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One thing that emerges in Dorsay Alavi’s three-part documentary “Wayne Shorter: Zero Gravity” (out on Amazon Prime this Friday) is that the late, great jazz saxophonist and composer was, not to put too fine a point on it, a nerd. Born in Newark in 1933, he grew up a devotee of comic books and fantasy movies, and, with his older brother, Alan, created a theatre of cosplay in a nearby vacant lot, which, he recalls in the film, served sometimes as the Sahara Desert and sometimes as Mars. He was a precociously talented child, although that talent initially expressed itself not as musicality but as a prodigious gift for art. When he was twelve, he won an art contest and was accepted to Newark Arts High School. He copied images from comic books, then started drawing comics himself. A surviving specimen seen in the movie is impressive in its elaborate and intricate artistry but, most of all, in its sheer copiousness.
Shorter was also a movie buff, and it was cinema, curiously, that awakened his musical vocation. He began cutting school to go to the movie theatre, where, between features, there was often live music, sometimes by notable jazz bands. When he was hauled before the vice-principal, the woman, with Solomonic wisdom, decided not to punish but to encourage him, and sent him to music class. At fifteen, Shorter started to play the clarinet; a year later, he switched to tenor saxophone. He says, in the film, that his talent more or less took him by surprise. Praised in front of the class by a music teacher as the only student to get a perfect score on an exam, he had an intuition: “Better not ignore this.”
With Alan (then also a saxophonist, later a trumpeter), Shorter formed a band that played modern jazz. The brothers cultivated a reputation for weirdness, wearing exotic costumes of brimless hats and floor-length coats, and painting nicknames—“Doc Strange” and “Mr. Weird”—on their saxophone cases. Wayne went to N.Y.U. and studied music composition. By that time, his performances were attracting attention from leading modern-jazz musicians, who called him “the Newark Flash.” In 1959, at the age of twenty-six, he was invited to join the drummer Art Blakey’s hard-bop band, the Jazz Messengers, for which he soon became the main composer. His compositions revealed themselves to be as distinctive as his improvisations. In 1964, he joined Miles Davis’s new quintet and immediately became its leading composer as well. The group gave him a chance to expand his music intellectually, and, in the movie, the quintet’s pianist, Herbie Hancock, provides a precious anecdote about Shorter’s growth, which incidentally answers a question I’ve long harbored about a favorite recording—“The Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel 1965,” an eight-disc set of the Davis quintet performing for two nights at the titular Chicago club. To me, these discs have always seemed to capture the band at its most radical extreme, coming the closest I’ve ever heard to the protean energies of free jazz. Now I know why: Hancock recalls that, before the gig, the quintet’s drummer, Tony Williams, said, “It’s getting too easy. I’ve got to play things that are unexpected.” Hancock continues: “Tony called it ‘anti-music.’ O.K., I’m going to play anti-music, too.” They presented the idea to Shorter, who “didn’t say a whole lot,” and to the bassist, Ron Carter, who agreed. But a surprise awaited them at the club: it was full of recording equipment. Unbeknownst to them, Davis had arranged for Columbia Records to record the gig for an album, and Hancock wondered if they should abandon their plot. But, he recalled, “Tony said, ‘I’m going to stick to my guns’ ”; Hancock agreed, and “nobody said anything to Miles.”
Shorter was with Davis when, in the late sixties, the group shifted toward rock-inflected music with electric keyboards and guitars, but without sacrificing intensity or freedom. In 1970, encouraged by Davis to form his own group, Shorter co-founded Weather Report, which similarly fused rock and jazz but with less dissonance and less fury. The results proved less challenging for Shorter, but they earned him a pop-music currency rare for jazz musicians. He played on Steely Dan’s “Aja” and, in 1977, played as a sideman with Joni Mitchell, beginning a collaboration that endured across twenty-six years and ten albums. Mitchell, interviewed in “Zero Gravity,” provides crucial insights regarding Shorter’s art, saying that he is essentially a visual artist: “I thought of him as a paintbrush; it wasn’t like music, it was like painting, which is right on. So I’m allowing him to paint on my canvas.” Larry Klein, who was married to Mitchell and produced several of her albums featuring Shorter, opines that “he was thinking like a screenwriter more than a saxophone player.”
