One year ago, in March 2023, we lost one of the greatest jazz musicians and composers ever: Wayne Shorter. He had a career that lasted over 60 years: starting out with the classic bebop pioneers in the 1950s, seeing the creation of modern jazz alongside John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Art Blakey, forging his own path of unique and groundbreaking music, and mentoring countless young musicians who have gone on to greatness themselves.

When he died, he left behind a breathtaking book of compositions for ensembles, from jazz quartet to full orchestra.

Starting Thursday night, the Boston Symphony Orchestra will present an all-Shorter program, with more living legends performing his work. Terri Lyne Carrington will be on the drums, Dayna Stephens on the saxophone, Leo Genovese on piano, and esperanza spalding on vocals and bass.

Spalding joined GBH’s All Things Considered host Arun Rath to discuss the upcoming performances dedicated to Shorter’s legacy. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the conversation.

Arun Rath: One of the things that was so hard about losing Wayne Shorter was that we didn’t just lose a living legend — we lost a living legend who was still actively turning out deep, profound new work. Then, conversely, what’s so wonderful about this program you’re putting on is that it picks up right where he left off with these big orchestral, symphonic pieces. I’d like to start there because you worked with Wayne Shorter on his opera, ...(Iphigenia), which we’ll hear some of. Tell us about that.

Esperanza spalding: I mean, I want to clarify what “worked on with” means. He had a big vision. He had a very radical perspective on this character and what she represented. Since he was 19, he had wanted to write an opera. He shared about how many of the pieces he composed had originally been part of that opera he had started to write when he was really, really young.

My role was like a doula and an usher — just trying to really hear him out. It doesn’t take much inviting for Wayne to tell you all about what’s on his mind, but [my role] was to hear out what the vision was and try to wrangle up the support he needed to do his project his way.

Then, along the way, I wanted to see it happen and support this person who I love and revere so much. He enlisted me to be the librettist. That was not my original desire or intention, and all of that hesitation was affirmed by just what a hair-raising, difficult journey that was. But I’m grateful that he had that trust in me. Towards the end, he convinced me to perform in it, which also was not supposed to happen.

I think what I want to say is that, with Wayne, it was pouring from his being. I did get to support with placing language and organizing all the things he had written — he wrote way more music than what ended up in the opera. It’s hard to describe because it was an eight-year project. It’s hard to recap what that time was.

A woman passionately sings into a microphone while playing the bass
Esperanza spalding performs on stage at the 2021 DVF Awards at Opera Garnier on November 17, 2021 in Paris, France.
Edward Berthelot/Getty Images For Diane Von Furst Getty Images Europe

Rath: I’m getting chills hearing you talk about this. I had no idea it went so far back and so deep. Tell us about that story. What was Wayne’s take on this myth, which you said was an alternative kind of take?

Spalding: To me, it was a radical take because he was perceiving this figure, this being, that was nowhere to be found in the description of the story. But he perceived Iphigenia as the character that couldn’t be written because of the time [in which] she was being written about.

He interpreted Euripides as going as far as he could go, in his time, so that he wouldn’t be attacked and killed — the way Socrates was. That was Wayne’s overarching perspective. He kept talking about this figure who is neither a tragic protagonist nor a comedic protagonist, who was operating outside of the militaristic paradigm and breaking through all of the limited thinking of that time to be this representative of what the feminine is, what the feminine brings.

[There are] so many other things that he said about her, and I — doing my due diligence to support the project — started reading every translation I could get my hands on. Reading about what different scholars would say about who she is and what she represents. I was not finding that character.

And then I had to accept: “I think he’s tuning into something that couldn’t have ever been written because it was always predominantly male writers projecting onto the symbolism of this figure.” My goal, then, was to try to pull her directly out of the story and find out what story she had to tell on her own. That’s when she really started to come to life. I started to see, back in the stories, some of what Wayne had seen that was pointing toward this hidden figure.

Rath: Clearly, that’s why he chose you for this. Tell us about what we're going to hear, or what parts of it we'll hear. These excerpts are only for the March 21 and 23 concerts.

