Like many others’ first encounters with jazz icon Wayne Shorter, pianist Danilo Perez left bewildered. When he’d showed up to audition nearly 10 years ago, he didn’t know what to expect.
“I was totally panicked — this was Wayne Shorter,” recalls Perez, despite having several critically acclaimed albums of his own by that time. “He didn’t say much. Then we came to this vamp in the music and he said, ‘Put some water in those chords.’
“I said, ‘What?!’”
Perez was called back to begin rehearsals. He’s been in Shorter’s quartet since, and will be joining him on the stage June 14 at the Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl. But he still marvels at how the saxophonist’s elliptical, koan-like utterances eventually reveal themselves.
The night after that audition, for instance, Perez was watching television when the light bulb lit up.
“This commercial came on the TV and there was the sound of rain,” he says. “And the rain was voiced in (musical intervals of) fifths. The next day’s rehearsal, when we got to that vamp, I played it and he said, ‘Yeah!’”
Perez, 42, talks about Shorter with an almost giddy enthusiasm, and speaks of a mentorship not just in music, but in life as well.
Shorter, meanwhile, indicated that any mentor-protege relationship that existed has since metamorphosed.
“It’s like you have a parade coming and the father lifts the child to his shoulder,” said Shorter, 76. “Then the child can see farther than the father and he tells the father what he sees. The student becomes the mentor to the mentor, and then it becomes seamless.”
Surveying Shorter’s career before his current quartet, there’s little to indicate that he would be the mentoring type. Yes, he’s long been one of jazz’s most inventive and distinctive improvisers and composers, with an oeuvre anchored by extended stints with Art Blakey, Miles Davis and Weather Report.
But he’s been known for being introspective, aloof and eccentric. He’s been recording as a leader since the late 1950s — including some terrific 1960s Blue Note outings — but he never really had a distinctive, longstanding group of his own before the current outfit came together in 2000.
He was putative co-leader of Weather Report, but assertive keyboardist Joe Zawinul was clearly calling most of the shots in the partnership.
Now with his quartet of Perez, bassist John Patitucci and Brian Blade — all three successful leaders with their own projects — Shorter has risen to a new level of artistry. After all these years, he’s now emerged as a leader of a tight-knit visionary group that spontaneously creates in ways rarely heard elsewhere.
“Since I started playing with Wayne, I’ve learned how to be prepared for the unknown,” says Perez. “To be unafraid, to have the courage to go forward, to throw yourself in the wild river.”
This openness is essential to Shorter’s Buddhism-influenced vision of the music.
“On stage, we want to show the struggle and the victory,” says Shorter. “Breaking through and showing who you really are. You peel off your defense and your shyness and all of that. The masquerades.”
It’s often a musical adventure, with the band straying from predetermined forms to bushwhack into uncharted territory.
“It’s gotten to the point where it’s almost telepathic with Wayne,” says Perez. “I can understand him without him saying anything. His eyes, his hands tell a story. It’s amazing.”
But it’s not an understanding that was easily won. For instance, when Perez figured out how to “put some water in those chords” 10 years ago, Shorter didn’t just say, “Yeah!”
“He said, ‘Yeah! But you have to be able to see to the bottom. It has to be clear,’” Perez recounts. “Five years later, I realized it was the (musical interval of a) major second that was the mud he wanted out of there.
“The way he plays and talks is a question mark. You won’t understand it and then years later, you get it.”
For Shorter, all of it — the music and everything else — is about the meaning of life.
“The challenge is to really do something worthwhile,” Shorter says. “To raise our life condition. To really know that tragedies are temporary. The constant is this growth of life condition. The ultimate law of our life is this great eternal adventure. That is the constant.”
PLAYBOY JAZZ FESTIVAL
WHO: Saturday acts include The Neville Brothers, Jimmy Cobb’s So What Band featuring Wallace Roney, Norman Brown’s Summer Storm 2009, Jon Faddis Quartet, The Jack Sheldon Orchestra, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, Pete Escovedo Orchestra featuring Sheila E., and Esperanza Spalding.
Sunday acts include the Wayne Shorter Quartet, Kenny G, Patti Austin, King Sunny Ade, Dave Holland Big Band, Monty Alexander’s Jazz & Roots, and Oscar Hernandez and the L.A. Salsa All Stars.
WHERE: Hollywood Bowl
WHEN: June 13 beginning at 2:30 p.m., and June 14, beginning at 2 p.m.
HOW MUCH: $20 to $145