Composer and saxophonist Wayne Shorter began his rise to fame with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in 1959. From that point on, he collaborated with many great jazz composers and musicians including pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter, drummer Tony Williams and trumpeter Miles Davis.
In the ’70s, he co-founded Weather Report, one of that era’s top jazz fusion groups. But expanding his horizons, Shorter would contribute to recordings by Joni Mitchell, Carlos Santana, Steely Dan and Don Henley of the Eagles.
In 2000, he formed an acoustic quartet, just an example of his willingness to take risks. His latest work, “Iphigenia,” which serves as an operatic collaboration with celebrated jazz bassist and singer-songwriter esperanza spalding (who stylizes her stage name in lower-case letters), premieres at the Kennedy Center on Dec. 10 and 11.
During an interview with Shorter, he discussed why we should not put music styles in separate buckets and his decadeslong desire to compose an opera.
Shorter has worked on an opera since his late teens and said he wanted to compose a work called “The Singing Lesson,” set in Greenwich Village. It would focus on a young lady who took singing lessons while worrying about her brother running around with a motorcycle gang.
“Then I heard Leonard Bernstein was doing something called ‘West Side Story.’ So I let that go and I finished college,” said Shorter, who graduated from NYU with a degree in music education after which he would be drafted into the Army.
“I heard that western European composers were enamored with jazz,” he said while reflecting on his growth as a musician. “They were amazed with the improvisation. Now we have arrived at a place with this opera where the hemispheres of classical and jazz interact in a way that make it difficult to say which one is which.”
Shorter was introduced to spalding, a four-time Grammy-winning bassist, composer and vocalist, several years ago. They immediately felt connected on many levels. Over the years, their undeniable synergy fueled working together on “Iphigenia.” Shorter composed the music and spalding wrote the libretto – that is the lyrics for the opera. They created a parallel process, but not in person. Three years ago, they met in Portugal with their families and worked for a month on what audiences will see at the Kennedy Center.
“She had papers pasted all over the walls in her private room and I was in another room working on the music. She had written the upper teeth like a dental structure and I had the lower teeth,” Shorter said. “We call it getting two things, one not knowing what the other is doing. We put it together to see what happens, not to see if it works.”
“Iphigenia” is the name of a woman who has roots in an ancient play written by Euripides, the Greek writer of tragedies. In fact, there are six Iphinegias in the Shorter/spalding opera in which the cycle of violence is examined.
Honoring a Lifetime of Accomplishment
The creative genius of Shorter has been recognized with 11 Grammys, being named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts and being honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, now the Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz.
In 2018 he received the Kennedy Center Honors Award from the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts for his lifetime of contributions to the arts.
Working with spalding on “Iphigenia” serves as an honor Shorter said he presented to himself.
“This opera is part of everything I have done,” Shorter said. “Everything I’ve been involved in is the meaning of this mission.”
“Iphigenia” can be seen at the Kennedy Center Dec. 10-11. Click here to view the trailer for “Iphigenia.” For tickets, go to www.kennedycenter.org.
The Washington Informer
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