Saturday, 3 March 2007

Wayne Shorter and the Magic of Sound

It's taken me a while to put this up, but finally, here’s a post on the gig the Wayne Shorter Quartet played at the London Jazz Festival back in November 2006. These are my unedited thoughts, written on the train on the way back from the concert. They might ramble a bit, but they capture some sense of the excitement I felt after a truly awe-inspiring experience.

Wayne Shorter - soprano and tenor sax, whistling (!)
Danilo Perez - piano
John Pattituci - bass
Brian Blade - drums

"You know the actor John Garfield? In one movie he walked up to this train station, the ticket booth, and the guy says, 'Yes, where are you going?' And he says, 'I want a ticket to nowhere.' I thought: that's it. The freedom to do that. I want a ticket to nowhere.”

Wayne Shorter

The Stan Tracey trio's performance in the first half of the concert was good - crisp, spiky, hard driving, with moments of ruminative meditation - immensely satisfying straightahead jazz. Tracey has a unique voice; even if you can hear Ellington and Monk in a lot of what does, the overall effect is very different. We should take advantage of the fact that he's still gigging, and still playing superb music - there aren't many musicians like him.

But the Shorter was monumental - after the stiff, arranged fusion of the 80s like 'Atlantis', he's now producing some of the most innovative and captivating music of his career. He revealed himself as a truly unique artist - idiosyncratic, and maybe not to everyone's tastes, but utterly compelling nonetheless. The music ranged from the most dramatic of climaxes to priceless, quirky little moments, such as when Shorter whistled into his microphone and casually strummed his fingers over the piano strings during a Danilo Perez solo, or when he was poised to come back on, and stepped forward, only to step back again with a wry grin to John Pattituci when Perez launched another grandiose block of chords. This was music that breathed the spirit of jazz; full of freedom and spontaneity, it was an organic, flowing, natural, living, flowing thing, not the dull, repetitive and clichéd stodge the genre can so easily become.

The main thing that gives this impression is form - the quartet produce a really refreshing escape from the usual theme/solos/theme straitjacket (although this doesn't have to be restrictive if the musicians are good enough to transcend its limitations, even to work with them, like Tracey does). I guess you might describe it with the once fashionable term 'jazz suite' - Shorter doesn't perform pieces/tunes in the conventional sense, but great slabs of music in half-hour chunks. That's not to imply that there were no melodies- familiar tunes like 'Sanctuary', ‘Footprints', 'Over Shadow Hill Way' and 'She moves through the Fair' were all present- but these just flowed in, like jewels floating in a sea of improvisational ideas.

The music moved through emotional logic, rather than pre-arranged structures, it seemed, building to awesome peaks of intensity, with thundering drums, majestic piano and, often, Shorter screaming to the heavens on soprano sax, the instrument he increasingly favoured as the concert went on, then subsiding to a hushed lyricism (with Perez' classically-tinged, Romantic piano solos a particular highlight), or to the sort of scurrying, insect-like intensity that for me most characterizes the group, with Shorter playing gnomic lines, playfully exchanging and picking up ideas with Perez, while Pattituci and Blade create an ever-changing, buzzing backdrop.

Shorter seemed unsure at first, as if he was feeling his way in - you could sense the audience collectively hold their breath as they waited to see if the living legend would produce his magic. But as the quartet clicked (their interplay is practically telepathic, recalling one of Shorter’s old groups, the Miles Davis quintet – like Miles, he makes liberal use of hand signals to control the flow of the music), he began to play more and more, blowing for all he was worth, but not grand-standing (this is such a collective unit that it's often hard to distinguish clearly who's taking a solo, because it doesn't work like that – though I'm by no means suggesting that it's messy or cluttered in any way). By the end, he was consistently playing spine-tingling shrieks that filled the hall - his soprano paying may have been somewhat eccentric over the years, but tonight it felt electrically-charged. This was all about spontaneity - demonstrated best when Shorter picked up the tenor sax, then put it down after a moment's thought, waited a few seconds, then picked up the soprano and played some of his best of the evening.

At the end of each long piece, it was as if the audience had undergone a cathartic experience, and the release of energy in thunderous applause was infectious. They wouldn't let Shorter go either - the band left the stage, but were ushered back by the applause to give another 10 minutes that was just as good as what had gone before. It may be that the live experience leads one to over-enthusiasm, but this really did feel like history in the making - more natural and flowing even than his last live album, 'Beyond the Sound Barrier' (which was perhaps compromised by editing down some of the tracks), it felt innovative in a way that I can’t recall since another group with Shorter in it, Miles' Davis 'lost quintet' of 1969/70. The ethos of the evening was best expressed when the band members linked arms onstage and bowed, hugging like brothers, epitomizing their telepathic mutual understanding and interplay, their willingness to take risks, their seemingly endless capacity for invention, and ability to surprise - jazz not just as great music, but as symbolizing freedom and brotherhood, human beings with the desire to create afresh and the means to do so. As Shorter’s supposed to have said, “to hell with the rules. I’m going for the unknown.” He certainly did that tonight.

This concert was broadcast unedited (apart from a brief 1½ minute ‘interlude’)) on Radio 3 a few months back, but, as far as I know, there are no plans to released it as an album, which is a great shame. So, though I’m not sure about the copyright of this, if anyone wants me to put up any MP3s or other such downloads of the whole, or part, of the gig, I’ll oblige in due course.

1 comment:

david_grundy said...

Finally got round to uploading the files. Link below. PS - If anyone knows of a recording of Shorter's most recent gig (at the Barbican in April 2008), I'd love to hear about it.