top of page




By Dave Lisik  |  SkyDeck Music

Published September 9, 2023

New Ju Ju 1500.jpg
Shorter Stories Live.jpeg
Speak No Evil 1500.jpg


Saxophonist and composer Christopher Merz and his new seven piece band, Shorter Stories, have been performing 2023 summer jazz festivals in advance of the release of NEW JUJU, the Music of Wayne Shorter. Chris has been a music professor at the University of Northern Iowa since 2000 and took the director’s role with UNI’s top jazz orchestra shortly after that.


Chris is a prolific composer and performer with multiple ensembles functioning simultaneously including his Christopher’s Very Happy. Band. (note the stylization of the name), the Iowa Jazz Composers Orchestra, and the band I’m certain he spends the most time rehearsing and conducting, UNI Jazz Band One, the university’s flagship student jazz ensemble. In addition to programming a comprehensive balance of the most historically significant jazz orchestra literature from across the history of the genre, UNI Jazz Band One also performs and records an impressive number of original jazz compositions and arrangements by Merz and a long list of talented and well-educated university student composers. Merz has over two decades leading the band and has released a recording project in nearly every year of that tenure. CVH.B. also has two outstanding CDs, We Are Bathed in Sunlight, and While We Wait. 

Merz’s new band, Shorter Stories, presenting his new arrangements of the music of Wayne Shorter, was in the planning and production stages well before Shorter’s death early this year but the recent release of a three part docu-series, Wayne Shorter - Zero Gravity, comes at a good time for a robust discussion of Shorter's music and New JuJu.  In the jazz world, the frequency or intensity of conversations about Shorter, his significance, and the beauty and brilliance of his compositions and saxophone playing, have barely slowed since he emerged as a pivotal member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and immortalized as a member of Miles Davis’s Second Great Quintet. Still, in 2023, his passing as well as this new film, have brought Shorter’s life and music back to the center of the jazz spotlight.

Unfortunately, at the time of this conversation, Chris was only a couple of days past a positive test for COVID. And it was the third time he’s had the virus so far. In spite of this, he was in good spirits and his passion and reverence for the music of Wayne Shorter is palpable, infectious, and enough to overcome any pesky virus, no matter how disruptive it may have been in 2020.  

SkyDeck: Hey, Chris! Great to talk to you! What's your current COVID situation? 

Chris: Man, I’ll tell you. This is my third go around with COVID, which under normal circumstances would be kind of a drag, but couple that with the fact that I only have one working lung, and it complicates things. I think I probably qualify as being, like, a “high risk” person now. So I probably will be able to get the early boosters and all that shit. Plus, I'm almost 60, so I’ll need to start looking into that and just try to stay on the front edge of those things. I don't know where I ran into it. I was on vacation with my family and woke up Saturday morning and I felt like I got run over by a cement truck.

SkyDeck: Yeah, that's terrible. I had it last year. It wasn't even bad at first. We were in Disneyland in Paris at the end of our summer. We were coming home on the plane and my wife and I both started feeling it. But it was super mild. Less than a head cold. But then the heavy breathing shit lasted until Christmas.

Chris: It's hard to be creative when it's like that, man. That's the thing I ran into. It's hard to just kind of get your mind on something other than the fact that you're sucking wind.

SkyDeck: Agreed. Anyway, I’m still excited to talk about Wayne Shorter! This project wasn’t something that just happened because Wayne died this past March, correct?

Chris: No, this actually came together the year before when I did all the writing. Some of it stretches way back because I had done a big band arrangement of “Adam's Apple,” set in seven, which the combo arrangement is based on. That was probably fifteen years ago. I've done a number of big band arrangements of his music over the years. I started writing these charts in the spring of 2022 and had everything in place by the end of the year.

In terms of Wayne’s music, I've always been especially interested in that slice of the eight straight ahead Blue Note records, stretching from those records back to the Jazz Messenger albums, and then forward to the Miles Second Quintet era. And while I like a lot of the material that came later than all of that, and have been to several live performances, I haven't figured out a way to say something personal on those tunes. So those previous ones are really the eras of his music that I'm interested in.

I got into Wayne Shorter’s playing and writing when I was in high school. I remember hanging out and listening to music in my brother's room. He’s a couple years older than me. One day he put “Nefertiti” on. He just said, “You just sit there and listen to this.” I sat down and I listened… and I'm listening and I'm listening and I'm listening. And they got about eight or nine choruses in and I said, “Isn't anybody going to solo?” It took years to really get a handle on that concept but eventually I figured it out. “Oh, it doesn't have to be the horn players. Okay, I get it.”

I started thinking about the way that melody evolved over time and the way it was so elastic. They had all this freedom inside of that and that was really interesting to me. And I know that that was not Wayne's concept for [Nefertiti]. He wrote it as a tune that would just be played down, where people played choruses on the changes just like every other tune. And then Miles said, “Okay, that's the take.” That was Miles's way of taking over a situation.

