Jazz Pianist Danilo Pérez Reflects On His Mentor- The Late Wayne Shorter (INTERVIEW)

The voice, tone, and phrasing—in effect, the signature sound of the saxophone have distinguished a number of artists. The late Wayne Shorter, having recently passed away at the age of 89 on March 2nd, has been a profound force of interpretation on the tenor, and later, the soprano saxophone, of which there is no greater master. He remained at the forefront of influence with his instrument and is intimately associated with a shortlist of the crucially essential innovators in modern jazz, including Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, and Art Blakey. In addition, both as an individual soloist and bandleader, Shorter’s compositions, recordings, and performances represent an undiminished example of exploration—a jazz frontier in and of itself. Included in his artistic viewpoint is a transformative philosophy about this art form, referred to in his very personal quote, “write and play music like you want the world to be.” 

Grammy Award-winning Panamanian jazz pianist Danilo Pérez, also composer, educator, and social activist, has had a close personal and professional relationship with Mr. Shorter beginning with the virtuoso talent he contributed, along with bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade, to the Wayne Shorter Quartet formed in 2000. As part of a hand-picked trio of musicians, Pérez and his bandmates developed a bond of intimate friendship and mentorship with Shorter.  The albums from these quartet performances are Footprints Live! (rec. live 2001), Beyond the Sound Barrier (rec. live 2002-2004, rel. 2005); Without A Net (rec. live 2010, rel. 2013), and Emanon (2018). 

Pérez’s resume includes a wide-ranging career of musical projects as well as performances with legendary jazz artists, including becoming a member of Dizzy Gillespie’s United Nation Orchestra in 1989; a musical and personal mentoring experience that remains a vital influence. He has since released eleven albums as a bandleader and in 2009 established and remains artistic director of the Berklee Global Jazz Institute at Berklee College of Music in Boston. Pérez’s most recent musical project, Grammy-nominated recording Crisálda (2022), is a multi-national representation of musicians – graduate students from his BGJI – that seeks to promote the humanitarian belief of unity that is also central to Shorter’s own philosophy. 

Mr. Pérez spoke with Glide recently and shared some of his reflections, a shared philosophy, and personal thoughts about Mr. Shorter, as a musician, artist, and humanitarian.

What was Wayne Shorter like as a bandleader? – specifically, the Wayne Shorter Quartet he formed with you, John Patitucci, and Brian Blade in 2000.

Wow, there are so many facets of this man. As a bandleader he never emphasized individuality. He shared with us what I call the “collective genius”, always inspiring us on all these levels. He wasn’t so much interested in the individual but more the collective, as his interest was in sharing.  He believed in “constant creative formations”, not playing and simply moving away – but always being involved, and in his words, “music is the best representation of life itself.”

His music for me was teaching us it was constantly changing, he was always showing, representing ideas to us and cultivating our minds – always, every second. Because of his Buddhist beliefs, everything he represented in music was part of how he was living his life.

He had a fearless commitment to life – search, enjoy, adventure, and creativity. He taught us – he took us through that process where you really try to answer the question of “Who am I?”

(Shorter believed) that in that process of opening our hearts, to the changes you are living, is where the fight for joy should draw our musical path. Resistance is a sign that you are creating value and you must go through that door.

When I began first touring with him (the Wayne Shorter Quartet) he would ask “heavy” questions of all of us (bandmates John Patitucci and Brian Blade), like “Why are you afraid?” and he would ask me personally, “What purpose does music serve?” “What is it for? “Do you think we are the only creative people in the world?” “How do you apply this daily process to your life?” “How do you use music to spread open the world?”

Wayne said to me many times, “If music is about telling a story, perhaps we should focus on collecting more stories of bravery, struggle, and love – to share.” He was never detached. (Shorter felt) ideas were never wasted in the universe. It might not work right now (the idea) but we’ll get back to it. It is a process. Celebrate humanity, and music is the visual and practical way to show it.

I recall a conversation about your audition for the Wayne Shorter Quartet, from the documentary Wayne Shorter: Zero Gravity (2015). Shorter asked you to compose chords that sounded like “water”? Is that right?

Yes – I was auditioning for the band (the Wayne Shorter Quartet), which wasn’t formed yet and he was recording me, and he said, “Danilo, I need you to play ‘water’ chords in that section” (of the composition) and I said, ‘Man, I thought I’d spent a lot of time studying music but there was never a chapter on “water” chords – I didn’t get it. I became totally puzzled and said, “What?”

