Shorter, 80 this year, has been a hugely influential figure during his various periods with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, Miles Davis, jazz-rockers Weather Report and in his own Blue Note recordings. Marsalis, the 53-year-old scion of a famously musical family, has carved an international reputation of his own, as a powerful and independently-minded jazz player as well as a lyrical interpreter of classical music.
This will be Marsalis’s first collaboration with the SNJO, although he has known its director, fellow-saxophonist Tommy Smith, “forever”. When I ask if he’ll be avoiding slavish replication, he replies: “I’m completely into replicating it. I have the opposite view of most of my jazz colleagues... I don’t do any form of music as a vehicle to glorify myself per se.
“A lot of people might say, ‘Hey, I’m gonna do Wayne Shorter’s music, but I’m going to be me,’” Marsalis observes drily, citing “Daniel Day-Lewis’s excellent portrayal of Abe Lincoln. Some people go so far as to say it’s almost like he was the man himself. Really?
“As I know from studying drama, the idea is to capture the essence of a person, not every single one of their mannerisms. So when I play Shorter’s music, I’ll try to play the essence of it. I’ve spent so much time studying it that it’s virtually impossible for me not to have his influences coming to bear.”
Ask him what it is about Shorter’s music that stands out and he points to its combination of harmonic invention and melody. “Usually, when you get people who write as harmonically advanced as this, harmony tends to be at the forefront, at the expense of melody but, much like listening to Prokofiev or Stravinsky, Shorter’s music is quite modern yet very singable.”
I saw Marsalis play during last year’s World Saxophone Congress at St Andrews, his tenor sax floating sublimely in over the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in Andy Scott’s Laissez les Bon Temps Rouler. Asked about switching between jazz and classical, he explains it as a matter of simply knowing the vocabulary.
“I grew up playing classical music – not particularly well, but listening to it, and also listening to rock and roll, and switched to jazz when I was about 19. It wasn’t until my late 20s or even early 30s that I actually thought I sounded like a jazz musician. Put on a Lester Young or Coleman Hawkins record, and you can hear where you are in relation to that if you’re honest about it.” One suspects that next week’s gigs are unlikely to raise grounds for such severe self-examination.
• The SNJO and Marsalis play Perth Concert Hall on Friday; the Royal Conservatoire, Glasgow, on 28 September; and the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, on 29 September. www.snjo.co.uk