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Wayne Shorter, Jazz’s Abstruse Elder, Isn’t Done Innovating Yet

Wayne Shorter is not only one of jazz’s greatest composers but its angel of esotericism, an enlightened and arcane elder. He reminds us that good improvising is about chance-taking and suspending disbelief as much as it’s about mastery. The saxophonist, 85, is also one of the genre’s last remaining figures to have come of age in the 1950s, when jazz was a popular music as well as an intellectual one.

Since 2000, Mr. Shorter, a National Endowment for the Arts jazz master, has held together a fabulous quartet that plays an inimitable style of flared-up chamber jazz with the pianist Danilo Pérez, the bassist John Patitucci and the drummer Brian Blade. This band lives onstage: It doesn’t do rehearsals, and almost none of its recorded output has been made in a studio. “Emanon,” which Blue Note will release Friday, is an exception — the first of its three discs was done in studio.

The album, Mr. Shorter’s first in five years, comes with a 74-page graphic novel telling the story of a “rogue philosopher” named Emanon, who takes up arms against the powers of evil. (Mr. Shorter created the book alongside the writer Monica Sly and the artist Randy DuBurke.) On Disc 1, the quartet embeds itself within the 34-piece Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, doing Mr. Shorter’s soaring, relentless scores. The other two discs feature only the quartet, playing some of its best music yet.

Speaking on the phone from Los Angeles, Mr. Shorter waxed plenty abstruse as he discussed the quartet, the opera he’s working on with Esperanza Spalding and his reaction upon first hearing “Both Directions at Once,” a recently discovered recording by his old friend John Coltrane. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.

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Your quartet has become so comfortable with each other while preserving an intense feeling of risk. How have you kept the mystery in the music?

We never rehearse anything. There’s one piece we play named “Unidentified Flying Objects.” Those are the notes. We don’t know where the hell they’re going. It’s a little thing we call trust and faith. To me, the definition of faith is to fear nothing. And here’s a funny line: Trust don’t throw anybody under the bus.

When we get together, we don’t fight. We don’t argue over who’s going to do what when someone’s playing. Say someone’s playing a line and then someone else cuts across the line and takes over. We don’t think of it as an interruption. Matter of fact, we don’t think. We just use it as an opportunity.

It makes sense that you’ve always loved comics, because to me your music is visual. When you compose, do you think of images or films?

Yeah, it’s visual stuff, but it’s also things unenvisioned. It’s like something needing encounter — an encounter that’s hard to imagine, and you cannot put any color, weight, dimension to it. It’s something even more than a what-if.

When we played in San Francisco, we were invited to Stanford, and they were showing us this stuff that they have related to the CERN in Switzerland, the collider. And we saw two baby galaxies playing. It takes millions of years for them to play. But you can say that they are playing. And the scientists are into the music, too. Every time we go to San Francisco to play, there they are.

You’re working on an opera with Esperanza Spalding. Is it close to done?

No, it’s not close to done. [Laughs.] But we’re having a lot of fun with it. Because we are in charge of everything ourselves. The first opera was done by Monteverdi — they actually had fun. Then it turned into something else; it turned into divas and arias and all these arrogant conductors. And you can’t get in unless you have the money for a bow tie and a tuxedo. That’s bull.

I liked that the protagonist in “Emanon” is a “rogue philosopher,” because that’s how I think of you. How did music become a canvas for such broad philosophical inquiry for you?

I think that music opens portals and doorways into unknown sectors that it takes courage to leap into. I always think that there’s a potential that we all have, and we can emerge, rise up to this potential, when necessary. We have to be fearless, courageous, and draw upon wisdom that we think we don’t have.

You’re fond of talking about eternity, and the need to recognize how fleeting and comparatively inconsequential our current moment is. How do you use music to connect with what’s beyond the moment?

To me, a song is not finished. To me, there’s no such thing as a finished anything. All of Beethoven’s nine symphonies, to me, are one. I think of it as having no beginning and no end. Do you know that it took Beethoven eight years to get the first several notes of the second movement of his Fifth Symphony together? So it was no deity that went through him and said, “O.K., genius!” You’ve got to challenge inspiration not yet begun to come out. There’s all kinds of closets, you know.

You hear about people saying, “You gotta get things fast because you only live once.” I think that’s a misnomer right there. Words like “only,” “never,” and all that, they’re crutches. We have to have people who are willing to — I don’t want to say it like this but — go down with the ship. Don’t worry about wealth and fame and all that stuff. It’s up to the person who’s being creative to find ways to emerge and shake up the world of wealth. And we have to do it ourselves. Want to change this stuff? Let’s change it ourselves. It’s like Miles Davis said: “Don’t you ask nobody for nothin’.”

Did you listen to the new John Coltrane album that came out?

Oh yeah, I knew about it. When I heard the first three notes, I knew it was “Nature Boy.”

Did you have any thoughts on the record?

No, it just confirmed my thought that nothing’s finished! [Laughs.]

Correction: 

An earlier version of this article misstated the number of pages in the graphic novel that comes with Wayne Shorter’s new album. It is 74 pages, not 36.

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page C2 of the New York edition with the headline: For a Jazz Elder, Innovation Is Never Over. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

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