In the earliest recordings I've heard of Wayne, you can definitely hear the Coltrane influence. They used to practice in the same room and you can hear a lot of cross pollination of ideas and other elements. But Wayne eventually shed himself of a lot of his early influences, and much of those bebop mannerisms, as time went on. It was part of an increasingly deep development of him as a person. And I've always really admired that. 

SkyDeck: You know that Dave Liebman book, Self-Portrait of a Jazz Artist? There's a quote in there that describes a similar thing. Once you get past the point where you've practiced enough and have developed the amount of technique necessary to speak the language, everything about your development as a person becomes as important as the musical practice, because it's this holistic kind of thing. For the rest of your life, all the experiences you're having as a person are practice. Because if you don't have anything to say as a human being, then just saying something as an instrumental technician, there's not nearly as much meaning in the music. 

So you're saying that in Wayne Shorter's case there's a distinct decision to define two eras? Like, “This is my developmental period where I'm absorbing everything that's around me, including Coltrane, who was overwhelming stylistically, maybe creating a problem for other saxophone players?

Chris: How could he not, right? Coltrane was so easily identifiable and, all encompassing, maybe?  Not exactly, but Wayne must have been thinking, “How do I avoid that but not be seen as though I'm completely rejecting it? Because it's valuable and not worth rejecting. But also, I don’t want to be swallowed up by it.” 

SkyDeck: So from your standpoint, when you discovered Wayne, the writing and the playing was sort of inseparable? 

Chris: Yeah, in a lot of ways. And I think the writing and the playing sort of evolved along a similar arc. Wayne had this book of tunes that he'd written when he was in the Army. Based on what we know now, having heard some interviews with Wayne, a lot of those tunes, even some of those on the Blakey records, came from that book. As did some of the earliest things he recorded with Miles.

But the bulk of those tunes are oriented around the circle of fifths and his vocabulary tends to be drawing much more from that bebop tradition. The examples that I would put out there would be some things like “Children of the Night” or “Lester Left Town,” “Black Nile,” things like that. And of course, there are other interesting places the music goes in those tunes. As he moves forward, there's less and less of that in his playing and his writing, at least in the tunes he was recording. 

SkyDeck: You were born in '63? So you were too young to be aware of or to have bought the Miles Davis Quintet records when they were coming out? I’m not surprised by the fact that people are interested in that period or those Miles albums, but sometimes the depth of the attachment people have who discovered those albums as they came out is surprising. In the mid 2000s, post doctorate, I spent a lot of time at Indiana University. I know Pat Harbison who just retired from there last year. I sat in on some of his classes, especially his post-bebop history class. Incidentally, that period was where I really formed my idea of what a university professor should be because Pat and David Baker could deliver two hour coherent lectures [Duke Ellington in David Baker’s case], without notes, because they had grown up with the material and absorbed it. And that’s the epitome of what being a university professor is supposed to be because you're an actual expert. You’re not learning the lessons a week before the students. But Pat was one of those guys who just loved that music and knew it backwards and forwards.

SkyDeck: So you're just a tittle too young to be from that era. What is it that’s attractive about Wayne Shorter’s music for you? He’s not just another guy, not just another influential tenor player from that time. What is it about him as a player that imprinted on you and created that high level of interest? 

Chris: I think the arc, the way he builds an improvisation from beginning to end. I distinctly remember riding somewhere in the car and I was listening to one of the discs of that Live at the Plugged Nickel set. When we were in college, that album…we were like cultists about that album. And that was back when it was just the two LP set. My brother owned it. I wanted to get it for myself, but it was sold out by the time I tried to find it. But one of my friends also had it. So we would play gigs and after the gig was over, at something like two o’clock in the morning, we would go over to my friend’s house and put that on and listen to it, front to back. Then we’d get home at four in the morning because we'd been up listening for hours and talking about it all night. 

But back to the car ride, I remember listening to…it might have been “Agitation.” I'm not sure what solo it was exactly. But I listened to it and, as soon as Wayne's solo was done, I'm like, “I gotta hear that again.” So I backed all the way up, listened to it again. “No, gotta do it again.” I did it about five times in a row because I just couldn't quit listening to that solo... just because of the shape of it. Also, and maybe not so much on that solo, but there are places where he will bring in pieces of the melody and develop them on a really long scale. I don't hear a lot of other people doing that. It's his sort of view of the beginning to the end, how to take this improvisation to a place that's truly interesting. The whole point is to tell a story within an improvisation – use motivic development and create a cohesiveness. 

SkyDeck: I was just reading something, it might have been Liebman again, someone saying that  the ultimate goal of creating an improvisation was to create as perfect an entity as possible, as though you were composing it. And I thought, “I've actually said that before.” And I remember saying something similar to that to Matt Wilson. This was a long time ago when he was a guest artist at UNI when I was there, and he was giving drumset and improv lessons. And he said, “I can't agree with that at all because in an improvisation, while you strive to have certain elements that are cohesive and develop these ideas, perfection is never the goal for me.” So I kind of get both sides of that. 

