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Jazz Giant, Hip-Hop Under Microscope 

Bio on enigmatic Wayne Shorter; International look at rap

By most accounts, jazz giant Wayne Shorter is as enigmatic a man as one of his extraordinary tenor sax solos or complex compositions. His musical talents have kept him at the center of the jazz universe for most his four decade-old career; it seemed only his personal idiosyncrasies kept him from the public acknowledgement his music and jazz legacy deserved.

Michelle Mercer, a freelance writer and music commentator for NPR, was given unparalleled access to Shorter for her new biography, Footprints: The Life and Work of Wayne Shorter (Tarcher/Penguin, $24.95), which goes a long way toward unraveling the knot that is Wayne Shorter.

Shorter played a central role in Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers at the height of the hard bop craze in the early 60s, and later became an integral member of Miles Davis' famous second quintet in the mid-60s. He later pioneered fusion with Weather Report in the 70s, took on Brazilian music, and added his talents to the work of rock icons Joni Mitchell, Santana and Steely Dan. In the last few years, he's turned in some of his best solo records since his extraordinary Blue Note records in the 60s.

But Shorter has been notoriously elliptical in interviews, particularly about his music. As Mercer recounts:

"In the same breath he'll connect his work to an Arnold Schwarzenegger film and to the Buddhist philosophy that he's practiced for 30 years. As former bandmate Chick Corea says, "Wayne may be the one who invented the idea of thinking outside the box, "cause I don't think he ever found the box.'"

Naturally anyone expecting Mercer to provide a musical Rosette Stone into the process behind Shorter's work will be disappointed; artistic inspiration is often too simple -- "I just did it"-- for our logical minds and too complicated to put into words. So Mercer devotes equal focus to Shorter's personal life, highlighting his gradual spiritual awakening, his daughter Iska's illness, his wife's death aboard TWA 800 in 1996, and finally his return to pre-eminence in the jazz world.

Mercer's writing is crisp throughout, though there are times when Shorter's verbal tangents seem to baffle even her. But in the end, Mercer is wise enough to let Shorter have the last word on music:

"When I do interviews, they say music, music, music, music, music...and I say, no, no, no, no, no. Music is second, the human being is first. What is music for? What is anything for?"
- John Schacht

Every third piece you read about hip-hop these days mentions Eminem, and this one's not about to break ranks. Marshall Mathers' verbal dexterity is unquestioned, of course -- few rappers can master the intricate internal rhyme schemes Em brings to the table. But would anyone really care about all the other stuff if he were black? A better question: Would he sell eight million copies of every record? What is Em's role in the hip-hop world? Cultural emissary, or party crasher in a prominently African-American art form?

Another white male -- in this case, British novelist and Whitbread Award winner Patrick Neate -- wants to find out. Defining hip-hop as "the most elemental expression of contemporary America," Neate's book, Where You're At: Notes From The Frontline Of A Hip-Hop Planet (Riverhead, $14.00), is a well-intentioned look at the global spread of hip-hop and hip-hop culture disguised as a personal narrative. After describing his first encounter with a rap record in the mid-80s, Neate takes a trip to New York City, the birthplace of the genre. After meeting with folks like Definitive Jux honcho El-P, Neate comes to the startling conclusion that New York City is only one facet of the American hip-hop scene.

From here, Neate travels to exotic (for him, one imagines) climes like Japan, South Africa and Brazil to see how folks have adopted the music and made it their own. To Neate, the Japanese are mostly in love with the idea of an anti-establishment culture, even as they're buying Sean John and Rocawear by the truckloads. In Brazil, Neate finds youth there latching onto the political aspects of the music. Everywhere he travels, he finds that the music means different things to different people, whether they be black, white or any hue in between.

Why it took visits to five continents to come to this conclusion is anyone's guess. As hip-hop icon Rakim says in the song quoted in the title, "It ain't where you're from. It's where you're at."
- Timothy C. Davis

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