Friday, February 8, 2013

Wayne Shorter Part 2 Electric Boogaloo

 I think the Wayne Shorter controversy has run it's course. It has come to my attention that the young man who said terrible things about Mr. Shorter is actually a very troubled human being and probably needs someone to help him. I really hope he gets the help he needs. We don't need to bash him or shame him. That's already been done. I think this kid is hurting. Send some good thoughts his way. He might not be ready to get help, but I want peace in this world and one way to create peace is to love those who maybe don't love you.

In the meantime, I got this in the Facebook "mail":

Hey Mr. Colligan: With all this Wayne-ing noise going on, I'd like to ask you a question. To my ears, I still think "High Life" is one of the very best albums I've ever heard, at least in terms of effectively cross-breeding the idea and /or potential of a "studio recording" with the idea and/or potential of "jazz expression". Yet most of the critical comments I've seen have tended to be lukewarm at best. Care to comment? Thanks in advance.

Excellent question. My first reaction is that many critics have their heads up their you-know-what. Coltrane's "A Love Supreme" was panned. My second reaction is that I haven't listened to that recording in a long time, so this is a perfect time to pull it out and listen to it again.

I think one thing that's amazing about Shorter's career is that he is a great improviser, and played with such freedom with the Miles Davis Quintet. But he also has a flair for long form composition. "High Life" is a celebration of the latter. It's densely orchestrated, with REAL strings, REAL woodwinds, and some synthesizers and percussion. It's quite colorful, but it's more like symphonic music in that one, it's mostly written, and two, it's melodies and moods unfold slowly over time. It's not a head-solos-head affair at all; this is a Magnum Opus kind of session, which I imagine probably took a lot of time and energy to finish. 

I think we have a tendency to jump too quickly to conclusions about music. If we hear one recognizable element, we want to immediately throw it in the "style" box. " Oh, this is funk..." or whatever...."This is fusion." As I listen to "High Life" some more, I marvel at it's harmonic complexity, and the way that Shorter is able to solo melodically over these types of polychords, chords which make "Giant Steps" seem like a blues in comparison. One cool thing about Shorter's music throughout his career is that he uses common tones between chords, which functionally may have nothing to do with each other, and makes it seem like a natural progression, all the while creating a singable, simple melodic statement. In this way, "High Life" is just a long form, highly orchestrated version of his earlier work. 

I couldn't help but listen to this music and remember former New York Times jazz critic Peter Watrous' highly critical review of the album. Watrous used the following words to describe this music:

"...turns out to be a pastel failure and a waste of his enormous talent..."
".... it is as if Picasso had given up painting to design greeting cards...."
"...simply, it's an eager-to-please instrumental pop album..."
"....only a vestigial relationship to mainstream jazz and virtually no connection to Mr. Shorter's glory years...."
"Mr. Shorter's "High Life," with its reliance on the most obvious pop back beats and its sentimentalism, is quite likely a commercial mistake. The real money nowadays is in acoustic music with intellectual weight. Mr. [Joe]Henderson, Mr. Shorter's label mate, sold 74,000 copies of "Lush Life." Mr. Shorter's three albums, electric and ostensibly commercial, recorded for Columbia during the 1980's never sold more than 20,000 copies apiece. "

Much of the article refers to what Watrous calls "The Curse Of Miles Davis." My interpretation is that Watrous just never could get with "fusion" music, and seems to think that Davis, Shorter, and Herbie Hancock should have kept playing straight ahead acoustic music. My opinion is that Watrous, obviously biased, should not have even been allowed to review this album. This is not only because he is clearly biased against the music based on boxing it into a genre, but he's not even calling it fusion, he calls it "eager-to-please instrumental pop "! My question is: what the heck is Watrous hearing? Does he have any ears at all? Did he even listen carefully to the entire recording? If he doesn't have the chops to understand it, or if he doesn't have the time to listen to it, then he shouldn't be allowed to write in the newspaper of record about anything. My feeling is that this review is practically libel, and if Wayne Shorter cared(which I'm sure he didn't), he should have sued. 

This is why I believe music writers need to be held to a higher standard. First of all, words NEVER tell the proper story when it come to music. Here's an example; if  we are at a party where the folks know nothing about jazz, and Wayne Shorter and one of my PSU students are in attendance. Wayne Shorter says, "I'm a jazz musician," and  my PSU student says, "I'm a jazz musician, too," the folks at the party would think that Wayne Shorter and one of my students are equals. That's pretty insane if you think about it. 

In this way, Watrous flippantly reducing "High Life" to  "eager-to-please instrumental pop"
is in the same way false. In my view, he basically lumped Wayne Shorter in with Kenny G!

Folks, you decide:

Here's Shorter's brilliant reworking of "Children Of The Night":
And here is Kenny G's most popular tune:

  There is a big difference in what's happening with both of these songs: harmonically, improvisationally, thematically, and rhythmically. However, from what I read, Peter Watrous would put "High Life" in the exact same category. This is just wrong on a million levels.

In the way that our Facebook friend said terrible, disrespectful things about Wayne Shorter, shouldn't critics be held to an even higher standard? When you think about the fact that every moment of Shorter's musical life up to that point led up to the completion of "High Life." Every moment he spent practicing his horn, every lesson he took, every gig he played with Art Blakey, with Maynard Ferguson, with Miles Davis, with Weather Report, and so one. Every hour it took to record "High Life", to make sure all the parts were correct, to mix and master, and so on and so forth. For Mr. Watrous to so viciously, disrespectfully, and furthermore inaccurately hate on it is....well, it was outrageous. I believ Watrous took a lot of heat for that piece. (Much like the avalanche of anger heaped up our Facebook friend.)

I don't mean to open old wounds. And I don't really know Mr. Watrous. I could have met him at Bradley's in 1996 when I had my own group there; the club owner told me not to bother him. "Peter doesn't like to be bothered." As if I was dying to talk to him? Isn't this what is so jacked up about the jazz business? Everyone's important except the actual musicians. Shouldn't it have been the other way around? Shouldn't he have wanted to talk to me? I'm the one on the bandstand, for pete's sake......(If memory serves, I think he gave me a good review for that gig, but honestly I can't even recall....)

So in answering the question, I think that once again, the problem with jazz is that you actually have to listen to it. And sometimes people just want to figure it out in a hurry. I wonder if Mr. Watrous ever went back and tried to figure out what he was missing? There's no pleasing everyone, that's for sure. I think "High Life" is really a magnificent work of art. But what do I know? I'm merely a musician who has devoted his life to understanding and performing and composing music......

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