Shorter plays jazz as it has always and never been

At 80 years old, saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter is a living window into the growth, transformation and rebirth of modern jazz.

Shorter will perform with his longstanding quartet at the Rialto Center for the Arts on Saturday, and listeners can expect a recapitulation of that history, though Shorter himself says he doesn’t know what to expect.

The freewheeling musician, known for his fanciful interview style, said his band will hit the stage not in their “Sunday suits” but “Nekkid. Throw away all your awards, your Grammys, put that stuff in the closet: OK, here we go into the wild blue yonder.”

In short, his band goes on stage “Without a Net,” the name of the 2013 album featuring the quartet, including pianist Danilo Pérez, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade. The title suggests the high-wire creativity of the improvising artist, performing without the safety of a set list.

Shorter has walked that wire for more than 60 years. As a teenager in Newark, N.J., he championed bebop while the popular dance bands were playing rhythm and blues.

With trumpeter Lee Morgan, he served in the front line of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. He befriended and practiced with John Coltrane, then took Coltrane’s place in Miles Davis’ so-called “second quintet” of 1964-68, which some see as both the high point and swan song of straight-ahead jazz.

Davis telegraphed a switch to electric jazz in “In a Silent Way” and “Bitches Brew,” and Shorter played on both albums. Then, with Josef Zawinul, another Davis alumni, he co-founded Weather Report, perhaps the most successful jazz/rock/funk/fusion hybrid of the era.

Shorter graduated from NYU with a degree in music, and his tunes, including “Footprints” and “Nefertiti,” provided much of the repertoire for the Davis quintet and for Weather Report. His serpentine melodies and unpredictable chord changes continue to engage jazz players.

A new generation of musicians is now championing Shorter’s music, including phenomenal bassist Esperanza Spalding, who, in an interview with the San Jose Mercury News, called on the music world to commission large works from her hero.

Speaking from a tour stop in San Francisco, Shorter discussed the insights of his 80 years, the benefits of keeping a low profile, and the ultimate goal of Nichiren Buddhism, which he has practiced since 1973.

On being part of groups led by strong individuals such as Miles Davis and Josef Zawinul, both of whom command center stage:

“There’s the conspicuous and the inconspicuous, and sometimes a function that is served has no titles.”

On the difficulty of finding commissions for writing projects:

“Papa Haydn had a prince to finance his things. That was then. This is now.”

On the purpose of Buddhism:

“We have to take fear and make petrol out of it. We have to turn poison into medicine. Which is a struggle.”

On taking responsibility for his own enlightenment:

“Instead of looking for the magic wand of an omnipotent maker to help you to do your homework better, why don’t you use the brains your maker gave you?”

On what draws his audiences:

“I think they want to see the 80-year-old man — quick! Before he melts!”

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