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saxophonist wayne shorter
By EMILY WELLS 348 views

Saxophonist Wayne Shorter And Creating Opera with Spalding

13 times Grammy Awards winner, world-famous Saxophonist Wayne Shorter died at the age of 89 on 2nd March of this year. While the death of the famous musician and composer is still fresh on everyone’s mind, you would be interested to know the story behind his last work in 2022.

Saxophonist Wayne Shorter has always been known for making the jazz world different with his high pitch playing. He got interested in playing the best tenor saxophone ever since the vice principal of his school forced him to join music classes. Who would have known he would go on to drastically change his life and the world of Jazz? After his graduation, he worked with John Eaton for a short time before he joined the U.S. Army for two years.

Later on, he rejoined the world of Jazz in 1958, playing alongside Horace Silver and going on to join Maynard Ferguson’s band. In the next five years, he joined Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers and became the director. Along with that he debuted as the leader on records and was the producer of several albums. Shorter also performed with Miles Davis from 1964-70 and made history with several songs like Pinocchio, Sanctuary, Foot, and many more. From 1985-88, he recorded three albums back-to-back on Columbia Records. He made his comeback in 1992 with Wallace Roney in the band named A Tribute to Miles. From 1995 to 2013, Wayne released a lot of solo albums which also won Grammy awards.

He didn’t want to leave the world with any regrets and making magic with his music was the reason he dove headfirst into composing Iphigenia. Wayne has always made his career in making music by bending the rules to his satisfaction and taste. He has always been praised by his bandmates including Miles Davies for his ability to write music ahead of time. He once told Jason Moran, the musician, that he doesn’t compose music but rather decomposes.

It is always said that the best way for an artist to leave this world is while staying busy with his passion. While Wayne was known for collaborating with several other artists, his last work was extraordinary. He made his dream come true of working in opera by composing the music of the Greek tragedy Iphigenia. Along with Esperanza Spalding, Shorter made history by reinventing the tragedy. At the age of 88, he was an inspiration to all saxophonists and musicians by composing a piece that can easily be said that very few have tried to make.

Born in Portland, Esperanza Spalding is a young talent who started playing the violin at the age of 4. Ever since then, she tried playing varying kinds of instruments like the piano, and guitar and even dabbled with clarinet and oboe. From the age of 16, she became interested in Jazz, and there was no looking back from there. As a Jazz artist, she even got to play in front of Barack Obama in 2009 and won her first Grammy award in 2011. She made history by winning the first new best artist in Jazz. Afterward, she released several albums that became worldwide famous, and ultimately in 2018, she got to know about her mentor Shorter’s dream.

He said in an interview that the desire to work in opera was one of his lifelong dreams. Both Spalding and Shorter started working on the music in 2018. They had a lot of discussions over how they wished to portray the story of this Greek Mythology. Their main aim was to remove the myth from the story and produce a version of Iphigenia where she has more freedom over her choices. While there are several versions of Iphigenia, some stories end in tragedy and others end in mystery.

Iphigenia, the daughter of Agamemnon, was called by his father under the ruse of marriage to Achilles but actually for a sacrifice ritual to Goddess Artemis. Although Iphigenia was hurt at first, she willingly went on to the altar for sacrifice as a duty to her people. There are stories where she was ultimately sacrificed for Goddess Artemis and in another version at the last minute, she was swapped with a deer during the ritual. Spalding wanted to break free of all these tragedies and give more freedom to music.

But very soon, the composition totally stopped when Wayne had to be hospitalized in 2019 due to a major illness. He had what he called a near-death experience and that year went on stage to receive the Grammy award in a wheelchair. After this incident, Spalding became more determined to make this show successful. Once he was released from the hospital he jumped right back in to finish the composition. Although at first he was unable to write his music and would sing the parts during rehearsals. But after a while when he gained his strength he started writing the music with his hands. Side by side, Esperanza herself made a lot of changes to her libretto after listening deeply to Shorter’s music.

Finally, after the composition, they started their workshop at Kennedy Centre in September 2019. Spalding, later reminisced, it was a sight to behold during the workshop. So many talents when put their head together to make a perfect piece, the whole place was covered with sheet notes and Post-it notes.

Unfortunately, no one knew at the time that all rehearsals will come to a stop due to the pandemic. On the other hand, all the protests for race and gender at the same time made it difficult for them to collaborate with an opera. Every major opera company during that time had racist ideas where they prioritized how the composer looked like. They failed to see the vision Wayne was representing through his composition.

Esperanza said that this is a new version of Iphigenia where she gave the narrative to the women. In most operas, she noticed that stories were always told from the men’s perspective. The opera performance of 100 minutes was composed to break the myth. Wayne composed the music by incorporating his own music from all eras, the 60s, 70s, and 80s.

In their representation of Iphigenia, they showed not just one but multiple Iphigenia. Along with that, the only way it was successfully performed was due to the design done for the set by Frank Gehry. With a beautifully designed backdrop, Spaliding’s voice along with the other six voices of Iphigenia and Wayne’s composition, was successfully performed at Berkeley on 10th and 11th December 2021. It was shown again in Los Angeles in February 2022.

In Shorter’s one of last interviews, he reminisced how grateful he was to finally make the opera successful and added, “ Life is a great opera and to discover where you are going in all that, you have the right to do this discovering.”

Over the years, many beginner and professional saxophonists have made his music the guide for their journey. While even today, the world is mourning the loss of legendary saxophonist Wayne Shorter, it is no doubt that through his works, people will keep remembering him in the future through his music.

Emily Wells