But how many times have you heard that, “This is the ultimate achievement: developing these ideas and being able to listen to an entire solo, get to the end and think, “Wow, I can't believe how good that was given that it wasn't written out and it wasn't preconceived,” and all of that. But you also say, “I don't know that many people who do it on that level.”

Chris: Exactly.

Related projects:

Speak No Evil 1500.jpg
Reconnect Cover.jpg
Wait Cover 1500.jpg
Synthesis 1000.jpg
You Are Not Alone Cover.jpg

SkyDeck: And you know almost everybody who's ever played the tenor saxophone in a jazz context that's done anything of any significance. You know who they are. And you've heard, certainly not every recording that ever existed but like, a monumental number of recordings. And so for you to say that, to identify that... not that people aren't doing it at all, or are completely failing, but this guy's just doing it on a different level.

Chris: The only guy, I would say, who maybe has a bit of an edge at times on Wayne, in that regard, is Sonny Rollins. But that's on a rare occasion. I can cite three or four examples like the ones everybody talks about, the “Blue Seven” solo that Gunther Schuller wrote the long article about – the one that fucked Sonny up so bad he spent two years practicing on the George Washington Bridge because he thought, “Well, I can't really do that.” And he didn't do it all that often, not on that level. But Wayne hit that thing way more consistently to my mind than the people who came directly before him.

SkyDeck: You would be one of these people who were a direct recipient of at least part of that influence which had to shape your concept when you were a kid. Clearly, given that you're doing this record now at almost 60, it’s still there. Where does he sit among the other influential players? In Eric [Allen’s] "Body and Soul" transcription book, there are solos by a lot of tenor players, including Rollins [Hawkins, Lester Young, Dexter Gordon, Coltrane, Potter, others]. There's no Wayne Shorter version in there. So from that standpoint is he sitting outside of that group in terms of the cataloging of standard literature? Where would you place him within the players who directly preceded him and then his contemporaries? 

Chris: One of the things that's interesting about Wayne, unless there's stuff out there that I'm unaware of, which I'm certainly willing to admit there is, I don't know many examples outside the live Miles Davis stuff, of him playing or recording standard rep. I just don't know about it. Like with Blakey, it was almost always originals by him or by other guys in the band. When he got on Miles's band, all of those studio albums are originals by him or Herbie or Ron or Tony. Then he started his Blue Note thing, all his repertoire... on to Weather Report: it's all his stuff or Joe's [Zawinul’s] music, or freely improvised. And then on all the records he made after that, Atlantis, all that. That's all original stuff. So I just don't know of much standard repertoire. So it's hard really to find a corollary there between other players.

Other guys who did something similar? I suppose Coltrane would be the closest person I could come up with who followed that same path. He did record some standards, like up through the Atlantic Records and, preceding those, on Prestige. But then he pretty much only did originals. Before that, I think most of these guys had much more of a tie to standard repertoire. 


In that sense, I think Wayne is a really modern player. There seems to be more of that now, I think. Donny [McCaslin], of course, or players that are of that age are mostly playing original material. Occasionally something will pop up on YouTube, “Watch Chris Potter Go Ballistic on Cherokee for 40 minutes” or whatever, but it's almost all original stuff with their own bands.

SkyDeck: I just did a long talk with Donny last week. A lot of that was the topic. This is a good question that ties into the Wayne Shorter topic well: How many jazz musicians are you aware of throughout the history of the music who are always progressing? We talk about this all the time, right? About the fact that it's a lifetime endeavor, you're always learning, education never stops, you're always adding vocabulary, you're always going to be looking for a new thing and expanding. But generally, people don't do that though. Not very often with jazz musicians. There's that famous video with Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie where they're trading solos on something. They were from different style eras. Louis Armstrong died in 1971 so he had heard everything that came after him. It didn't fundamentally change the way he played. He wasn't playing bebop language in the 1950s or the 1960s. He was just Louis Armstrong right to the end, and Dizzy Gillespie, the same thing. He was a bebop player. He wasn’t reinventing the trumpet as an old man. Almost every jazz musician, all these tenor players, Lester Young or Coleman Hawkins or these people had the ability to pivot. “I'm going to try that.” But they didn't. They’d already innovated something once which is a huge deal.

Chris: I'm going to interject just a little bit, though, because I have heard some Coleman Hawkins recordings… there's a recording, I think it's called Sonny Meets the Hawk or something like that, where Hawkins is definitely putting on a hipper wig. It's definitely some more modern stuff. But it is unusual, I will grant you that. It's not what he usually did, but you're right, there's not that many players that have followed that path. Wayne would be one.

Wayne said this, kind of jokingly, kind of flippantly, about how he's playing less and less as her gets older. There would still be times when he would play a shit ton. But it would be so carefully timed and so carefully balanced. I remember going to hear him with the quartet in Minneapolis, and he played a lot, but I don't remember hearing anything that was extraneous, ever. It just seemed like everything that was there needed to be there.

SkyDeck: Was that recently? 

