ON the Beat | Season of Passings, Life After Wayne
Recent Musical Icons Have Passed on, Including Immortal Jazz Icon Wayne Shorter
This edition of ON the Beat was originally emailed to subscribers on March 23, 2023. To receive Josef Woodard’s music newsletter in your inbox each Thursday, sign up at independent.com/newsletters.
(Soundtrack to this column: Wayne Shorter’s tune “When it Was Now,” from Weather Report here.)
In recent weeks, we have lost a succession of musical giants and influencers on a grand scale. The operative use of the word “we” is appropriate, because for those of us who have felt the deep impact of these artists, it’s highly personal. Many of us, for instance, had a deep and deeper feeling of simpatico with the legendary Jeff Beck, the finest and most tastefully expressive electric guitarist since Jimi Hendrix, with whom he shared a love of jazz and other “non-rock” genres.
A broader swath of humanity lost the gift of sophisticated song brought to us by indisputably great American songwriter Burt Bacharach (who studied with Darius Milhaud at the Music Academy, incidentally). The list of departed greats also includes Santa Barbara County’s own David Crosby and wild-shirted, rootsy maverick David Lindley.
But for me and many others, the saddest recent mortal departure was that of enigmatic jazz icon Wayne Shorter. Shorter’s most publicly high-profile résumé points include his pivotal role in the thinking/feeling person’s fusion band Weather Report, as a vital player and composer for the classic mid-’60s Miles Davis quintet, work with his pal Joni Mitchell, and creating what is arguably the most profound saxophone solo on a pop song, Steely Dan’s “Aja.” But Shorter’s magic also found expression in lesser-exposed settings, from his ’60s Blue Note recordings to his long-lasting quartet in the last chapter of his 89-year life, and from his landmark Milton Nascimento collaboration Native Dancer to his dream fulfilling opera project with Esperanza Spalding, (Iphigenia), the 2022 Santa Monica performance of which fairly blew the lid off of my already high expectations.
I interviewed my hero Shorter many times over a 30-year period, including a late ’80s meeting at his house off of Laurel Canyon, where I snapped the attached photo of a grapefruit-clutching Wayne in watering mode in his backyard. I last connected with him in 2018, when he was ostensibly promoting his album/graphic novel Emanon, but was most excited about his grand opera project in the works, gestating in his music room.
In a semi-local connection, Shorter appeared as a soloist on James Newton Howard’s film score for The Fugitive, a highlight in the filmography of Santa Barbara-based director Andrew Davis. As Davis told me last week, “James Newton Howard was the reason he showed up after a large session. We spent an hour together having Wayne just riffing on James’s score pieces. What a memory.”
In addition to bringing a more plugged-in band to the Fleischmann Auditorium in the mid-’80s, Shorter played twice in the embracing space of the Lobero Theatre in the past quarter century, both in exploratory modes which thrilled some listeners — present company included — and baffled others. He was never one to readily satisfy common expectations, especially in his post-Weather Report decades. At the Lobero in 1997, Shorter joined his longtime friend and musical/Buddhist brother-in-arms Herbie Hancock for an enigmatic duet in the wake of their underrated album 1+1. The backstory of that duo was tinged by a tragic TWA plane crash over the Atlantic which killed Shorter’s wife Ana (paid tribute in his luminous ballad on “Ana Maria”) and his niece.
Then, in 2005, he showed up with his long-standing and, on the boss’s orders, free-ranging quartet with Danilo Pérez, John Patitucci, and mighty drummer Brian Blade (who recently gave a rapturous performance as part of Charles Lloyd’s Lobero concert). At the time, just before the release of Beyond the Sound Barrier, author Michelle Mercer’s definitive biography Footprints: The Life and Work of Wayne Shorter had been recently released and she showed up to sign copies. Having seen this group many times around the world, I knew about Shorter’s willful openness in the band and his tendency to stick to a search-and-find program. On that night at the Lobero, he was searching more than finding, although the muse kicked in for the last third of the set.
In Shorter’s case, the musical moment or night or specific album is not the be-all and end-all: it was the profound legacy and personal voice, not to mention his unique philosophical worldview that mattered. It was the long game as much as the short game that made him such a distinctive hero in jazz and culture on the cosmic plane.
In our 2018 interview, Shorter was expanding on the meaning of his album title Emanon, the inverse of “no name.” As he often did, Shorter spoke with his own inimitable language and inner logic: “There’s no such thing as ‘finished.’ Something evolving may be occurring. But something more than evolving or evolution is at work. And that’s ‘no name.’
“People name something, and they figure the work is done (slaps his hands). Or you can blame it with a name, or brand stuff, like Trump does. This has happened since before the beginning of time. Since before. You can try to separate all you want, but connection and the kinsmanship among people and things and sound, all the senses; it’s like a relative mission that seems to have no name, too. The mission is hidden in the attempt to separate. But the mission is not separate. The mission goes on.”
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A few weeks back — on the official 150th birthday of our beloved Lobero Theatre, in fact — I was faced with a dilemma. Do I stay to the end of the Lobero bash, ending with dinner at El Paseo, or do my duty to culture and column and seize the rare chance to see “Zen cowboy” legend Jimmie Dale Gilmore up at the Maverick Saloon, and on a night when threats of the “atmospheric river” storminess was making a trip over San Marcos Pass risky business?
Of course, a Gilmore pilgrimage was in order, and I’m glad I did. There he was, in partnership with his pal and current collaborator Dave Alvin and his righteous Guilty Ones band, a make-up date capping off another season of “Tales from the Tavern.” Although we’ve heard Alvin and band many times around the 805, Gilmore is a more elusive wonder hereabouts, and the Maverick felt like precisely the right locale for this “hippy cowboy” outing.
Gilmore has a unique and instantly recognizable voice, Texas twangy in part, but also with a certain elegance and politeness, not unlike the duality in Willie Nelson’s voice. We felt the magic upon his launching into “Tonight, I Think I’m Gonna Go Downtown” — from his Flatlanders songbook — early in the show, and most deeply when, during encores he called up his signature tune, Butch Hancock’s “My Mind’s got a Mind of Its Own” (we know the feeling). Gilmore offered that “that song’s got a mind of its own. You’re not playing the song — the song is playing you. That’s probably like life.” Indeed.
Head’s up: the “Tales from the Tavern” adventure continues into its next season, with its Wednesday night-enlivening series featuring Cary Morin, Tom Freund, Steve Poltz and the mighty Paul Thorn, between April 12 and June 28.
The fine and inspired singer-songwriter Abby Posner is headed this way, playing SOhO on Sunday, March 26. The show is co-hosted by SOhO herself and — befitting her handy skills in string instrumental prowess — the ambitious SB Acoustic series, now in its swan song season.
Opera Santa Barbara leans in the musical theater direction this weekend with Light in the Piazza, with music and lyrics by Adam Guettel and based on Elizabeth Spencer’s novella-turned-film, for a four-night run at Center Stage Theater.
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