NEW YORK — At age 80, Wayne Shorter isn't ready to rest on his reputation as one of the greatest composers in jazz history. Instead, whenever he performs the saxophonist can't resist the urge to "de-compose" his works and create something anew.
"Jazz to me is something that doesn't have to sound like jazz," said Shorter, speaking by telephone from his home in the Hollywood Hills. "The word 'jazz' means I dare you. I dare you to go beyond what you are. You have to go beyond your comfort zone, to break out of the box. ... You're talking about not just music, you're talking about life."
Shorter, who celebrated his birthday with several concerts in August, is still going strong. He was a quadruple winner in this year's Downbeat magazine critics poll, topping the categories for Jazz Artist, Jazz Album, Jazz Group and Soprano Saxophone. Earlier this year, he was awarded the UNESCO Medal of the Five Continents during International Jazz Day celebrations in Istanbul, Turkey, and last month the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz honored him with its Lifetime Achievement Award.
"You could say that he's at the peak of his game because he's so full of creative vitality and potential at the age of 80, but how could anybody know Wayne Shorter's peak," said pianist Herbie Hancock, Shorter's long-time friend, musical collaborator and fellow Buddhist. Hancock turned up to play duets with Shorter at birthday celebrations at the Newport Jazz Festival and Hollywood Bowl.
"I get the feeling that many people feel that when they reach a certain age they just want to pull away from things and rest," Hancock said, "but the great joy of living is that there is no age where one needs to turn off the creative juices and Wayne is showing that."
Hancock said he first played with Shorter in 1961 on trumpeter Donald Byrd's album "Free Form." Three years later they members of Miles Davis' groundbreaking second classic quintet with bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams.
Davis encouraged his musicians to bring in their compositions to record, but Shorter's were the only ones the trumpeter didn't change in the studio, Hancock said. These included such tunes as "E.S.P.," ''Nefertiti" and "Footprints" that became modern jazz standards.
Hancock said he was equally amazed by Shorter's skills as a saxophonist and improviser.
"When Wayne plays either the tenor or soprano, you don't hear the tenor and the soprano, you hear Wayne," Hancock said.
Shorter said he's never believed in "maintaining a tradition for the tradition's sake," which is why his compositions embrace multiple styles — bebop, modal, jazz-rock fusion, film music, classical, and free improvisation. He also eschews the "illusionary" pursuit of financial gratification — choosing to release records on his own timetable.
Earlier this year, Shorter released his first new album in eight years, "Without a Net." It marked his return after 43 years to the Blue Note label, where from 1964-70 he recorded a series of albums, including "Night Dreamer," ''Juju," and "Speak No Evil," with complex but beautifully lyrical tunes that established his reputation as a jazz composer.
The CD — whose title was inspired by an observation the late actress Vonetta McGee made after hearing his band perform at Yoshi's club in San Francisco — mostly consists of live performances from the 2011 European tour of his quartet with bassist John Patitucci, drummer Brian Blade and pianist Danilo Perez.
Shorter said for him "no piece of music is ever finished." On the CD, the quartet completely reimagines "Orbits," originally recorded by Davis' quintet in 1966 for the "Miles Smiles" album, and "Plaza Real," from the 1983 album "Procession" by Weather Report, his landmark jazz-rock fusion band. Shorter, an avid cinema buff, also offers an extended other worldly version of the obscure movie theme, "Flying Down to Rio," from the 1933 film that first paired Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. The CD includes six new Shorter compositions, most notably the 23-minute tone poem "Pegasus."
Shorter, who studied composition at NYU, is getting more opportunities to write large-form pieces that combine improvisations with written music played by classical orchestras. Earlier this year, he performed with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra — with a recording to be released next year — and premiered a 26-minute piece "Gaia" with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, enlisting Esperanza Spalding to write the libretto and sing.
Spalding said it was not only exciting and lots of fun to share the stage with "my favorite musician on Planet Earth," but also a learning experience. Shorter encouraged her to rewrite her vocal part for subsequent performances of "Gaia."
"For me that feels really liberating and kind of scary because we get attached to the work we do," said Spalding, who covered Shorter's "Endangered Species" on her Grammy-winning CD "Radio Music Society. "It stretched me in directions that I've never thought I would go."
With his quartet, Shorter insists on performing without rehearsals or a set list so there's nothing inhibiting spontaneous composition. He calls the first segment of each performance "Zero Gravity" — also the title of an upcoming documentary about his life — where the musicians "try not to be attached to something that keeps us handcuffed and anchored."
Bassist Patitucci said the quartet is "the only long-standing group absolutely dedicated to playing his music" that Shorter's ever had and has become like a close-knit family after playing together since 2000.
"At this age of 80, it's a joyful time," Shorter said. "If there's an obstacle I'm glad. The bigger the obstacle the bigger the benefit because you need resistance like an airplane needs resistance to take off."