Wayne Shorter Quartet review: A pleasant surprise
March 24, 2014
"Whoa!" "Oh, my God!" and other shouts and whistles of joy and amazement occur frequently during performances by the Wayne Shorter Quartet, emanating from both the audience and the musicians themselves.
The leader’s soprano saxophone darts here and dashes there, like a firefly in rapid night flight, while pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade shift swinging gears in spur-of-the-moment improvised empathy with their venerable boss.
"Without a Net," the title of Shorter’s current CD, is an apt way of describing the group’s approach to jazz. The four men never play the same song - most of them written by the saxophonist, some dating to his days with Miles Davis a half century ago, others newly composed - the same way twice, and they never practice as a unit.
“How can you rehearse the unknown?” Perez remembers Shorter responding when he inquired about rehearsing upon joining the band 15 years ago.
Shorter, who heads to SFJazz this week for four days of performances, sometimes hands the musicians scores in hotel lobbies before gigs, according to Blades, and he, Perez and Patitucci look them over quickly during sound-checks, then set them aside.
There are no written drum parts, however. “I’m burdened with that responsibility,” Blades says of creating his own patterns, “but I’m thankful for it.”
"The written stuff is more like a diving board to what we call the vast unknown that’s all around us," Shorter, 80, explains by phone from his Southern California home. "We try to use anything that’s written as a spearhead to negotiate the unexpected, which I think the whole world of humankind is facing right now so that we can have a new way of dialoguing based on being free of comfort zones in life and also developing the courage to be fearless and not be afraid of the unexpected and the unknown. To do this, you’ve got to be creative. That’s what the music is trying to do, without talking about the technical aspects of it."
Perez uses a similar analogy. “We have learned the language of Wayne’s world, harmonically and melodically, and then it’s like throwing yourself in a pool and not knowing if there’s going to be water in it,” says the Panama-born pianist. “It’s a complete adventure.”
A force since 1959
Born and raised in Newark, N.J., Shorter has been a formidable force in jazz since joining Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers in 1959. He remained with the drummer’s group until 1963 and served as its musical director. He was with Davis from 1964 to 1970 and revitalized the trumpeter’s repertoire with such compositions as “E.S.P.,” “Footprints,” “Masqualero,” “Nefertiti” and “Prince of Darkness.”
From 1971 to 1985 he co-led the fusion band Weather Report with keyboardist Joe Zawinul. Shorter also has recorded numerous albums under his own name since 1959 and has collaborated over the years with such artists as Freddie Hubbard, Dexter Gordon, Carlos Santana, Joni Mitchell, Steely Dan and the Rolling Stones.
Shorter was voted “New Star Saxophonist” in the Down Beat readers’ poll in 1962 and for the past 33 years has been a consistent winner in the magazine’s readers’ and critics’ polls. Last August, he swept the readers’ poll in the jazz artist, jazz group, jazz album and soprano saxophone categories. Four months later, in the critics’ poll, he topped those four categories, as well as a fifth as composer. And he has won 10 Grammy Awards since 1979.
The Wayne Shorter Quartet does rehearse, however, prior to working with classical ensembles. “Without a Net” includes a 23-minute treatment of his composition “Pegasus” recorded with the four-member Imani Winds, and the band recorded it and other works last year with the 36-piece Orpheus Chamber Orchestra the day after a Carnegie Hall concert. And he has been performing a new work titled “Gaia,” on which Esperanza Spalding does the vocals, with symphony orchestras in Los Angeles, Detroit, Nashville and Washington, D.C.
Shorter, who, along with his onetime Davis band-mate Herbie Hancock and fellow saxophonist Jimmy Heath, teaches a master’s degree course at the Thelonious Monk Institute at UCLA, is constantly retooling his old compositions. They include “The Three Marias,” which he first recorded in 1985 and rearranged last year for his forthcoming album with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.
'No such thing' as finished
"To me there is no such thing as a finished piece of music, as we as human beings are not finished," he says. "When we were 5 years old, we were so many feet tall, and we grow and grow and stop at a certain height, but that’s not the end.
"We are trying to have the music say that death and tragedy are temporary, that nothing is thrown away, nothing is destroyed. Things are temporary, and we pursue the constant eternally. We try, without using pretention, to indicate the thought that there is no such thing as beginning or end."
"I was reading Stephen Hawking’s last book," Shorter adds, "and he speaks about which came first, the chicken or the egg? I liked when he says, ‘Neither.’ "
Wayne Shorter Quartet: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 4 p.m. Sunday. $35-$85. SFJazz Center, Miner Auditorium, 201 Franklin St., S.F. (866) 920-5299. www.sfjazz.org.