When I started watching Wayne Shorter’s documentary with the motive to review it, I was a bit apprehensive. Not that I was completely lost regarding the content, as I had not only heard the name of Wayne Shorter, but I had been blessed with the experience of his music as well. But still, analyzing a documentary series that covers the whole life of a man of his stature is something I consider a tough challenge. And considering how dense the Amazon Prime documentary series titled Wayne Shorter: Zero Gravity is, my initial apprehension does make sense.
Is it humanly possible to describe jazz music? I’m not sure about you all, but I personally don’t think so. The genre is possibly as vast as the galaxy, as deep as the ocean, and as mystifying and fascinating as the center of the universe. Those who make jazz music are probably closer to God than we mere mortals could ever hope to be. In fact, the title of the documentary Zero Gravity actually stems from how you feel while listening to Shorter’s work. It is infinite, boundless, and out of this world, which effectively implies being beyond the laws of gravity. Being a jazz enthusiast, I can personally vouch for it. Being a practicing Buddhist has a lot to do with it, which has been explored in the documentary series.
The Dorsay Alavi-directed three-episode documentary series, which has names like Brad Pitt on the executive production team, leaves no stone unturned in exploring the life of the jazz legend as it meticulously constructs the episodes and divides the whole thing into three separate chapters of Shorter’s magnanimous life. While the first episode covers Shorter’s early life and his rise as a jazz prodigy who eventually played for the legendary Miles Davis, the other two delve into Shorter’s work as an established name in the world of jazz music as well as his continuous attempts at creating something new and successfully pulling that off until the very end of his life. The documentary series hits the right note in every possible way, and you are guaranteed to be graced with a fascinating experience if you are a jazz aficionado.
Shorter, who would have been ninety years old on August 25, 2023, the same day Prime Video released the documentary series to honor the legend, was born in Newark, New Jersey. Music was ingrained in him, as his mother, Louise, was a pianist herself. But for Shorter, his painter father, Joseph, also played a huge role in his cultural upbringing. Joseph Shorter was also a regular in the jazz music scene of Harlem, New York, and through archival footage, we get to know how those stories enriched Wayne and had a lot to do with the kind of music he would eventually create. Shorter was also very much into comic books and movies, which only fueled his ever-growing imagination of music. Despite his artistic background, Shorter was still a victim of racism, which further shaped his perspective. However, by no means could that stop the progression of his music career as the series further explores Shorter’s eventual move to New York City and his first taste of success with the iconic band The Jazz Messenger, a creation of the legendary jazz drummer Art Barkley. Through Shorter’s own words, we get a sense of his work in collaboration with people like Ron Carter and Herbie Hancock, both of whom are considered jazz geniuses of that time. Shorter’s joining the Miles Davis Quiet was inevitable, and the documentary does a smart thing by drawing the curtains on the first chapter there, in my opinion.
As the documentary series goes beyond the work Shorter has done as a musician and seems very much interested in knowing the man’s life, it also touches on something as sensitive as Shorter and his first wife, Anna Maria, losing their son Branford to leukemia. There is no greater tragedy than losing your own child, but the only way Wayne Shorter could possibly deal with it was by taking refuge in his art. While the second episode of the series extensively digs into the man’s personal life, it also covers Shorter leaving Miles Davis’ band and eventually creating his own band, Weather Report. Always an experimentalist, Shorter’s attempts at combining other musical genres, such as rock, with his jazz also got a lot of attention. As I said, the documentary series is meticulously crafted and doesn’t leave anything important out, like Shorter’s foray into the world of drawing to express his musical ideas on paper or his going solo in the nineties and creating different kinds of tunes.
In its final episode, the documentary series looks into the twilight years of Wayne Shorter’s life. The most important aspects of his later years would be two things: firstly, the creation of his own band, Wayne Shorter Quartet, and secondly, getting his name into the Downbeat Hall of Fame and being awarded the prestigious Freedom Medal directly from the president. It was quite fascinating to see that Shorter’s long professional career never took a hit, as, even in the new millennium, the man continued to create music as exceptional as the kind of things he created in his younger years. Watching Shorter mentor a lot of young, aspiring jazz musicians was also comforting in a way.
When you think about the importance of a documentary like this one, the current state of the world we live in comes right into the equation. With major social issues, political issues, and environmental issues, we are forever submerged in chaos. We need art to survive and, subsequently, live. A documentary series like Wayne Shorter: Zero Gravity about one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time has a cultural impact beyond our imagination. Add to that the fact that it is premiering on an OTT platform like Prime Video, which makes it accessible to the whole world, which is a huge deal. Someone like Wayne Shorter could always inspire us, even from his grave. Because human beings are mortal, legacies live on and continue to inspire for eternity.