‘I am in pursuit of indestructible happiness.’
A film by Dorsay Alavi
Wayne Shorter deserves a film this good, this imaginative, this detailed. Dorsay Alavi has directed one of the great films about a jazz musician. She has made it in a way that Wayne Shorter would have approved of. It must have been difficult. Wayne was not a straight talker: he liked to be aphoristic, almost to talk in riddles, be mystical. The film respects his integrity and helps us to understand the great musician. Wayne’s interest in cinema of all types is referred to throughout with clips of Boris Karloff and ‘Red Shoes’. His mind has always moved in unusual directions. Would you have known that his love of the book: ‘The Water Babies’ was an influence? The fantasy world that was important to Wayne yields some fine animation sequences.
The film is in three parts: the first section is about Wayne’s life as he emerges into the Blakey orbit and becomes a composer for the Blakey band. His playing and writing developed. Wayne loved Lester Young, like Lester, Wayne was a loner and had an idiosyncratic way of talking. After Lester’s death Wayne wrote the composition ‘Lester Left Town’. Wayne’s playing and writing was widely noticed.
Herbie Hancock noticed and was influential throughout Wayne’s life and it emerges he was, with Tony Williams, an influence on Miles Davis’ decision to bring Shorter into the band. Michelle Mercer who wrote a biography of Shorter explains that the Davis band benefitted by using Wayne’s composing. Apparently, Davis used to alter everyone’s work but not Shorter’s. The group needed to play new music to sharpen their reflexes, avoid complacency. Without telling Davis, they called it ‘anti music’. Hancock says that it was a matter of throwing things at each other so that they could break their musical habits. The sequences of the great quintet inserted into the film show the sophisticated rapport of the group.
Wayne’s marriage to Anna Maria and the birth of their daughter, Iska, and the ensuing problems with Iska who suffered seizures is described in painful detail. Wayne was often on the road so that Anna Maria had the role of carer. Iska suffered a fatal seizure in 1983 just after her fourteenth birthday. The guilt that Wayne felt being away from home strained the marriage and it was the practice of Nichiren Buddhism that held them together. Although Wayne had enjoyed playing with Weather Report, Peter Erskine reports that the differences between Zawinul and Shorter, once creative, eventually caused problems as Zawinul eclipsed Wayne. Nevertheless, Wayne’s compositional ambitions were growing beyond Weather Report. Joni Mitchell explains how Wayne’s work dovetailed with her compositions.
On July 17th, 1996, Wayne had to deal with the death of his wife, Anna Maria, in a TWA plane crash just after take-off in New York. Two hundred and thirty people died. Her death shook Wayne but apparently, he ended up counselling their friends when they came to see him. The spiritual beliefs that he shared with his wife were strong enough to resist despair. His beliefs permeate the whole film.
Miles Davis, just before he died in 1991, said to Wayne: ‘You know, you need to be exposed.’ Eventually, Wayne worked and toured as a duo with Herbie Hancock. Their easy personal relationship was reflected in their music. That music led to the Quartet with Danilo Perez, John Patitucci and Brian Blade. Perez recalls the beginning of their work and asks Shorter when they will rehearse the music. ‘You can’t rehearse the unknown’, smiles the enigmatic Wayne. The sequences of the Quartet playing show their spontaneity and creativity. The musicians talk about the freedom of the way that they collaborate together. Sonny Rollins makes the point that Wayne was misunderstood because people were not ready for what he was doing. The film concludes with some of his large-scale opera ‘Iphigenia’ that he created with Esperanza Spalding.
The young Wayne says in one part of the film, ‘I am in pursuit of something called indestructible happiness’.
If you have ever been captivated by the philosopher, thinker and enigmatic genius Wayne Shorter, search the film out on Amazon.
Wayne Shorter: Zero Gravity is now available on Amazon Prime.