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‘Wayne Shorter: Zero Gravity’ Review: Amazon’s Docuseries Aims Beyond Formula to Hit the High Notes

Awards, sure — over his 60-odd-year career, Wayne Shorter amassed his share of prizes and honors. But none of that conveys what a singular and visionary talent he was more powerfully than this simple fact: Miles Davis and Art Blakey, two of the greatest bandleaders in the history of jazz, fought over him.

In Wayne Shorter: Zero Gravity, director Dorsay Alavi tells his story over three roughly hourlong episodes called “portals,” a fitting nod to the Buddhism that Shorter embraced and the sci-fi and fantasy he adored. The Prime Video docuseries — which takes its streaming bow Aug. 25, on what would have been Shorter’s 90th birthday — traces the chronology of the New Jersey native’s biography, but, much more than that, it’s a chronicle of emotion, creativity and faith, tuned in to the magnitude of Shorter’s musicianship and, no less, to his playfulness and searching nonconformity.

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Alavi, who first filmed the sax giant and composer on tour in 2002, makes use of the usual talking-head setup, but she also takes chances. Line-drawing illustrations and black-and-white reenactments bring key childhood memories to the screen. Images of lotus blossoms and trippy New Age abstractions suggest the spiritual focus and expansiveness of Shorter’s music. Not all the helmer’s choices escape self-consciousness, and sometimes they’re too much or too literal, rushing to fill in the spaces between notes in ways that Shorter himself never did. But mostly Alavi’s inventiveness is in sync with her subject and his expansive approach to life and art.

And, best of all, most of the doc’s talking heads are musicians. When musicians talk about a fellow musician who inspires them, they speak a language that’s earthbound yet rarefied. In this case their inspiration is an incomparable virtuoso, and they’re such immortals as Joni Mitchell, Sonny Rollins, Ron Carter, Carlos Santana and Shorter’s dear friend and collaborator Herbie Hancock. (If the storm headed toward Southern California doesn’t interfere, Hancock will be hosting a Hollywood Bowl tribute to Shorter two days before Zero Gravity’s debut, the concert’s all-star lineup featuring many of the musicians who appear in the doc.)

When Shorter and his year-older brother, Alan, were kids in Newark, before they began playing bebop with a theatrical flair as the duo Doc Strange and Mr. Weird, they did something extraordinary: Back home after seeing a matinee at the local theater, they would replay from memory not just the movie’s dialogue but its music score as well. (Shorter’s movie love encompasses a high-low range, from The Red Shoes to The Giant Spider Invasion, the latter for intriguingly cryptic reasons.)

There’s a sweet poignancy and lilt to the brief, wordless scenes of the young boys, portrayed by actors, and that sense of soul-deep connection reverberates, later in the series, in vérité sequences of Shorter and Hancock working out an arrangement or melody. In a few words of delight and amazement, Terence Blanchard describes the uncommon psychic bond between the two men.

Dubbed the Newark Flash, Shorter joined Blakey’s hard bop Jazz Messengers when still in his 20s and soon became the group’s main composer. Blakey’s objections notwithstanding, he was eventually lured away by Davis and the free jazz experimentation of his Second Great Quintet. And in 1970 Shorter, Joe Zawinul and Miroslav Vitous formed the groundbreaking Weather Report, taking jazz-rock fusion to the stadium level. In a range of side projects and, beginning in ’77, as a core contributor to 10 Mitchell albums, Shorter’s musical explorations never ceased.

But for all his talent and confidence as a performer, composer and bandleader, Shorter was frequently overshadowed by showboats, not least his Weather Report bandmate Jaco Pastorius. Mitchell offers a captivating recollection of eavesdropping backstage at the Hollywood Bowl show that would turn out to be Davis’ last, just a month before his death at 65. She listened as the raspy-voiced Davis, on what happened to be Shorter’s birthday, advised his friend to push himself forward and claim the spotlight that was his due.

Much as his performance style was more concerned with discovery and transformation than big, overt statements, Shorter was not what you’d call a player when it came to women. Portal 2 delves into the joys, tough tests and awakenings in his personal life: marriage, fatherhood, divorce, remarriage and, in relatively quick succession, a series of devastating losses. An allergy-related reaction to a routine inoculation led to brain damage for his daughter Iska. The film handles this reality, as well as the struggles that Shorter and his wife Ana Maria faced, with admirable matter-of-factness, and there’s clear-eyed compassion in the revealing memories shared by friends of the couple. While Shorter was on the road, the girl’s seizures created a state of near-constant emergency for Ana Maria, who sometimes had to disappear; a friend’s babysitting stint could, without warning, last days. The equanimity with which Shorter’s love transcended conventional possessiveness and, later, the story of how his third wife, Carolina, came into his life are relayed without fuss, and the result is tender and vibrant.

The third installment captures Shorter in his later years, interacting with awed young fans and, less rewardingly for the viewer, with such distracting visitors to his “fun room” home office (filled with figurines of fantasy characters) as Jeff Garlin and Neil deGrasse Tyson. (Alavi is not the first documentarian to think that well-known figures from other fields add gravitas or perspective or something to an artist’s story; I lost track of the number of docs not about presidential politics that included commentary from Bill Clinton for no discernible reason.)

Especially in the superb selection of vintage performances, the material is edited with a sure rhythmic connection to the music (Don Blush, Kevin Klauber and Edward Osei-Gyimah did the cutting). And the filmmakers let Shorter’s later orchestral experiments unfold and simply fly — “beyond harmony, rhythm and melody,” as Hancock sums it up. A performance of “Gaia” with co-writer Esperanza Spalding is an absolute stunner, Shorter’s singing saxophone and her deep-velvet bass and soaring vocals reaching uncharted musical territory.

Of course there are many potentially rich chapters of Shorter’s story that remain unmentioned in Zero Gravity — his work with Steely Dan, say, or friendship with Tina Turner. But Alavi finds the right throughline for her documentary, keeping the focus on her subject’s one-off combination of childlike vitality and serious gifts. As Santana (himself the subject of an upcoming documentary, and one of this film’s executive producers) points out, “Few can play extremely fast, profoundly deep,” as Shorter did. What set him apart for Mitchell was his ability to conceive music as a multisensory experience. She could tell him, “You’re the bird,” and off he went.

Zero Gravity understands that flight. It understands that avant-garde improvisation was not only a way of making music for Shorter; it was a way of living for someone who knew that “you can’t rehearse the unknown.”

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