Sunday, February 20, 2011

An Evening With Wayne Shorter

In February I had the opportunity to witness the current Wayne Shorter Quartet, featuring Danilo Perez on Piano, Brian Blade on drums, and John Pattituci on bass. It would be folly on my part to think that I could give a written account of the music played on that concert that would do the music justice. But some general remarks are in order.

The quartet played for over two hours an interrupted piece of music. It appeared to have many movements, the sections ebbed and abated, transformed and led into one another. The raw material was in every respect rooted in all of the language of modern and contemporary jazz and yet it was clear that, with the absence of performance conventions involving clearly delineated solos, and applause, regular song forms, and other practices, the entire evening was as close any jazz concert could be to a thoroughly written contemporary concert piece. Though there was a lengthy score on stage, it was also clear that a great deal of it was as improvised as in any traditional small group jazz concert.

I am not sure all of the audience was prepared for it. It was music that required deep focus and concentration. As rooted as it was in the popular it was equally rooted in highest art traditions.

Wayne Shorter is now seventy-eight years old. Given his involvement in the so-called jazz fusion movement in groups like Weather Report, his origins with the likes of Miles Davis, and his great duo with pianist Herbie Hancock, he is a master of any style of music. Yet Shorter has been all of his life working towards what he is now giving the music world. There were hints of it before, especially in his duos with Hancock, but Shorter, is achieving his greatest musical triumph now: a vision of music where jazz, classical concert music, and popular rhythm are so thoroughly merged that what is performed in concert can be compared in quality to any of the written compositions of a Bartok and have all of the performed intensity of any of the improvisations of jazz masters in the previous century.

I heard Schoenberg and Hindemith as much as Scriabin. But I also heard Funk and Latin music in there too. I heard enough music for a desert island.

The tenor saxophone that he plays has had so many great players coming out of a post John Coltrane tradition. The recently departed players Michael Brecker and Bob Berg were part of this post- Coltrane tradition as was Joe Farrell. There have been so many losses to the jazz saxophone world. Many saxophonists coming out of the big bands of the sixties and seventies created this highly linear and hard edged, expressive style owing to Coltrane. Then there was the influence of the mighty Joe Henderson and this can be heard in a player like Javon Jackson. When I hear the well received Joe Lovano I often think of Warne Marsh, an underrated "West Coast" cat who is clearly an influence on Lovano. I could go on about all of the important saxophonists and there are many I don't have the space to include.

Yet Wayne Shorter is rarer still. He is sui generis. Like Ahmad Jamal on the piano in my last musical blog, Wayne Shorter invented a sound and an approach all his own, that seemed as original as anybody could be on an instrument (even conceding the influence of Lester Young). What is so rare about Shorter is that he plays the saxophone with an approach completely outside of the dominant tradition of long lines. Shorter is a great lyricist; he believes in melody and phrase above all. This conviction colors his writing as much as his playing. In his commitment to this type of comparitively shorter lyrical gesture, I believe the only comparable figure on a wind or brass instrument would have to be Miles Davis.

But this evening of music which, judging from the youtube excerpt above, is a work that has traveled for a few years, was a genuine development for improvised music. There have been attempts at this kind of thing in the past but there were two great flaws: a lack of immediate and genuine integration of musical styles, and secondly a rejection of tonality in favor of a purely NOISE or nontonal practice.

Wayne Shorter's current music is completely in the tonal tradition yet it has all of the abandon, surprise and at times dissonance you could find in noise based avant-garde practices in the sixties. And yet it is firmly tonal and melodic, fully flavored by the traditional modes. This shows that one needn't abandon older musical languages to make original music, that those languages are not dead but that it takes the imagination of four great artists to make fresh music out of that language. Every soloist was superb: Brian Blade and pianist Perez deserve special mention, but this was like a string quartet: all players equal, all parts contributing to a whole greater than the sum of any part.

The one characteristic in this new work is the beautiful melodic approach that is Shorter's metier.

Please take an opportunity to see this quartet should they come to your city or town. You will be seeing a great part of jazz and musical history.

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