Jazz virtuoso Wayne Shorter explores the universe at SLAC

Saxophonist Wayne Shorter, fifth from left, with his fellow jazz and cosmology lovers at the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology.

Grammy-winning jazz legend and sax virtuoso WAYNE SHORTER took a few hours off recently from a busy weekend of sold-out shows at the SFJazz Center in San Francisco to indulge in his second love – the cosmos. In fact, all four members of the Wayne Shorter Quartet left a rainy Saturday afternoon behind to take an impromptu tour of the universe, courtesy of jazz fans TOM ABEL and RISA WECHSLER, who are Stanford professors of physics and astrophysicists at Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology (KIPAC) at Stanford’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory.

“I heard through some connections that Wayne Shorter is a big fan of astronomy, and that one of his inspirations for his jazz compositions and improvisations is the universe,” Wechsler said. “Tom and I thought it would be great to bring together a jazz legend who visualizes the universe through his music with the scientists who visualize the universe through computer simulations.”

Abel’s and Wechsler’s expertise lies in computational astrophysics – they figure out how the universe works by building computer models of it and comparing the models to what we see in the cosmos around us. That sounds straightforward, but it’s a gargantuan effort. They’re exploring vast stretches of time and space from the Big Bang to now in an effort to explain how all the matter and energy in the universe evolved over nearly 14 billion years from an amorphous, almost featureless blob to the universe we see today.

As part of this effort, the scientists and their colleagues often render their models as gorgeous 3-D movies of galaxies embedded in ghostly webs of dark matter, supernova explosions blasting dust and gas into the surrounding void, or the wild whirlpools of matter surrounding black holes, to name only a few.

Shorter was thrilled to accept their invitation, Wechsler said. Accompanied by his wife CAROLINA, band mates DANILO PEREZ, JOHN PATITUCCI and BRIAN BLADES, Blades’ wife LURAH, and band manager ROBERT GRIFFIN settled into seats at the KIPAC Viz Lab and donned 3-D glasses, the nerd version of cool shades, for more than an hour of concentrated inspiration.

All the simulations proved irresistible to Shorter, but he was especially interested in the black hole simulation – after winning a Grammy this year for “Best Improvised Jazz Solo” for his work on a track called Orbits, Shorter said he’s working on another piece called Event Horizon and he wants the music to accurately express what’s happening at that border between the known and the unknowable.

The simulations were accompanied by a wide-ranging discussion of astrophysics, jazz and where the two intersect. Abel’s description of a research team working together to push the boundaries of science drew knowing nods and smiles from all the band members, while a discussion of how orbits of the planetary kind remain stable drew a comment from Blades: “It’s a groove!”

The musicians channeled some of their inspiration straight back to their fans at their SFJazz concert that night. “It was a fantastic show,” Wechsler said. “A few of the band members said they were so inspired they saw dark matter while they were playing!”

“I was completely blown away by their performance,” Abel said. “The whole experience is still with me and is certainly among the highlights of my entire life.”

BY LORI ANN WHITE, SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory