Wayne Shorter Quartet
Wednesday, February 9
Better than: Staying home and watching American Idol, no matter how cold it was outside.
Wayne Shorter has never been a particularly fire-breathing, get-’em-stomping-in-the-aisles saxophonist. Even in his early days with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, his solos were calmly reasoned explications of the beautiful melodies he composed. From 1965 to 1969, he stood alongside Miles Davis, deconstructing standards onstage even as they, pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter, and drummer Tony Williams created and refined a barbed and razor-sharp compositional and improvisatory language in the studio. None of that work was particularly raucous or cathartic, either.
Throughout his tenure with Davis, Shorter maintained a solo career on Blue Note, granting the blues a spacious moodiness and experimenting with lineups and arrangements. Then, as the decade changed, he turned his back on Miles and Blue Note alike, and spent most of the ’70s and ’80s co-leading the massively successful ethno-prog-funk-fusion band Weather Report, playing tricky/catchy instrumental hits that can still be heard on jazz radio today.
Wayne Shorter’s music has frequently been marked by thoughtfulness, by a seeming desire to withdraw, analyze and comment from a slight remove. Ecstasy has never been his mode; he’s always been the sort of performer whose concerts are billed as “An Evening With….”
This particular evening at Town Hall was a celebration of 10 years with his current band, including pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Patitucci, and drummer Brian Blade. Their discography is sparse: two live albums (2002’s Footprints Live! and 2005’s Beyond the Sound Barrier) and one studio disc, 2003’s Alegria, on which half the tracks featured additional horns, strings, and other adornments. But their live performances are the kind of high-wire acts that make attending big-name jazz festivals worth a jazz fan’s time, and belie the idea that veterans inevitably go soft.
The main set was a 75-minute medley. It began and built slowly, with heavy chords from Perez setting the mood. Shorter hung back at first, nestled in the curve of the grand piano’s body, listening. Patitucci seemed more concerned with establishing a counter-melody than building rhythmic momentum, and Blade’s playing, too, was all accents, with little or no traditional forward movement. It all had the feel of modern chamber music, neither swinging nor bluesy. The drummer made his move soon enough, though. He quickly revealed himself as the most aggressive of the four players (with Perez coming in a close second), erupting more than a few times with a power many rock drummers would envy and creating a thunderous, tympani-like rumble even when playing with mallets.
Shorter’s soloing, on tenor and soprano saxophones (more the latter than the former, unfortunately), was breathy and considered. He never tried to overpower, or even dominate, the band, limiting his contributions to short, discrete phrases most of the time. One early, piercingly sharp and loud note came as a total surprise; it sounded more like he was trying to clear something out of the horn than contribute to the music.
As the lengthy piece moved from one melody to the next, it started to feel like a series of semi-climaxes with no real payoff — the sound of four men feeling each other out while a paying audience sat and paid respectful witness. But around the 50-minute mark, Blade took an absolutely apocalyptic drum solo, his kick sounding like a trap door slamming shut. It not only woke up anyone inside Town Hall or down the block who might have been drifting, it provided a crescendo for the music as a whole; from there, it was a slow, tentative glide back down to earth.
The band also played a 20-minute encore that felt more tentative, like a string of missed connections and implied conclusions; there was always one member of the band who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, stop along with the others, so the music resumed. Blade spent most of the time repairing his snare drum, but when Shorter and Perez seemed done for the night (the pianist had even stood up from the bench), he started a heavy groove, luring Patitucci in, and the whole band lurched back into motion, the saxophonist glancing bemusedly at his drummer. Eventually, of course, it did all wind down again, coming to what felt like an utterly natural finish that belied all the struggles and uphill climbs that had come before.
Wayne Shorter’s thoughtful, exploratory personality has somehow been transferred to each of the members of his band. The music they make together is suspenseful, frustrating, rigorous, intellectual, and often quite beautiful, but it defies just about every rule of jazz. It doesn’t swing, but it doesn’t make a point of not swinging. Only rarely do all four members truly play together, but it never devolves into a series of duos, trios or unaccompanied solos. It’s aggressive and harsh at times, but the nominal leader never seems to truly lead — he’s not even the loudest element in the sound mix, never mind his role in the performances. The cumulative result of all these contradictions is some of the most fiercely individualistic jazz I’ve ever heard.
Critical Bias: I’ve quoted Matthew Shipp dissing this band in the Voice before, but never seen them play before tonight.
Random Notebook Dump: The twice-my-age critic seated beside me, whose name I’ll withhold out of mercy, did that beatnik finger-snapping-instead-of-clapping thing without irony.