Chris: It was ten years ago, maybe a little bit more. I saw that quartet like three or four times, and every time I saw them they were different. They were playing more abstractly every time - fewer tunes. The last time I heard Wayne play, I think the most of any tune or any recognizable melody I heard the whole night was this one short thing [sings a melody], the whole band plays this with no sort of clue as to how they did it or why. And then that was it. “Okay, that's all we're gonna hear.”

SkyDeck: They were here [New Zealand], I want to say 2016. It was pretty recent. And you're talking about Patitucci, Brian Blade and Danilo?

Chris: Yes. 

SkyDeck: There were no tunes, I don't think. 

Chris: No. 

SkyDeck: It was just these 25 minute long group improvisations. I think maybe they played for ninety minutes or something, and there were only a handful of tune breaks because they just kept going for such long stretches. But it was sublime. He sounded fantastic for being in his 80s. I think he sat down the whole time and probably couldn’t have stayed on his feet that long. And I fully acknowledge and appreciate that people have the exact opposite opinion, but when I heard him play duos with Herbie Hancock in Canada in the 90s, and I also had that duo record they did, I really disliked his soprano saxophone sound at that point.

Chris: Really?

SkyDeck: Yeah I know. And I know people who thought it was fantastic but I just didn’t enjoy it. But when he played recently, it was beautiful. That duo recording was maybe only a few years after Branford [Marsalis] was on the Tonight Show and I heard his trio in concert playing The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born and he had what I still think is the most beautiful soprano saxophone sound. And Wayne’s approach was just different and I couldn’t appreciate it. Anyway, given that you've also got a particular insight as a composer and, as you say, maybe it’s an impossible task trying to separate Wayne Shorter’s compositions from his playing as influences for you. It's not like one came before the other in terms of your experience.


But from a jazz compositional standpoint, Wayne occupies a particular space that almost nobody else does. It's like if you say, “Who's a great jazz musician?” “Miles Davis.” “Who's a great jazz composer?” “Wayne Shorter.” Some of my most favorite tunes are Wayne Shorter tunes and I have a level of admiration for him so it’s not like I want to refute anyone’s assessment. But generally, the people we put into the significant “jazz composer” box are people who have written much more for larger ensembles and longer forms: [Jim] McNeely, Maria [Schneider], [Bob] Brookmeyer, Thad Jones, these people, at least in a modern sense. And obviously Duke Ellington was still around in the 70s, and Basie’s people… Sammy Nestico just died very recently. And you're as intimately familiar with big band literature as almost anyone. 

But from a composition standpoint, classical composers, the most significant ones, wrote for large ensembles and they dealt with composing music over a long period of time. The conventional thinking is: if you look at one page of Haydn and one page of Mozart, they're writing for the same instruments. A lot of pages of score, if it’s one page, it hard to tell them apart. Then there are a lot of other guys writing for the same orchestra in Vienna at the same time. Why do we know Haydn and Mozart more than these fifty other guys? It's what they do with it over two minutes instead of two pages that makes them good. Same with Bob Brookmeyer or Maria Schneider.

SkyDeck: Is there a clear answer to the question: How does Wayne Shorter occupy that space? 

Chris: That's a really good question. You're probably familiar with this quote. Somebody asked Wayne in an interview one time, back in the Weather Report days, as his own writing for the band was becoming less and less, and Zawinul was taking over most of the compositional role. “Wayne, you're a well established composer. Why aren't you writing more music for Weather Report?” And his response was, “Weather Report requires novels, but I'm a short story writer.” Which, by the way, is where the name of the band comes from. And I think part of it is writing a compelling miniature. There's a skill to that because you have to condense all of the energy and all the directionality into that small thing.

I think about this great book, I think it's called 140 Characters, the number of characters that you used to be able to have in a Twitter message. Every story that's in the book is limited to that length. And so each story kind of plops you down in the middle of a scenario and shit happens. Then you're plucked out before the scenario is over. Your brain has to kind of fill in the gaps. What came before this, what comes now? And I think that's one of the interesting things about Wayne's music. It's complete in the sense that we're not left wanting when we hear a Wayne tune.


Like shit, man, I hear the melody to “Nefertiti.” I don't need to hear anybody blow on the tune, you know? I don't need that because it's so perfect as it is. But at the same time, it sort of projects in two directions. His music gives this sense, like trying to imagine how it would extend. It suggests some pathways that get you thinking about where they could go. That, plus they're just fucking fun to play. And they're just fun to play because they take turns. They go in directions that are unexpected, yet somehow familiar. It's like asking yourself, “Have you ever written something and you think somebody must have written this before? I must have gotten this somewhere else.” And you look and look and you can't find it. It's like that sense of chipping away at the stone to reveal the sculpture hidden within.

I think Wayne's music has that character, that sense of inevitability, and at the same time, surprise. And the fact that he's able to somehow, even in a subliminal way, connect everything back to the blues. It's really beautiful. Sometimes it's obvious, like the bridge of “Fi Fi Fo Fum.” That's really obvious. But there are other times where it's so deeply embedded that if you don't have somebody kind of tease it out, you'll never find it. Thankfully, there are people who have nothing else to do on long plane flights, then look for that stuff, right? 

