The sturdy saxophonist plays a rapid, angular five-note motif and then takes the soprano out of his mouth as if immediately reflecting on what’s just transpired. It wasn’t a blues lick or a ‘jazz’ lick. It sounded possibly Eastern or African. Japanese? It’s probably best to classify it as a Wayne lick. As the bass player picks up on the idea and launches into a scurrying vamp, the saxist looks at the pianist quizzically, puts the horn back in his mouth and repeats the phrase again, this time with a slight modification. He then puts the soprano down on its stand, picks up the tenor, decides against playing it, replaces it too and takes a drink of water as the band blow up a storm behind him…
It’s now ten years since legendary Miles Davis/Weather Report saxophone player Wayne Shorter put together his fabled quartet which features Danilo Perez on piano, John Patitucci on bass and Brian Blade on drums. Shorter’s been a regular visitor to the UK over the last decade with this group which is now probably regarded as the world’s foremost acoustic jazz band. Patitucci, Perez and Blade have of course all been bandleaders themselves, so Shorter has long relied on their sound musical intuition as well as mental stability. As Carlos Santana once said about one of his own recent bands, ‘Isn’t it nice to have a group where you don’t need a policeman, psychiatrist and babysitter?’
A thunderous reception greeted the quartet as they wandered onto the stage and proceeded to play a gripping opening 40 minutes of music without a break. Themes interlocked and then dissipated; Perez consistently found the missing link between Herbie Hancock and Debussy while Shorter was the pied piper of the unit, kicking the band into a new gear with just a passing phrase. This was the soundtrack to inner space, music for Max Ernst’s ‘La Joie De Vivre’ or a Ballard book, full of intrigue and ambivalence. One couldn’t help but think of Shorter’s quote that his music is like a saga or a struggle, constantly asking the audience: are the band going to win?
Blade refused to swing in any conventional sense, prowling around the kit busily and occasionally laying into a crash cymbal with enormous relish, drawing yelps of encouragement from the crowd and musicians. This spellbinding music was all about tension and release. Shorter’s tenor tone was strident and muscular, a world away from the timid whisper heard ten years ago in the same venue. All four players paid rigorous attention to their music stands, maybe a testament to the newness of the tunes, but they were deconstructing them in real time anyway.
Finally a familiar theme emerged – Shorter whistled the intro to ‘Plaza Real‘, recorded by Weather Report in 1983. But in place of the strong tango flavour of the original was an unexpected soft funk, developing into an exciting tour de force of group interplay led by Shorter’s ecstatic soprano and some slick time-travelling from Blade. A standing ovation led to the final piece, a superfast ‘Joy Ryder‘. Patitucci brilliantly soloed around the piece’s asymmetric form, and Blade and Perez brought the house down with their rhythmic joshing. Another prolonged standing ovation followed, and Shorter, this incredibly youthful 78-year-old Jedi Knight, modestly sauntered off the stage with his accomplices, waving happily at the crowd.
No ‘Footprints‘, no ‘Lester Left Town‘, no ‘Juju‘ – no matter. One of the jazz events of this year or any other.