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Published: 2008/12/22
by Dan Alford

Wayne Shorter Quartet with Imani Winds, Carnegie Hall, NYC- 12/2

After finishing an hour plus set with his breathtaking quartet, Wayne Shorter slowly picked the microphone up from Danilo Perez’s piano and offered a rare onstage comment: “Art Blakey used to say, after you played a certain amount of time, you got nothing to prove.” He grinned mischievously, adding in a raspy imitation, “Miles Davis would say, So What?’” It’s certainly true that Wayne has nothing to prove; he is widely considered one of the most important and influential composers of the 20th century, and rounding in on 75 years, he is still producing new works— and can still blow better than cats a third his age. Those 75 years were just the purpose of the evening: to celebrate one of jazz’s great elder statesmen. Yet like the man himself, the evening was less of a reminiscence, a cataloguing of past achievements and collaborations, as other Carnegie Hall events have been in recent years— celebrations of Ron Carter and Herbie Hancock, both of which included Shorter; rather it was a forward looking event that emphasized new material, new collaborations and plenty of improvisation.

In fact, the night began not emphasizing Shorter’s playing at all (he was not even on stage), but his first piece written for Imani Winds, entitled “Terra Incognita.” The woodwind quartet plus French horn moved gracefully through a distinctly Shorter sounding composition, a mixture of pixie dust and geological turmoil— Monica Ellis on bassoon was at the core of the ten-minute or so movement.

Thereafter the Quartet took the stage. The true masters of improvisation, there is no finer band on the planet. They opened with bassist John Patitucci bowing deep, long notes with pianist Danilo Perez echoing the low end. Wayne grasped his tenor and leaned forward to blow ominous calls and the sounds grew heavy, drumming phenomenon Brian Blade switching from his cotton-ball tips to sticks. The music began to heave and surge, and Shorter was moaning a dark “Sanctuary” as Blade and Patitucci roared underneath; it was a lengthy version with subtlty-shifting grooves. As the instruments fell away, Perez was left alone, simultaneously speedy and passive, meandering. Blade returned to the mix, playing now with bare hands, and then tapping with the butts of sticks. In an instant the whole tone changed, growing wild, utterly tumultuous with all four members charging ahead and muscling through. The music was almost too intense, but relaxed just as quickly, and there was Perez again, like his line had never ended— his piano interludes would punctuate the night.

The band began a pensive “Over Shadow Hill Way” but as Blade gained strength, the other instruments fell away, leaving the man to pop and bash and storm in a thousand compelling gestures, Wayne screaming in on soprano sax at the climax. The set finished with the former song’s common partner, “Joy Ryder.” Patitucci plucked so very fast, driving right at he heart of the song, Wayne switching from tenor to soprano and back as he moved from the composition to more open territory. At one point, he held one glorious note to mark the composition, Danilo Perez scrambling up the mountain side after him, trying to chase him to the pinnacle- it was a stunning performance, the best playing from Shorter himself I’ve ever had the pleasure to see live.

Imani Winds then returned to the stage to help the quartet in “trying to play eternity.” Arranged in front of the rhythm section, they deferred to Shorter as musical director, but he took a seat right in their midst, ever the egalitarian. Perez had waves of sheet music spread across his piano, and Patitucci had his stretched across two music stands as the ensemble began an older song, “Three Marias.” The music was drama at its best, with the winds dropping in and out, leaving room from the members of the quartet to do what they do best, and always, Wayne was in the forefront, playing like the devil himself. The show closed with a lengthy take on a newer piece with flavors of the past, “Pegasus.” Perez was playing a bad, bad rhythm line and the band took off, the wind section lurching and tossing in the sea of music. Although there was nothing even remotely electric in instrumentation, the scope and tone of the piece remembered Weather Report. Nature can’t account for such deft playing, for Brian Blade, for Wayne Shorter, for this ensemble.

The encore was short take on the powerhouse number from the Quartet’s early days at the turn of the century, “Prometheus Unbound”— essentially just the composed section, although it ended with Wayne blowing one last barrage of notes that carried him up off his seat and then bent him nearly in two, leaving him leaning on the piano when it was over. The room went wild.

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