SkyDeck: I say that a lot of the time in composition classes: “Nobody's going to be analyzing this music of yours, especially as a student, in the way that you're going to analyze some other chart, the things we're looking at in a class.” That shouldn't be your motivation. But there are aspects of composition, relationships and cohesiveness that you find in other people's music. We've collectively decided that that's what makes them interesting or significant or cohesive. And you should be trying to put those in your music as well. So do work worthy of people’s attention whether it gets it right away or not. And when you're doing your dissertation, it's going to end up on a shelf somewhere. Nobody's going to look at it. The written part for sure, but hopefully the actual musical part will be worth listening to for some other people. 

But none of that that you just said really explains the connection. And maybe there's no explanation.

Chris: No, and I don't know that you could necessarily tie it to this either. But look at the people that he became famous with before he made his own music. The Jazz Messengers was the quintessential hard bop band. Art Blakey was really the standard bearer for that music. Wayne was the musical director and because Blakey loved his writing so much, it got out there into the public. And as the leader of the preeminent hard bop ensemble, people looked to Blakey to lead the way. "Who are the great writers? Okay."

Then Wayne comes on board Miles's band. He shows up at the first recording session with Miles saying, “You have a tune you want to play?” And Wayne gets out the book. Miles flips through and points at E.S.P. and says, “That one.” And they recorded it. And then every time after that, before any session, Miles would say, “Bring the book.”

Miles Wayne.jpeg
Miles Wayne 2.jpeg

Chris: And again, Miles Davis was the top of the game. I would also say, and you know this, those are the least popular albums, at least the least known in terms of non-pointy headed jazz fans. The least popular era of Miles's recordings. Although, they're the most popular among musicians. So these young guys, their careers were made. The fame and everything that happened after for them was made by that 60s quintet.

SkyDeck: And those same guys played together a lot, but nothing that they ever did holds that level of mystique as when you play one of those 65 to 68 Miles records.

I think when you're listening to Wayne’s “Ana Maria,” if you were out for dinner and it was just in the background and you're not paying attention, it's just the same long phrase three times, right? And then you start to listen to the subtlest of variations. 

Chris: Right. 

SkyDeck: You have to be a musician or at least paying attention, to even begin to hear that they're not the same phrases and how these tiny little variations make it interesting.

Chris: Right. 

SkyDeck: But the one thing that you mentioned that I think that I talk about all the time is that the improvisation on the Wayne Shorter recording is done over this vamp. We're just playing over this chord. But there's a Kenny Kirkland version from his one solo album where they play the exact same tune. The phrasing is almost identical in the melody. The tempo is basically the same, the mood is the same, but they blow over the form rather than on this vamp. I use that example to suggest to students that, “If you're writing a piece, you should have figured out the harmonic language in its entirety, rather than let somebody else do it. At least most of the time. Because at some point, some tenor player is going to blow over any part of your tune.

Chris: But how about some of the tunes that are on this record? Obviously, Ana Maria is not one of those, but what are some of the little snippets or places in the tunes if it's not the entire tune where you think, I can't believe how interesting that is as a musical device?

SkyDeck: Going back a couple of minutes ago, you're saying, “But he was in Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. They were famous. Miles Davis's group was famous.” Okay, I buy that. But also, a ton of jazz musicians wrote way more tunes than even Wayne Shorter. Sure, it's not about volume. A bunch of other guys have done more extensive compositions which could attract some attention. But can you think of a person who didn't write more extensive music or larger ensemble music who's revered as a jazz composer in the same way?

Chris: No. I mean, I can think of people who were as prolific. I think Horace Silver would tick that box. Herbie [Hancock] would tick that box. But I think part of it is for both of those guys, there's a sort of… okay, I hope I don't get struck by lightning here... There is a simplicity, I think, in their music that Wayne's music doesn't have. I mean, Wayne's music is clear. It has clarity without ever being simple,  you know? I just played three parts of a four part series celebrating the music of Herbie with Jason Danielson, and I loved every minute of it. I had a great time doing it. And there's some beautiful tunes there. I mean, God, I could play on Dolphin Dance every day for the rest of my life and never get tired of it.


However, there are a lot of those tunes where there's really not much there. They really are extraordinarily simple. That doesn't mean they're not great, doesn't mean they're not fun to play. But they're not going to be consistently interesting to me, at least as a player. They're not going to have the same kind of challenges as say, an “Infant Eyes.” Again, that's a three phrase tune or ABA form. And each phrase ends in a place you don't expect it. And each phrase is nine bars long. But it doesn't feel like nine bars. It feels like any other phrase. It feels as natural as a standard. You never get to the end and kind of scratch your head and go, “That felt a little extended to me. Those phrases all felt a little long.” At least I don't. There's an inevitability about it. I think that tune in particular is compelling.

