Wayne’s Wails Inspire Quartet to Free Form Experimentation
On Tuesday night, it was clear that a prophet had come to us: Wayne Shorter brought his Grammy award-winning quartet to Finney Chapel for the only jazz concert of the Artist Recital Series. The quartet has been critically acclaimed for an open, imaginative approach to collective improvisation and their commitment to keeping jazz fresh and spontaneous. Watching them perform live, it became clear that this sensibility is a natural continuation of a way of life.
The members of his band are among some of the most respected, most intuitive musicians in the world: pianist Danilo Perez, an Afro-Cuban master; bassist John Patitucci, a technical and spiritual giant; and drummer Brian Blade, whose rhythmic innovations approach the scope of Shorter’s imaginative vision. Shorter began composing new music for the first time in several years with the formation of this quartet.
“I think he was waiting for the right person in every chair,” said Patitucci.
In a master class on Tuesday afternoon, Patitucci explained how Shorter encourages his musicians to continue exploring the boundaries of possibility. “With this band, we have guys who are connected to the tradition, and I think that’s why [Wayne] gives us the freedom to try new things. He doesn’t want us to do past renditions. He wants us to keep moving forward, and he keeps pushing us there. He expects spontaneous composition.”
Shorter has seen modern jazz through just about every major change in its history. He began playing with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers in 1959; five years later, Miles Davis persuaded him to join his quartet on the road. Today, Shorter is considered by many to have been the compositional genius behind Davis’s band. In 1970, he and keyboardist Joseph Zawinul formed the band Weather Report, which would go on to produce some of the most creative fusion music ever recorded.
Although the concert program promised that song titles would be announced from the stage, Shorter never addressed the audience. Many listeners, save certain aficionados, knew nothing of the tune selection. It was often the case that, even when the saxophonist played one of his more familiar compositions, he referenced only the outline of its melody once or twice, while the group constructed a freer, more open improvisation using the original piece as a very rough guideline. They never let a song or a form hinder the creativity of the moment — spontaneity and inspiration were of prime importance.
Blade opened the concert with mallets on his deep-toned toms. He began to build as Patitucci entered, finally shouting out loud and smacking his snare twice emphatically. The dynamic came right back down as Shorter and Perez entered together, carefully. They seemed to be waiting for something.
The piece, an extended improvisation that eventually grew to 33 minutes in length, moved through several sections with different textures. At times, the quartet sounded like a classical chamber group, with piano, bass and saxophone playing three- and four-part counterpoint. At other times, it would slip into a Latin groove, sometimes with a little Afro flavor mixed in from Blade’s end.
None of the musicians ever seemed to be confined by the instruments or the other members on stage. They were collectively capable of creating such a variety of colors; the music has such an intensely visual aspect to it that one imagines painting as a possible metaphor, but sometimes, the music becomes nearly photographic. It was not surprising to hear that Shorter often talked about music in terms of images.
Perez told a story about the first time he played with Shorter in a recording session. He played a chord and Shorter, troubled, said, “You need to put water in that chord.”
Unsure of what to do, Perez experimented with different voicings and tensions and returned the next day with a different chord. This time, Shorter nodded assent, and then said, “But the water has to be totally clean. You have to be able to see all the way to the bottom.” With another small adjustment, Perez was able to find the chord Shorter was seeing.
In the second piece, Perez and Shorter opened with a meandering dialogue that made captivating use of dissonance; they made it beautiful, like sunlight hitting broken glass at just the right angle.
Shorter revealed his characteristic ability to weave a gorgeous melody through a series of highly unusual chord changes. He worked vertically and horizontally at the same time. Then, Patitucci set up a great, earthy bass line, giving Blade something to play in and around. The drummer punctuated the groove by consistently stepping outside of it, slowing down and patching in polyrhythms.
Throughout the concert, Shorter’s quartet celebrated the possibilities of playing freely with form. Form in the strictest sense was present only as a reference point; the Apollonian ideals of balance and measure were certainly present in an entirely different way. The result was the sound of freedom with astounding direction. Perez sees the musical space as a very spiritual one.
“This is the only chance we have.... After this you’re going to have all kinds of things, magazines telling you to lose weight and all this. But here — this is sacred,” he said.
The third piece began with slow, angular rumbling low in the piano, and then Shorter entered and began talking. Another conversation came out of this; like two travelers chatting on a journey, Shorter and Perez developed a comfortable rapport as they wandered through uncharted territory.
Then, Shorter switched from tenor to soprano sax, which elevated the whole timbre of the group into a pure and airy region. Contrapuntal improvisations led to an aggressive groove instigated by Blade and the band began to have a visible good time, giving and taking, stealing and trading; Blade screamed, and for the first time all night, the audience really heard Shorter wail.
One of the last pieces of the evening began with an inspired, intense duet between Shorter and Blade. They exchanged repeated motives by turns, out of strict time. In a silence, Patitucci whipped out a bass line that could have been straight off a Weather Report album and bent, laughing, over his bass. The drummer and saxophonist reacted slowly to this new input, gradually calling Patitucci back in. He waited and waited, finally returning with a nice groove in nine-four time that led to another beautiful collective improvisation.
Even at the age of 71, Shorter’s aesthetic sensibility is still very
much that of a child playing with finger paints. It is this innocence and
attraction to simple beauty that is in large part responsible for the continual
evolution that has characterized the saxophonist’s musical creativity for
decades. He refuses to admit limitations, to the point where the listener begins
to believe that perhaps there are none.