Wayne Shorter doesn't write songs anymore. I don't know if he writes jazz anymore either. Maybe the issue is whether or not you can call what he does 'writing'. What Wayne Shorter does, for sure, is create music.
Shorter turned 80 three months back, and he's been touring with what is being called his 80th Birthday Celebration. But his is not the case of a recognized master merely regurgitating the treasures of his prime. Though the quartet he brought to Massey Hall on November 22nd has been performing together for over a decade, Shorter’s music is as fresh and vibrant as at any time in his past. The music had the unmistakable immediacy, that forward-pulling energy of the freshly created. There's magic in such music. And it transcends easy categorization.
The concert at Toronto’s Massey Hall last Friday brought seven musicians to the stage. The opening act was ACS, a trio comprised of two veterans: Geri Allen on piano and Terry Lynn Carrington on drums, with the much younger, meteorically talented Esperanza Spalding on bass. The scarcity of female instrumentalists in jazz has long confounded me, but that's a subject for another time. Enough to say that this trio of women laid down a set with such power and mastery that I openly doubted that Shorter's follow-up could be anything but a come down. The three were a perfect demonstration of interplay, of the essential listening and responding aspects of jazz. They infused their playing with spontaneity and generosity. It was a spectacular set, raising the alertness and sensitivity of the audience to a high level of receptivity.
And somehow, impossibly, Shorter's band emerged and lifted the evening's fare to a level I could not have foreseen. In trying to come up with an adequate word for what Shorter does – and failing – the concept "impressionist" comes to mind. He is, I'm reminded, a visual artist as well as musician. He seems to – paraphrasing the words of a famous sculptor – take raw sound and shape it, mold it, sculpt it, until he has uncovered the primal, the universal within. These aren't mere songs that emerge. They are crystallizations of feeling, of ideas, of longing and searching, of finding and absorption, as in how one lover can absorb another, to the end of joining essence to essence. I was very moved by this quartet's performance. It wasn't just the brilliant musicianship, it was what they were able to evoke. My feelings were drawn out and taken for a ride. The music entered me and shook me and thrilled me.
About the four musicians. I've been listening to Wayne Shorter since I was a teenager trying to get my head inside the music of Miles Davis. Bitches Brew is the album that slammed into my musical awareness, shattered it, and forced me beyond my James Brown and Motown trained hearing. It was while listening to "Spanish Key" that I first started to get a sense of 'sound' as a quality, separate from melody and harmony, though obviously a component of them. It was then that I began to learn to listen without so much expectation, so that the music could draw me into something I didn't already know. Wayne Shorter, with his piercing, often minimalist soprano sax was a big part of that music. I probably saw him on stage with Miles during that period, but I didn't recognize him as more than one among many voices, flowing and layering one another.
A few years later, it was through the group Weather Report that I developed a deeper awareness of Shorter. On compelling tunes like "Sweetnighter" (a Joe Zawinul composition) I began to identify characteristics of Shorter's style. He’s not your typical soloist, claiming the spotlight with flurries of notes playing on top of a band. Rather, through a sparer approach, weaving his sound in and out of the voices of his collaborators, he enriches the body of a tune, shaping and flavoring its core. Then there was the Native Dancer album, with Milton Nascimento, and the Atlantis album, both of which took me deeper into Shorter's compositional style, which is both quirky and wide open. And there was his supportive collaboration with Joni Mitchell, backing her on most of her albums since the late seventies.
At Friday night's concert, Shorter flexed his horns just enough, adding accent and emphasis where required, but, as always, allowing lots of space. John Patitucci, who I first encountered as a member of Chick Corea’s quartet, was vibrant and fluid on the upright bass. Danilo Perez was similarly stellar on piano, using his palate to flavor tone and mood. But I have to say that, for me, the wizard on the stage was drummer Brian Blade.
Along with Shorter himself, and Esperanza Spalding, it was Brian Blade whom I attended this concert to see. I first became aware of him when I bought his Fellowship CD from a remainder bin many years ago, with no idea of who he was. I've been an admirer ever since, and have noted his play backing many other greats, including Herbie Hancock. But I'd never laid eyes on him before. And what a treat it was to watch him play.
Brian Blade interacts with his drum kit like an alchemist happily mixing potions in his cauldron, watching the heady elixir bubble away as it gives birth to strange, new life forms. His body language is mesmerizing. He seems almost possessed as he sends his drumsticks dancing across skins and cymbals like wands. His was the palpable magic that drove this brilliant set, that held together the virtuosity of the others.
The ovations at the end of the night were ecstatic. Shorter and company returned to deliver two short and sweet encore numbers. But the cheering didn’t let up. Finally, Shorter returned to the stage again to smilingly gesture that he had nothing left. At that point, I don’t think anyone really expected anything more. We were simply so full of appreciation of the magical, musical offering, that we didn’t want to stop saying Thank You!