SkyDeck: We could easily name a couple hundred great improvisers, captivating improvisers. How many people's tunes are on the same level as their improvisations? Michael Brecker is probably still my favorite musician of all time, in any capacity. I really like his tunes and I've done some arranging of a couple, but I don't think his compositions match his brilliance as a saxophone player and maybe that's true for me for most players.

What would Charlie Parker have done if he’d lived past 34? What would he have done in the next 30 years? Coltrane died at 40, right? What would he have done for the next 30, or 40 years after that? If a lot of others are any template, then more of the same, probably. Which isn’t bad, but I'm not particularly excited by that. Those guys' deaths are tragic but for different reasons. It was super sad when Brecker died. I remember we were at the IAJE conference in New York and somebody came into a conference room I was in and announced it to everybody. And it was sad. And people are like, “Oh, it's just so sad that we're losing all this potential music.” I'm thinking, “Man, what does one person have to do?” I mean, this guy has given you more hours of brilliant music to listen to than almost anybody. I was sad for his family more than anything because they’re losing an important person to them. From a musical standpoint, I'm happy that he existed for so long and did so much in that time. But he probably wasn’t going to reinvent the saxophone a second time.

Chris: No.

SkyDeck: There were 50 Wayne Shorter tunes you could have chosen from and there were probably three times that many that you really could have chosen from, that you were either excited about or really knew intimately. So what are some moments in the nine tunes you recorded that make you think, “This is why we're playing this guy's tunes, and this is why he is the person that he is?” Imagine you're looking at the lead sheet and you're showing it to student and saying, “Check this shit out.”

Chris: It's so hard to pin down, I'll tell you first of all, how those tunes got chosen. They were really ones that I thought I could do something different with. For tunes where, “I don't have a vision for what I would like to do with that,” I didn't see much point. I did transcriptions of both “Children of the Night” and “This is for Albert.” I got the shout chorus and everything, but I wasn't interested in recording those because they’re just straight transcriptions from the records. For this record, I wanted to have a "take" on everything. In most cases, that manifested itself as either a groove change or a meter change. There are subtle harmonic changes throughout, but mostly it was one of those two things. And those things came about by singing the tunes over in my head and  hitting upon different ways of thinking about the melodies. 

SkyDeck: How much of that is a composer's mentality on your part? I’d guess a majority of the time, the approach would be the opposite. “We're going to play these tunes the way they were played because that's the way they were meant to be played.” And doing that is safer choice.

And if you're going to write a big band chart on any of those tunes, which you said you have on a couple of them, a “composer/arranger,” as opposed to an “arranger,” is going to try to do it. 

An easy example is Mark Taylor’s educational chart on “Stolen Moments,” where it's as similar to the recording as possible. If you’re writing for a bunch of kids, it might make sense to have it relate to the original recording from an educational standpoint. He even grabs a couple of the motives from the solos to make solo backgrounds. 

Chris: Yeah, as much as anything, in reverence to Wayne and out of respect for his music, I'm not going to do what he did any better than he did it. So I want to try to add something to it, as a gesture of admiration. I want to try to take it someplace else. I suppose some people could look at it and say the exact opposite. “Oh, you've defiled the work of this great master. How dare you?” But I don't worry much about those people.

But specific moments: I love the way the changes in "Deluge" work. Specifically, I love the way the second half works. That gesture that he uses in the first eight bars, he does that all over. We'll have a phrygian sound going to a lydian sound. So you're basically just mining that diatonic thing and playing the minor pentatonic over it. And in fact, that solo on "Deluge," on the record, he plays that E-flat minor pentatonic for the first two choruses, even through the second eight bars where it doesn't technically fit, but he just establishes that sound so clearly and he just rides that out. And then, at the start, I think it's the first note of the third chorus, he plays the 9th on that minor chord and it's like, “Wow, where did that come from?” It's this bit of freshness, like… do you know Peter Apfelbaum?

SkyDeck: Sure.

Chris: Yeah, he came out as a guest artist for Tallcorn [Jazz Festival] one year, and he talked about that in his workshop, about keeping a note or two in reserve, keeping something in your back pocket to bring out as a surprise.

And that's one of the greatest examples of that I've ever heard in recorded music. Now, that speaks more to what he played on it, more so than the form itself. But I love the fact that that form can be looked at in a couple of different ways. You can play it really simply, or you can really dig in even on those first two sounds, even on that E-flat minor to E lydian sound. You can treat it as an E-flat pentatonic, or you can actually play over those two different sounds. And you can play something other than a phrygian sound over the E-flat. And that's interesting to me, the fact that you have more options.

It's always kind of been intriguing to me that in other contexts, Wayne would reinterpret a minor chord a bunch of different ways over the course of the tune. It wasn't always like you said, “You should know as a composer what sound you're going to associate with each harmony in the tune. But Wayne wouldn't do that. He would take a minor chord and he might play it dorian for a while, and then maybe in the next chorus he's going to play as phrygian. Maybe the next chorus is going to be melodic minor. He just would be real loose with how he interpreted that sound. And that sort of malleability really draws me to his music as well. Now, I'm not able always to recreate that, but I admire it for sure, and it's maybe another hurdle for me to cross. But I like those moments that are kind of simple like that, where you just have a couple of sounds, but you have a lot of different places it can go.