He responded, “Yeah, you got to put water into those chords.” That was a novel idea for me.

I of course couldn’t do it, this was my first encounter, and I hit a wall. I was despondent about it.

But then that night at the hotel, there was a soap commercial on the television. There was this image of the water accompanied by the sounds of fish (Perez voices the sounds he heard), and I got it.

In the audition the next day, I played these “water” chords, and Shorter said, “Danilo, that’s right! That’s a ‘water’ chord now” and then there was a pause, and he said, “But, the water has to be very clean” and I did that as well.

Finally, I remember saying to myself, ‘OK – now I’m ready for this. It’s like going to another galaxy.’

How did Shorter’s Buddhist beliefs influence his view of music and its message for humanity?

When I talk about how music is a tool, it is a tool to acknowledge that before we are musicians, we are human beings. Shorter was always emphasizing that we are human beings first. And that if we are living in a society with all these issues and these problems that we have, the function of the musician has to be elevated – we have to understand that what we do is necessary to balance society – to balance these challenges, the lack of hope right now, and division. Music is an incredible tool.

He (Shorter) was deeply, deeply committed to transcending nationalities, very much similar to what Dizzy Gillespie was talking about. For example, the way he approached going on the stage – he wasn’t interested in applause and recognition. He believed we are here to celebrate the phenomenon of life itself through music. And in his case, through his Buddhist practice.

One of the most powerful sentences he shared with me, that I keep with me and share with my students, is “play and compose music the way we want the world to be like.” He would say “We have to play our dreams – our imagination – who you want to be.” That might be the blueprint, he would say, “that can take all of us to the never-ending adventure of living.”

In relation to that statement, he would also say, “We can’t let adversities stop us, because they are temporary, and so victories are temporary as well – we as human beings however are constant.” 

Before every concert (by the Wayne Shorter Quartet) we would have a ritual (literally) to put our heads together, where we manifest the desire to be one. Let’s represent all nationalities with the colors and sounds of our music, and make a symphony. And let’s go beyond the definition of music as we know it. 

When you’re composing, how do you reflect upon specific suggestions, guidance, or observations from your time with Wayne Shorter?

The Berklee Global Jazz Institute, (Perez is the founder and artistic director), has been based on my experiences with my mentors, my father, Dizzy Gillespie, and Wayne Shorter. For example, in my latest project Crisálda, – he (Shorter) says “play and write music the way you want the world to be like”, well, I want the world to function as one, not using the excuse of a passport to create inequality in the world, to create unnecessary divisions.

On Crisálda, which was nominated for two Grammys, with my global messengers, I want to create a mystical place where we all come together. I have people(musicians) from the Middle East, Palestine, Greece, from Jordan – they were my students (from the Berklee Global Institute of Jazz) and I mentored them. Within this project, all these musicians are represented.

2018 Wayne Shorter quartet-last concert at
Wayne Shorter Quartet last performance 2018 Panama Jazz Festival with Danilo Perez, John Patitucci and Brian Blade(photo credit Berklee College of Music)

With the numerous moments you have had for “free” jazz intensity and chemistry with the Wayne Shorter Quartet and other bands, how do you walk the line between compositional form and freedom? 

First of all, starting with redirecting the state of “playing” – what does that mean? To play our dreams? our imagination? When we go on stage – that moment – can’t be judgmental – when you are in the process of creation, you can’t have judgement. How do you learn or analyze to actually understand what to change or what to make better, is allowing yourself to make mistakes. You need to be in tune with that in order to experience music – not just to play a concert but to experience the power of music as a performance therapy. You have to let yourself go and check your ego. You have to practice surrender of judgement.

With Wayne, we were almost approaching the performance experience as reading a book. We did not learn the order of things but instead the topics. Wayne drove language, he didn’t write music – he wrote the alphabet. If you listen to “Witch Hunt” and the introduction, you have (Perez voices the note scale), and I guess for him that was a sentence of something he was trying to say. You see in 2018 he used that as a springboard for a whole new composition called “Pegasus”

Understanding we are building language together. We are compromising because we are dealing with those elements of composition and improvisation at the same time. I teach my students now that if you can actually surrender to a second level of compassion with yourself, instead of hearing something as a mistake, you’re hearing something as an opportunity.

That’s what I‘ve gotten from Wayne – I’m more interested in the transformative nature of music, that he opened our eyes for. I not only miss my musical mentor, but he was like a father to me, we got so close. He walked the talk.