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Wayne Shorter Quartet at the Earshot Jazz Festival

Coming off the success of their Footprints-Live CD, Wayne Shorter’s quartet opened Seattle’s massive Earshot Jazz Festival with a concert that demanded, and rewarded, the hard work of close listening. The 69-year-old saxophonist, a bit portly but looking fit, got a warm greeting from a thousand listeners. “Wayne…Wayne…Wayne…,” came the rhythmic chant of a woman in the back of the theater. The main floor of the Paramount was set with cocktail tables, each holding a candle, so that the auditorium seemed to throw back a diffuse reflection of the subdued lighting on stage.

In ninety minutes of music that swelled and ebbed in rhythmic intensity and bloomed in layers of tonal coloration, Shorter, pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade danced on the margins of collective improvisation. Solos rose from the swirl and churn of the music, only to subside and give way to extraordinary interaction, particularly among Perez, Patitucci and Blade. With no announcements and subliminal pauses, the music unfolded through six of Shorter’s compositions, with a seventh as an encore. The harmonic openness of the pieces helped established freedom for adventuring by what amounts to a cooperative group. “Sanctuary” led the recital with Shorter on tenor saxophone, as he was for most of the concert. He began with fragments of melody while the rhythm built up, not into a groove, but as atmosphere. As Shorter moved from pastiches of notes into long tones, he became less a soloist than a part of the fabric of sound and rhythm. He and Blade were a duo for a short time, Blade made a brief solo statement, Perez and Patitucci played a duet, and the focus moved back to Shorter in relaxed phrases supported by Perez with harmonies that might have come from a hymn. The four men gathered intensity, let it settle slowly, then Shorter played a blues phrase that set a new direction and a new tune.

In this way, with virtuosity underpinning the music but seldom exhibited outright, the quartet proceeded through “Go,” “Masqualero,” “Atlantis,” “Aung San Suu Kyi,” and “Footprints.” Blade’s drumming, reflecting the balletic style of his New Orleans mentor Johnny Vidacovich, was a consistent object of fascination for both its musical and visual elements. Perez and Patitucci were equal partners with Blade at the rhythmic center. Perez’s riffs, many like montunas, kept the time and the harmonies from dissolving into licentiousness. He sometimes reached into the piano to pluck the strings or strike them with a soft mallet. His solos brought enthusiastic applause. Patitucci’s bass patterns often set the rhythmic direction. His one extended solo, unabashedly virtuosic, was a highlight of the evening.

The depth and roundness of Shorter’s tenor sound contrasted with the bright flow of his soprano in “Aung San Suu Kyi,” his tribute to the perennial thorn in the side of Myanmar’s military dictators. Blade leaned smiling toward Perez and Patitucci, intent on their collaboration, before he joined them. There was subtle humor in much of what Shorter played during the set and one overt display when he used the “Star Wars” theme as a transition from “Aung San Suu Kyi” to a sort of “Footprints” simulacrum before he unveiled the actual melody. He and Perez worked through a section of complex counterpoint into emphatic time laid down by Patitucci. It was one of the few moments of straight ahead rhythm and came as a relief after long stretches of out-of-tempo playing. Perez moved into a Latin form. Back on tenor, Shorter gradually wound the piece down and out.

Whenever the music reached an effective pause, some nervous, clueless or exhibitionist listener was sure to applaud wildly. This elegant music did not call for behavior appropriate to athletic arenas, but it got plenty of it, a distraction repeated throughout the concert.

“Footprints” at an end, the house lights went up and the “Wayne…Wayne” woman in the rear went into her chant. The crowd’s insistent standing ovation pulled the band back on stage. With Perez chording, Patitucci drew his bow, creating choppy waters. Shorter entered aflutter on tenor and descended into low tones. Blade used mallets across the drum heads, slowly fashioning his eighth notes into a pattern. It all sounded like pure improvisation until Shorter disclosed the melody of “Juju” before returning to abstractions. Heading home, the piece took shape as a semi-boogaloo and ended on two pairs of notes from Shorter and a feathery chord from Perez. The second ovation was louder and longer than the first, but the concert was over. Shorter and company were backstage gathering their gear and their energies for the trip to San Francisco, the next stop on their tour down the coast.

Originally Published