The insight, harking back to Shorter’s primordial artistic passion, elucidates a crucial element of Shorter’s musical style—its sense of abstraction. Writing in memory of Shorter earlier this year, I described his “sonic elusiveness,” with solos that seem to be “in two places at once.” Mitchell and Klein provide the ideal metaphors for his musical manner—because, unlike musical performance, painting and movies don’t inherently involve the artist’s physical presence; the director is behind the scenes, the painter is in front of the canvas, and the result is a finished product that implies the artist’s presence without embodying it. For Shorter, improvisation has a tiny bit of lag time, a delay. It’s the sound of a thinking man who steps back even as he freely creates, with the result that, when he lets go and rushes ahead into the moment, the sense of reckless abandon is all the more exhilarating.
The three parts of Alavi’s documentary last more than three hours, and they left me feeling somewhat snookered. I had watched the documentary because, though I love Shorter’s music, I knew little about his life or the fine details of his career, and have rarely heard him speak in interviews. The movie turns out to cover this ground in an encyclopedia-like fashion, and does so at the expense of its filmed interviews. The interviews themselves are rich and varied. Shorter discusses his life and work, and we hear from various friends and family members. There are revealing insights not only from Hancock and Mitchell but from a whole range of peers, including Sonny Rollins, Reggie Workman, and Esperanza Spalding. It should be an extraordinary experience to spend time in the presence of such people, and the material cries out for a way of filming that captures that sense of experience, a method of editing that maximizes the emotion of the moment. But Alavi, concentrating on the overarching story, films the interviews without distinction and cuts them into snippets, treating them like fungible sources of information, useful only for what they tell us about this or that episode. (She also mines them for something less than information—namely, vague and fulsome praise that might embarrass Goneril and Regan.) In trying to bolster the drama of Shorter’s long life, she misses the drama that it is the first job of a documentarian who does interviews to understand: these encounters and discussions are themselves dramatic events, real-time connections between the interviewees and the filmmaker.
Shorter’s music doesn’t fare much better, often getting used as a background over which voices of interview subjects are allowed to intrude. And the film deploys a range of other visual paraphernalia as onscreen wallpaper to escape from talking heads: reënactments, animated sequences, stock archival footage, still photographs, a grab bag of ornamental methods that represent the familiar homogenizing conventions of documentaries. Not that such reënactments and animation are intrinsically worse than images of people talking, but documentarians who make use of them are venturing into the realm of fiction, and few nonfiction filmmakers satisfy the creative and stylistic expectations that a viewer brings to a dramatic film.
The movie’s failures of form and style are unfortunate, because Alavi ultimately delivers a portrait of Shorter that is both illuminating and moving. (It sometimes amplifies or refines subjects discussed in Michelle Mercer’s excellent biography, “Footprints,” and Mercer, who is frequently interviewed onscreen, also consulted on the film.) Among other things, “Zero Gravity” conveys the immense burden of loss and grief that Shorter experienced during his career. There was a scarring first marriage, in 1961, to Irene (Teruko) Nakagami. Shorter was romantically inexperienced and shy, and Teruko, growing unhappy in the relationship, took to disappearing for extended periods, which he bore stoically until their separation, in 1966. That same year, Shorter’s father, Joseph, was killed in a car accident while driving home from one of his son’s gigs. Shorter also met the woman who was to become his second wife, Ana Maria Patricio. Their first child, a daughter named Iska, was born with brain damage. From infancy on, she had dozens of seizures daily—the stress of which led both Shorter and Ana Maria to drink heavily—and died, at the age of fourteen (reportedly of a seizure, though the film attributes her death to an accidental overdose of prescription drugs that she found at home). Shorter’s brother Alan died in his mid-fifties; the movie says far too little about him, but a moment in which Shorter, filmed seemingly casually in the back seat of a moving car, discusses this loss is memorable—one of the rare scenes that conveys a sense of spontaneity and personal connection. Another shattering blow came in 1996, when Ana Maria was killed in the explosion of T.W.A. Flight 800. Shorter speaks of these losses with a rare philosophical equanimity, saying that “the tragedy is temporary” in the light of a “constant,” which is “waiting for us to know it.”
The film offers a piquant portrait of Shorter’s later years, which seem now almost like a return to the source: his visual talent had not left him, and, in 2018, he created a graphic novel, as part of his album “Emanon.” He maintained a copious collection of figurines from a wide range of fantasy sources. For a long time, he focussed on superheroes and then, as seen in the film, switched to fairies. There are also surprising insights into crucial inspirations for Shorter’s later work. We see Shorter working on a composition while a CNN broadcast is playing on a TV in his office. His third wife, Carolina, says, “The TV is actually a very important component of Wayne’s work universe, if you will. He usually writes—” and Shorter interrupts to say, “against it.” It’s in such interstices and asides that the film brings Shorter and his world, inner and outer, most vividly to life. ♦