Thursday, August 24, 2023

Wayne Shorter: Zero Gravity, on Prime

Any and every jazz listener was a Wayne Shorter fan. Yet, when it came to science fiction movies and comics, he was a fan too, just like the rest of us nerds. In fact, one of his final releases was a three-disc set that came with an accompanying graphic novel that Shorter wrote. Dorsay Alavi leans into the saxophonist’s otherworldly interests (without losing sight of his music) in the three-part Wayne Shorter: Zero Gravity, which premieres tomorrow on Prime.

It is almost three and a quarter hours of Wayne Shorter, which is just fine with us. Like his former boss, Miles Davis, Shorter had distinctive periods. The first episode starts in childhood and takes him through the “Second Great Miles Davis Quintet,” including most of his Blue Note tenure. The second installment covers Weather Report, the fusion super-group that went through nearly as many phases of its own, as well as some of his subsequent projects, like
Native Dancer, featuring Milton Nascimento. The final hour mostly focuses on his celebrated quartet (with Danilo Perez, Brian Blade, and John Patitucci), as well as the orchestral works he merged them into. Sadly though, each period is also marked by at least one terrible personal tragedy, sometimes more than one.

Casual fans may not be aware the TWA flight 800 crash impacted Shorter in a very direct and personal way, but it certainly did. In fact, one of the most memorable interviews of the entire docu-series is that with Shorter’s former road manager, who had to break the news to the jazz legend while he was on tour. However, Alavi mostly focuses on Shorter’s childhood relationship with his brother Alan, a much freer avant-garde trumpeter, who died suddenly in 1988, soon his betrothal to a cousin of Herbie Hancock (one of Wayne Shorter’s closest friends and musical collaborators), largely glossing over their adult relationship.

Jazz listeners will be happy to see Alavi scores sit-downs with just about everybody they would want to hear from, who are still alive, including Hancock, Ron Carter, Sonny Rollins, Dave Holland, Curtis Fuller, Reggie Workman, Wallace Rooney (obviously recorded before his tragically early demise), Peter Erskine, and the other three members of Shorter’s Quartet. Conversely, Shorter’s history is also a sad reminder of how many greats we have lost, often far too soon.

Alavi also incorporated several animated sequences and cosmic interludes that play up Shorter’s fascination with astronomy and science fiction, as well as his Buddhist practice (another example of Hancock’s influence). However, there is also a bit too much commentary from Shorter’s friend, Neil deGrasse Tyson, which is not as insightful as he things or Alavi hopes, but that is a small price to pay for spending this much quality time with Shorter and his music.

For non-jazz fans, 188 minutes might sound a tad long for a jazz doc, but Shorter warrants. Before his death in March, he probably ranked just under Sonny Rollins among living jazz artists and right above Charles Lloyd—and some would have put him at the very top of the pinnacle. There is a lot to appreciate in
Zero Gravity, especially the extensive survey of Shorter’s music. Very highly recommended, Wayne Shorter: Zero Gravity starts streaming tomorrow (8/25) on Prime Video.