Spalding: Well, it’d be hard to edit [down] any of Wayne’s compositions — they’re such stories, you know? What we’re going to offer is a suite that Clark Rundell edited from — I should clarify — is an hour-and-a-half opera. Not easy to cut down.

Rath: Clark Rundell, who’s conducting these performances?

Spalding: Yes, exactly. So we’ll hear mostly the themes played by the orchestra and our ensemble — our “jazz” ensemble. There will be three vocal excerpts from three different characters. One of the Iphigenias, who is the first person to be woken up, gets the sense that she’s stuck in a myth. We’ll hear that more operatically sung excerpt.

Then, we’ll hear the voice of the usher, who is a fill-in for the goddess Artemis. She’s in disguise in the theater, keeping an eye on how this finally plays out in all her efforts to get the attention of the Iphigenias and make them realize that they’re in a myth being staged as an opera.

Then, we’ll hear the voice of [an] Iphigenia we found and are exploring, who starts to find her own voice, despite what she’s been cast as in this myth.

Rath: We also hear — as reflected in this program — that in a lot of his late work, it seemed like Wayne Shorter reached for the orchestra more frequently. There’s this piece you’ll be playing that’ll be on the bill, Gaia, for jazz quartet and orchestra. Could you talk a little bit about why you think he was reaching for that orchestral feeling, and what it’s like mixing jazz quartet with orchestra?

“Wayne was down there in the trenches, too — in the allegorical, literal and metaphorical sense — studying orchestration since he was a teenager.”
esperanza spalding

Spalding: Everything you hear in the orchestra — except for “Causeways,” which Clark Rundell arranged — was orchestrated by Wayne. He wrote every note by hand in pen, on paper. He didn’t use a computer. With every note, he thought about what he wanted that note to offer to the player. I mean, literally, the notes — there’s a lot of notes in this music. The level of intentionality is mind-exploding.

There’d be, let’s say, a flute flurry, with a bunch of 32nd notes. He writes every single one with a ruler to make sure that the length of the stem is correct in relationship to the other ones. Depending on what that phrase is about, he’s putting its intention into every single note and the writing of every note head and stem. That feels important to note for when you hear this work.

To your original question — it’s not that he reached for the orchestra later in life. He started studying composition and orchestration when he was in college, back in the 1950s, I think. Then, he got drafted. He’s talked about being in basic training in the trenches with, I think, Gil Evans — or was it Gunther Schuller? I don’t remember — and having their Cecil Forsyth book of arranging in their shirts.

It contextualizes the level of that generation’s passion to learning this music and being able to orchestrate. Wayne was down there in the trenches, too — in the allegorical, literal and metaphorical sense — studying orchestration since he was a teenager.

From what I understand, Emil Kang — who’s now with the Mellon Foundation — was the first person to give Wayne a commission that was robust enough for him to write for an orchestra, and really spearheaded the support Wayne needed to express that dimension of himself that had always been there.

You hear it start to come out on “High Life” because — as he would say — he just had the time. You hear it coming out on “Atlantis” and on “Phantom Navigator.” You hear this person who clearly is thinking with the orchestral arrangement sense and is working with whatever tools he has available. All that happened [was that] he was given the tool of the orchestra, and he knew exactly what to do. He’d been studying it his whole life.

“I know I’m biased because I love this man to the moon and back — but everyone I know who has seen this particular program or has heard his symphonic work live is beyond speechless.”
esperanza spalding

Rath: Young listeners, buy all those records that she just mentioned. I could spend all day talking with you about Wayne Shorter. Thank you so much for sharing this, and for this amazing program.

Spalding: Thank you. Thanks for shouting it out. It’s really some of the most — I mean, I know I’m biased because I love this man to the moon and back — but everyone I know who has seen this particular program or has heard his symphonic work live is beyond speechless. You’ve never heard anything even closely like it.

And there’s the dimension of the jazz ensemble weaving through it, compositionally altering it with their improvisation is just... He was a genius. That word is maybe thrown around, but when you feel this work, you feel that he’s a genius because of what the music can make you feel and imagine.

I really encourage people to get a dose of it, because it’s rare.