Footprints: The Life and Work of Wayne Shorter by Michelle Mercer

No matter how silly [Shorter’s] thought might be, it’s bound to be different, an innovation.
— Michelle Mercer

How do you think the oranges smell to the bananas?
— Wayne Shorter

Contemporary jazz biographers often write with the flair and style of the average military historian, and are usually more concerned with sociology than musicology. Taking on the multiple roles of musicologist, psychologist, and apologist, is NPR contributor and freelance jazz critic Michelle Mercer, with her sometimes mawkish, often intelligent, partially successful Footprints — a biographical tribute to the often underrated post-bop/fusion iconoclast Wayne Shorter.

Mercer immediately advances the idea of Shorter as one of the precious few still-extant links to an age when jazz was actually a living, developing language. Her intensely spiritual, oracular Shorter is primarily a thinker and composer whose magnetic talent was self-evident and drew others to him. This combination of talent and serendipity characterized his early professional life from his days studying music at NYU — while lending his European-classical-style composing talents and polymorphous soloing ability to a few major players in NYC’s vibrant 50’s jazz scene. This was a scene in which, according to Mercer, ” encounters and sightings took the place of conversation.” Shorter developed his talents playing with Maynard Ferguson, the Jazz Messengers, and onward to Miles Davis’s fabled Quintet by 1961.

Mercer plays up a mysterious meeting between Shorter and an aging, self-destructed Bud Powell as symbolizing an important crossroads in musical history: when Powell realized that, in Shorter’s playing, he heard the future of jazz, a future Powell wouldn’t live to see. Shorter receives another similar mystery visit in the 1980s, when a young Wynton Marsalis seeks him out, and asks to join him in a listen to Shorter’s own groundbreaking improvisations on Live at the Plugged Nickel— a key reference point that would provide inspiration for Marsalis’s Reagan-era bop revivalism.

The idea of Shorter’s “pictorial” imagination is a constant refrain throughout, as is his lifelong obsession with film — especially the cautionary fantasy The Red Shoes — and how its ostensible theme of “art vs. commerce” is always blinking like neon at the back of his restless mind. Mercer’s also very adept at explaining how he applies visual metaphor and imagery to his music composition.

Also caught in the book’s wide thematic net is Shorter’s reluctance to “speak up.” His laid-back personality allowed his multi-dimensional playing and harmonically sophisticated compositional achievements to be appreciated on their own merits. His willingness to play the role of sideman and fit snugly into any ensemble was also partly responsible for why he was overshadowed by the great individualistic improvisational heroes like Bird, Coltrane and Miles Davis. In fact, with the Messengers, some critics and fans tagged him with the “Coltrane clone” stigma — when, as Mercer suggests, Shorter was actually a more technically gifted player (but much more understated) than Trane. And later in Weather Report, Shorter began as the assumed leader, but gradually settles into a more incidental role. Even on some of Shorter’s own solo recordings, like Native Dancer, he still can’t help but sound like a timid sideman.

What sets Mercer apart from most jazz historian/biographers is her ability to interpret the often intricate interplay and unspoken musical communication between band members, and effectively translate and verbalize the sonic complexities of jazz performance onto the page: “Wayne effected subtle drama, with long, elliptical narratives that developed with the slowness of a symphonic piece.” Unlike most of her biographer peers, she’ll even employ English-major descriptive devices — using, for instance, some tasty Proustian synesthesia (“the long cool note settling down into green”). But, yes, her writing does occasionally venture into eye-rolling public-radio preciousness: ” Propelled by this fusillade of percussion, the well-oiled Messengers put on a slick show.” Get it?

As Shorter’s career continues in the ’70s and ’80s, you finally get a sense that he might have mortal imperfections. Yet Mercer tends to write her subject into a protective bubble much of the time. Some mention of a drinking problem does surface (he’s a cross-eyed, soporific drunk), and personal tragedy strikes (divorce, premature deaths in the family). Mercer sometimes glazes over Shorter’s domestic and marital problems with single-word encapsulations, such as “ugliness,” etc. Shorter seems to float trance-like through his tenure with the divisive, inconsistent, commercially driven Weather Report. His newfound post-Bitches Brew uncertainty drives him to become a practicing Buddhist, chanting up a storm with hip Buddhist pals like Herbie Hancock and Tina Turner.

When covering the troublesome post-Miles Quintet phase in Shorter’s life, Mercer ramps up her bended-knee reverence, as she repetitively defends the worth of Shorter’s increasingly obscure, impressionistic musical explorations. His mid-’70s collaborations with Milton Nascimento, and jazzy Joni Mitchell are recounted in meticulous detail, but yield few memorable moments — it’s mainly Mercer heaping legacy-preserving praise upon Shorter, and bolstering those laudations with predictably gushy quotes from Shorter’s friends and contemporaries. Mercer’s over-protectiveness is especially evident during Wayne’s post-1980 “slump” years, as she places the blame for Shorter’s lukewarm critical and commercial reception on everything but the musical content itself: rampant anti-fusion prejudice, neo-traditionalist trends, inadequate sidemen, misguided critics, or the clueless, impatient rock/pop masses.

Mercer does the mannered NPR version of a bitch-slap on a few of Wayne’s critics, most notably the New York Times‘s Peter Watrous. Watrous’s “poorly laid” criticism of Shorter as being the progenitor of smooth-jazz saxophonist Kenny G is thought by Mercer to be too “subjective.” She needlessly explains why it’s unfair to criticize innovators for spawning inferior imitators. She politely berates Wynton Marsalis for putting Wayne “in the position of a jazz Judas.” And speaking of “subjective” statements, how ’bout this overblown appraisal of Weather Report’s legacy: “he and (Joe Zawinul) produced a total body of composition whose scope rivaled that of Ellington and Strayhorn, Rodgers and Hart, Lennon and McCartney.” Mercer’s condescending inner jazz-snob begins to reveal itself, too. It’s hard to take seriously her insistence that Shorter was above lending his talents to high-paying rock stars, especially when there’s no mention of the fact that he played sax (willingly, one assumes) on the Rolling Stones’ 1997 album, Bridges to Babylon.

Footprints is anything but a juicy, anecdotal, warts-and-all bio. In fact, Mercer’s book has much in common with Eric Nisenson’s Open Sky — a valiant but merely adequate attempt to understand another difficult, introspective, under-appreciated and often misunderstood sax genius, Sonny Rollins. Dealing with abstract-thinking introverts is no easy task. There’s always the pressure to glean conflict and drama from lives short on dramatic excess; or lives lacking the built-in elements of a convenient Ken Burnsian “rise and fall” narrative arc.

At best, Footprints provides a window into a genius-level musician’s inimitable thought processes, yielding everything from forehead-slapping sublimity (” composition is just improvisation slowed down …”) to ethereally kooky philosophies: “At this point I’m looking to express eternity in my composition.” (Try to imagine the rather lengthy recording session required to capture “eternity”!) And as Shorter ages, he rediscovers the comic book and movie heroes of his youth, and peppers his conversations with references to movies and superheroes — which may be a semi-conscious Freudian attempt to tap into the awesome child-like creativity that drove his teens and twenties.

Mercer spends the last few chapters putting some final worshipful touches on Shorter’s legacy — her prose reading like that of overtly hagiographic liner notes. But Mercer does manage to successfully paint a final portrait of a jazz titan at peace with himself and his place in musical history, finally somewhat at ease in the role of bandleader and musical mentor. And if anything, one hopes Mercer’s book will arouse curiosity among budding jazz sages unfamiliar with Shorter’s pre- and post-Miles career, and direct them to the most important biographical source — the music itself.