New Ju Ju picture copy_edited.jpg

SkyDeck: I agree with that. The other side of the thinking is that when you have great players to work with, you can pass more responsibility and decision-making their way. You do that to some extent as a jazz writer regardless. 


I know you're one of those guys who would rather make a record with the people in your orbit rather than hire a bunch of ringers and, fortunately, you've got exceptional musicians around you. But for each one of those players on all those instruments, there were other options. So what does each one of these musicians bring to this situation that makes them the right choice?

Chris: I'm going to preface this with a kind of food analogy. First of all, because I'm starving, but second, because I learned about this way – and forgive me, you've probably known about this forever – but I learned about this way of making even the most basic pasta dish taste a million times better. First of all, you always salt the water when you boil the pasta, and then you stop boiling it before you reach the al dente stage. You take like two or three ladles of the pasta water out, and then you drain the pasta. You then put the pasta back in the pan, with the sauce, and add some of the pasta water and get that all to marry together. And the way it all comes together is so much better than if you do the components separately and then throw them all together after the fact. It's the same thing with this band. We're all marinating in that same soup.

Mike, Alex and Anthony, and Bob Dunn and Josh and I play together all the time. Jon's the outlier, although Jon also plays with Mike and me in the Iowa Jazz Composers Orchestra. So we're really well acquainted with his playing as well. And Mike also plays in Jon’s quintet. So we're trying to bring him into our orbit as much as we can. The fact that we've got some background, I think, makes things come together more quickly. And with the three horn players, we tend to think as one because we play together so much. So that's a lot of it on the ensemble side. 

We're just all feeling things together, which is great. The fact that we're all Midwesterners too, at least currently. Alex, of course, is from St. Petersburg. Hardly a Midwesterner, but now he is. Josh is from Oregon but now transplanted. Anthony is from Arkasas, but now is a Midwesterner. And we're so grateful that they're willing to sort of get into that midwestern aesthetic.

SkyDeck: And Anthony’s wife is from Iowa though. He's been indoctrinated for longer than he's even lived there, I'm sure. He also paid some harsh dues living in North Dakota teaching at my old undergrad school.

Chris: Ha, that's true. So that idea that nobody has any ego, nobody has any sense of any sort of personal importance or agenda or anything. We're all just coming together to make the product sound better. So that's the starting point. 

And as far as what people are bringing to the table, looking at the rhythm section to start with, there's not a drummer I can think of that I'd rather play hard bop music with than Josh. He just has such a sense of that style. It's in his tuning, it's in his touch, it's in his vocabulary of, you know? The vocabulary is kind of like…a lot of guys get that, but they don't get that sound. But he has a way of drawing that sound out of the instrument, which I really admire.


He makes good decisions. He's listening all the time. He knows how to play, follow a soloist, and interact in a way that's not obtrusive. But at the same time, he kind of prods. He throws out ideas and a little bits of challenge once in a while to the soloists. I really dig that he'll sometimes do things on the heads where he's superimposing other shit that kind of reminds you of the way Tony Williams or Peter Erskine played. Like if my arrangement’s in three, there are places where Josh is superimposing the four over the top of that. And it energizes things in a certain way. That’s what Josh brings to the table.

Alex is a monster bass player. He’s got such great command of that instrument that he's almost like another frontline player. A lot of his basslines are super melodic now. For a lot of the written parts, especially with the odd meter stuff, I actually wrote out the bass lines as starting points. Sometimes he hangs pretty close to those and other times not. Certainly in the improvisation sections, there's less of that, but he's got a really strong melodic sense, which I appreciate. You may or may not know this, but in South African jazz, the bass assumes much more of a melodic role than it does in American jazz. When I lived there, I got very used to that sound. I love it when a bass player will move way up the neck and play active lines in and around the ensemble. Alex is super comfortable doing that. 

Bob Dunn is just my closest personal friend in the world. He's just a sweetheart and that just comes out in everything he does. His honesty and humanity is such a big part of him. There's a sincerity about his playing that I really adore. 

Mike is just a genius. There's just not a single thing musically that he can't do, you know? He has a way, kind of like Wayne, of pulling bits and pieces out of the melody and using those to construct his solo. That's always intriguing to me, and I try to model what I'm doing on that approach with this band. That approach really speaks to me and Mike's a real master at that. He also is really good at reinterpreting what's going on harmonically and superimposing things in a fearless way. I don't know, maybe he always does know where he's going to land, but sometimes you get the feeling like he's just got balls of steel and he knows he's going to get to a landing spot. And then he just makes it happen. I really admire that sense of fearlessness. I just love it. 

