Saw Wayne Shorter’s quartet at the Sydney Opera House on Sunday night. Shorter just played at the Adelaide Festival of Arts, and has also done a gig in Melbourne. His Sydney appearance is part of the impressive jazz series ‘Full Swing’ at the Opera House, which also features gigs by Ahmad Jamal and Branford Marsalis.
I love the way Shorter plays the saxophone. He’s one of the best working composers in the jazz idiom. I love those strange, beautiful melodies, those unexpected changes. And I’m not just looking back to the dozens of wonderful tunes he wrote in the 60s for the Jazz Messengers and Miles Davis (and for a string of wonderful Blue Note LPs as a leader). I’m also thinking about recent compositions like the ones featured on Alegría (2003). I like this current band, which has been together ten years now – Danilo Perez (p), John Patitucci (b), and Brian Blade (d). Their album Footprints Live! captures a gutsy, energetic performance from 2001.
These days the approach has changed. Shorter’s band presents about ninety minutes of essentially free jamming around various fragmentary Shorter themes. You rarely find a full statement of a melody. The band attempt a much more democratic form of improvisation than the traditional one-soloist-followed-by-another format. It’s an everybody-solos-at-once kind of thing. Spontaneous and free-form. As a result, Shorter’s playing was sustained on-and-off throughout the show (he switched repeatedly between tenor and soprano) but he never had, say, a solid five minute block at the centre of the performance. The other musicians were exceptional. Brian Blade is a fiend on the drums, smacking the shit out of his kit, breaking sticks and mallets. The quartet found themselves in beautiful and exciting moments, but these were interspersed between passages of pretty directionless vamping. I have a feeling this was not a great night for these guys, particularly Shorter.
After a strange and patchy 1970s-1990s – fusion, bossa nova, occasional stints with VSOP, and smooth jazz in all but name – Shorter has jumped right back into and, more importantly, extended his acoustic avant garde modus operandi of the late 1960s. It’s free but still tonal. It’s hard not to respect Shorter’s uncompromising stance at this stage of his career. He doesn’t play any of his signature tunes – at least, I didn’t hear them. There’s no attempt at crowd-pleasing. This is adventurous contemporary improvised music from a 76-year-old jazz icon who could easily win praise with a set of straight-ahead standards. But I’m not sure this concert, or this whole approach to improvising, really plays to Shorter’s strengths as a composer. He writes and arranges such beautiful tunes. I wish he’d play them.
Check out this performance from the 2009 Panama Jazz Festival, which does really come together in an exciting way:
Link: A long discussion of the controversies surrounding Shorter’s current band at Do The Math