I walked into the SF Jazz Center to see the Wayne Shorter Quartet whistling “Tom Thumb” from Mr. Shorter’s 1967 release Schizophrenia. I mean, why not whistle “Tom Thumb”? However, I held no expectation that the Quartet would play this venerable classic or any other venerable classic from Maestro Shorter’s long and distinguished career. They did not disappoint. Everything played was fresh and new from a jazz legend who has no time for reminiscing. And why should he? At 82, Wayne Shorter continues to push boundaries and explore new sides and shades of his music.
Had I done my homework, I would have learned that this quartet, consisting of Danilo Perez on piano, John Patitucci on bass, Brian Blade on drums, and the Maestro on tenor and soprano sax, have been playing together since 2003. Similarly, I would have known what to expect from the show had I listened to their latest release Without A Net (after which the concert was named) from 2013. But it was more fun going in cold, prepared for anything.
The music seemed to me a meditation. I compared the beginning of their first piece to an alap, the slow introduction of a raga in a classical Indian recital. No fix rhythm or theme, more an exploration of textures, moods, emotions. It pulsated, slow to fast then back again, each pulsation venturing further. Finally, at the end of one crescendo, all the musicians went there, tearing the music apart in a burst of awesome energy. None more so than Brian Blade on the drums. His sticks glided across the symbols and tom-toms, his bass drum pounded merciless. One of his tom-toms couldn’t take it, though, and collapsed. Didn’t matter. He played it anyway as it rolled sideways on the ground. We in the audience went wild, as indeed did his colleagues on stage, playing harder than ever. Moments like this make live jazz worth the price of the ticket.
They announced none of the pieces from stage. However on the album from which they were taken, some tracks were augmented by the addition of the Imani Winds quintet. This group did not join them at SF Jazz, but the Quartet nonetheless proved more than capable of exploring the music without the additional musicians. Indeed, Mr. Shorter was a fount of ideas, playing off his colleagues and leading their extended flights. He also knew when the sit back and let them go on their own.
If the Wayne Shorter Quartet plays in your area, go see them. Run, don’t walk. Their musical explorations will stay with you for a long time. Short of that, check out Without A Net. I plan to listen to it very closely in the weeks ahead.
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