Blumenfeld: Shorter at Carnegie Hall

December 7th 2008 02:17 pm

Copyright © 2008 Larry Blumenfeld

longer shorter (toward eternity)
by Larry Blumenfeld

Wayne Shorter turned 75 in August and decided to celebrate with a Carnegie Hall concert last night. I’d help you blow out the candles, Wayne, but you left me breathless.

On the program were the Imani Winds, a classical quintet of four women (flutist Valerie Coleman, oboe player Toyin Spellman-Diaz, clarinetist Mariam Adam, and bassoonist Monica Ellis) and one man (French horn player Jeff Scott), who performed a brief piece by Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos. The quintet followed with “Terra Incognita,” a chamber piece composed by Shorter, originally commissioned by the La Jolla Music Society in 2006. Lively and flecked with phrases and harmonies distinct to Shorter’s oeuvre (was that a snatch of “Water Babies”?), it offered merely hints of things to come.

The stage quickly reset, Shorter’s working quartet, with pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Patitucci, and drummer Brian Blade, followed with a set that was brief yet fully satisfying. As they’ve been doing for seven years, the group essayed tunes from Shorter’s catalog, perhaps the most subllime in jazz’s library, within a continuous flow of music — more structured than an extended improvisation, less formal than what would be termed a suite. It’s as if Shorter has simply liberated each song from its beginning and end, allowing each to extend and even blur into one another, free of given duration. The cliche when describing a band as strongly in sync as Shorter’s is that it moves as one: But these musicians don’t. And they don’t follow the leader, either, beyond taking his song cues –“Zero Gravity,” “Sanctuary,” “Joy Rider,” among a few others –and adjusting to his rhythmic and dynamic shifts. Perez, Patitucci, and Blade are like ensemble actors in a story that Shorter, a film devotee, exploits for its most potent and believable drama. Blade’s outlandish crashes and tumbles on cymbals and drums, seemingly out of nowhere, somehow make sense, serving as jump-cuts. (Elsewhere, Blade kept rhythms, sometimes just suggestions of a beat, cunningly soft.)

Perez and Patitucci took nearly nothing in the way of conventional solos. Instead, they spilled their individual ideas into forceful lines and insidious grooves that shaped a collective mass of sound which bore the general shape of a given, often recognizable, tune yet expanded, contracted, and morphed, moment to moment. Perez, already a commanding presence before he joined this quartet, continues to grow and thrive in this setting; his every gesture seems to ripple through the band with force. Even Shorter, alternating between tenor and soprano, played few extended solos. Often, he simply celebrated the triumphant intent of a theme, like the one from “Joy Rider,” jiggling its place in the rhythm on each utterance.

This band is the most interesting and beautiful animal in jazz’s jungle, has been for several years.

After the quartet’s performance, Shorter stepped briefly up to the microphone. He quoted his boss of nearly a half-century earlier, Art Blakey: “You don’t have nothin’ to prove.” He then went about proving that all music, even his best, is open to interpretation and better for that effort — and that we’ve far from heard all that his fertile imagination can conjure.

Finally, the Imani Winds were seated, along with Shorter, in front of Perez, Patitucci, and Blade, for a closing segment. Sounding like some fantasy big band from fictional world, with Shorter on soprano sax and Imani’s Coleman often playing piccolo, the nine musicians played three Shorter pieces, each containing stunning elements, the best of which was an extended version of “The Three Marias.” This was dense and finely arranged music, full of wildly creative counterpoint, interlacing melodies, and exquisite harmonic shifts.

The arrangements were like gardens that had grown over to an absurd yet startlingly beautiful point, yet somehow retained the logic of their original plantings. And even in such elaborate context, seated the whole time, Shorter was prominent without being dominant, playing upward-pointed lines, high-register squeals, well-placed single notes, and, at one point, soft blues phrases with obvious glee and no signs of slowing down.

“I’m trying to express eternity with my music,” Shorter told me the last time we spoke, a few years ago. Already with his quartet, he’s erased any temporal limitations — of a given tune’s duration or its association with a particular era (his 40-year-old compositions could not have sounded fresher at Carnegie).

If this is 75, who knows what he’ll sound like at 150.

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