherPerigee
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1st, 2004