(The Making Of GRAMMY-Winning Recordings … series presents firsthand accounts of the creative process behind some of music's biggest recordings. The series' current installments present in-depth insight and details about recordings that won 56th GRAMMY Awards.)
(As told to Don Heckman)
"Orbits" goes way back. As far as the '60s. I wrote the original version, called it "Orbits," and first recorded it in 1967 with Miles Davis [for his album] Miles Smiles. After that, we recorded it with a larger ensemble with woodwinds in 2003 on an album called Alegria, which also won a GRAMMY.
The whole album had a spontaneous [feel]. In fact, every step was a surprise because the "Orbits" from [2013's] Without A Net that won the GRAMMY was done without any rehearsal. And I think that's where the world is at today. We have to learn how to negotiate the unexpected. Everyone has to learn how to break free [from] any kind of handcuffs [or] images of grandeur. Both music and life should be an adventure, not a job.
We were working at Yoshi's in San Francisco before "Orbits" came out on Without A Net and Vonetta McGee, the actress, was there. I'd known her since she was 16. She came backstage and said, "You know, these guys are playing without a net." And later on, when we were performing in North Carolina for a fundraiser, we were having dinner at a restaurant, with [a professor]. And I mentioned the phrase again, "without a net." And he said "What does that mean?" And I said, "It means that it isn't important what we play, it's how we play it."
But I was really surprised when "Orbits" won the GRAMMY. When something like this happens, you don't want to go back and second guess yourself. Like starting to think that you should have done this, or you should have done that. Which [reminds] me that one of the first things we were asked when I was in Japan with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers back in the '60s was, "What is originality? What is the creative process?" And I said that I think the creative process is the courage to take leaps into the unknown. To take chances. Deal with the unfamiliar and the unexpected. Risk removing yourself from [your] comfort zone.
And it takes a lot of work along the way to do that. They used to say, "Hey, Jackson Pollock is just throwing stuff at the canvas. That's not creative." And my response was, "Hey, how he was applying it to the canvas [and] how he was doing it is what matters." And each how he did was different. Which [reminds] me of what Miles used to say: "If you don't have anything to say when you play, don't play."
The way I look at it — at "Orbits" or anything else I've done — is that the creative process always has an element of surprise. And even if the surprise is ignored, or the surprise is not recognized by the recipient, it's there anyway. It's like when it's dark outside and raining, but the sun is still there, still shining.
(At the 56th GRAMMY Awards, Wayne Shorter won for Best Improvised Jazz Solo for "Orbits." The song, which was previously recorded and released on Miles Davis' 1967 album Miles Smiles, is featured on Shorter's 2013 album Without A Net, which peaked at No. 2 on Billboard's Jazz Albums chart. Shorter has won nine prior GRAMMY Awards, including those as part of the Wayne Shorter Quartet and Weather Report.)
(Don Heckman has been writing about jazz and other music for five decades in The New York Times,Los Angeles Times, Jazz Times, Down Beat, Metronome, High Fidelity, and his personal blog, the International Review of Music.)