And then Anthony. This is cliché, but the trombone is just a soulful instrument anyway, and he's just one of the most soulful trombone players I know of. He just has such perfect command over the instrument. He can play absolutely anything in any range and make it sound great. It could be the highest, most ridiculous thing and he makes it sound effortless. He can play at any dynamic up there. And some of this stuff, if you're arranging in those “Blue Note” sort of voicings, sometimes the trombone is going to get pretty high. And it isn't always supposed to be super loud. He's able to control all of that really well, plays beautifully in tune, and is hyper responsive to dynamics. He listens across the ensemble. The horns really do breathe as one, dynamically, and that's owing so much to Anthony’s playing. 

John just has a beautiful lyrical sense with how he plays melodies and again, he's a compelling soloist. He plays something surprising every time I hear him. There's a sense I have: I know we're never going to get through a gig without there being at least one moment where I kind of go, “Wow! I was not expecting that.”

Playing in this band is inspiring to me and it has been inspiring me to make more music, book more gigs, and practice. Sometimes I feel like the Miles Davis in this group, like I'm the guy that doesn't really quite keep up, so I want to just stay on the front edge and make sure that they don't start thinking, “Yeah, whatever old man. We're going to leave you in the dust.” 

SkyDeck: Yeah, well, I'm not sure that's happening. I don't think you have to worry about that. I agree though that the ensemble horn playing is just outstanding on this whole thing. It think it’s a real…I’m not sure that calling it an achievement is the exact word. To say it's an achievement actually makes it sound more unlikely than it was. But you picked the right people.

Chris: Yeah, for sure.

SkyDeck: It's the reality.

Chris: I kind of take it as a given. It's got to be, right? 

SkyDeck: You certainly want it to be, but I don't think it’s at all universal. But it is a feature or a massively positive thing about this record because the horn section is gorgeous. 

Chris: Well, thanks. And some would say, “Hey, knucklehead! There are trumpet players who are not 250 miles away. You probably could work a lot more as a band if you got somebody closer, but I would rather not do it than do it without Jon, so he's the guy. There are guys in Des Moines who probably could play the book really well, but it wouldn't be the same.

SkyDeck: Sweet. Yeah, I like the record a lot, man. I think you can be really proud of it.

Chris: Well, thank you. Yeah, I'm just hoping to just play some gigs, man, write some more. I'm going to dig into Schizophrenia here pretty soon and maybe do a couple of arrangements from that. If I can figure out the biggest stumbling block for me with things that already have three horns on it is like, I don't want to disturb what's there too much. It's hard to make an imprint without taking it some place it doesn't really feel comfortable going. Maybe I just don't know that record well enough yet.

SkyDeck: Or maybe you know it too well. I think sometimes that's the case. Like, you'd be better off not knowing it. "Here are some melodies and here's a melody and a chord progression. For a tune you don't know. Don't listen to shit, just write something." And sometimes your level of anxiety about it would be diminished. 

Chris: Well, funny you mentioned that. I had in mind one time to do a big band arrangement of that Harold Arlen tune, “Get Happy,” and the whole thing was kind of inspired by, to me, “Get Happy!” always felt like a command. “Well, what if I don't want to?” So what would that tune sound like if I was intentionally not trying to “get happy?” I transcribed the melody and didn't transcribe the chords. I just decided I was going to completely reharmonize this without any knowledge of what the original chords were, and it ended up going in a different direction. I think it's one of the most satisfying arrangements I've ever done just because it owes very little to the original. 

SkyDeck: Well, right. One of the things we look at in classes are the number jazz arranging textbooks that address reharmonization and say you should do it sparingly? “You should add little bits of color here and there, you should understand the intent of the piece, and you should only make a change when you think it's augmenting what was originally there…but you shouldn't in any way destroy the intent of the tune.” Okay, all that shit. And fair enough. And then Jim McNeely “arranges” in the “Wee Small Hours of the Morning.” I did an example reharmonization on “Georgia” which takes that same concept where the melody is in F but all the bass/root notes move down a whole step. And now the tune is in E flat but the melody is still in F. And then you add new chord qualities to them that match the new melody. So everything that was a chord tone is now an extension because it's just moved by a whole step. So, it all depends on the context, doesn't it? If you write something on a famous melody, that gives you a connection with some part of the audience, at least, right? 

So the idea that you would say that with that limited amount of context just seems shortsighted. And I know, “Okay, write a chart for the Basie band and Sinatra” or something. You don’t want to get immediately fired because you don’t understand the job. And in some contexts, jazz is like film music in that way. It's very practical. Somebody else often has the final say. If you're Dave Wolpe and writing for a military band and you’ve got to knock out two charts a week or whatever, you can't say, “I've been pontificating about the spiritual nature of life and the universe, and whatever, for the last six months at the coffee shop, and now I will write a composition.” They're like, "You're fired. That's not the way that gig works." Again, context.


Chris: Wayne Shorter certainly worked in a variety of situations with varying degrees of challenge. 

SkyDeck: Congratulations on a great project and we'll look forward to a new set of Wayne's tunes reimagined.

bottom of page