Remembering Wayne Shorter – esperanza spalding and Clark Rundell in conversation

Clark Rundell: It’s hard to know how to begin to talk about Wayne. He really changed my life, and I suspect really changed your life. How did you end up getting into his orbit?

esperanza spalding: He’s a name that has been around forever, ever since I learned about this thing called, quote unquote “jazz”. The way that we got connected is, we had the same agent – they got him to have a conversation with me. I was just so in awe, being on the phone with Wayne Shorter.

And then, this is curious, one day I wrote this thing and the chords and the rhythms kind of made me think of Wayne. And I don’t know why, but I named it ‘Crayola’. You know, we do things intuitively. A couple months later, I was invited to meet Wayne for the first time at his house, and on the coffee table was this big folder with his paintings. I asked “Mr Shorter what medium is this?” and he said “Oh it’s crayons, you know, Crayola crayons.” That little curious, magical, underground something-or-other that feels like it was always between us, that was the beginning of it showing itself, I guess. How about you?

CR: Well, when Liverpool was the capital of culture in 2008, one of the first events they put on was a symphonic event of Wayne’s music with [me conducting] the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra.

I was nervous in front of Wayne Shorter and John Patitucci. I was very pleased to be in the same room, let alone kind of in a position of authority. And I have one of my favourite stories from that experience with Wayne. He would never give you a straight answer, as you know. I asked Wayne, “Are you happy with this as a basic tempo?”

And he looked at me and said, “Well it’s like this. It’s like the aliens are attacking from outer space. And the parents, they’re really, really, really scared. But the children, they think it’s incredibly cool.” And those were his tempo instructions! And of course the orchestra were like, “This is great, ask him some more questions”!

I remember the promoter saying to me, “Did you hear what happened to him at passport control? The passport control [person] just looked at him, you know, most passport control people could do with a humour injection, and said, do you have anything to declare? And he was quiet for a minute, and then he said, “my personal freedom.”

es: That’s bringing me back to the time when I was going to his house regularly as he was writing, asking him questions about the music, and there’s this part where I asked “What is this section about?! And he said, “I’m going to write something for the ones who are used to being in the back, the ones who are used to having a simple part. I’m going to give them the most difficult parts.” So they had to sit up and pay attention in that moment. And one thing people may not know is that he writes every note in those scores by hand with a pen.

CR: It’s unbelievable. Most composers would say ‘copy Oboe 1’ and a copyist [or a computer programme] would copy it out. With Wayne, every single 32nd note [demisemiquaver], in ink, transposed, boom.

es: We got to hear these works with Wayne involved, and it is really strange to be turning this corner, where now, as he would have wanted, they’re continuing to grow into themselves but through the bodies of different saxophone players and through different ensembles beyond the [Wayne Shorter] Quartet. I have this very beautiful mix – a lot of melancholy as I think about Ravi [Coltrane] playing because Wayne is no longer with us. And on the other hand, now other people can learn about themselves and learn about music by playing a Wayne Shorter piece.

CR: What an immense privilege that was. He trusted us and that was a big responsibility. I would talk to my wife and say “What am I supposed to do with this?” And she would just say, “He expects you to read the tea leaves. He’s giving you the tea leaves, you’ve got to read them, he trusts that you will.”

es: People asked Wayne, “What advice would you give young composers?”, and he often said, “Write what you wish for.” What a beautiful answer.

This is an edited extract from a much longer conversation. Listen to it in full on our YouTube channel, here.

esperanza spalding and Clark Rundell feature in our concert on Sunday 19 November, tickets from £20.

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