The Wayne Shorter 75th Birthday Celebration concert at Carnegie Hall was an entirely different affair from the Shorter Quartet’s appearance last summer at the JVC Jazz-Newport Festival. While that outdoor performance in historic Fort Adams Park overlooking Rhode Island’s scenic Narragansett Bay was a compact, cohesive set of tunes, including familiar Shorter compositions from yesteryear like “Footprints” and “Joy Ryder,” the Carnegie clambake was full of surprises, even as it exuded an air of formality with the presence of the Imani Winds, a classical quintet that has collaborated with the legendary jazzman in recent years. (Shorter was commissioned by the La Jolla Music Society in 2006 to compose a piece for the Imani Winds Ensemble, “Terra Incognita,” which saw its New York premiere at this Carnegie birthday bash.)
This kind of long-form, 20th century classical influence has been apparent in Shorter’s composing style ever since the title track from 1988’s Joy Ryder and has carried through on expansive, near-cinematic pieces like “Mahogany Bird” from 1986’s Phantom Navigator, the orchestral “Children of the Night” and “Pandora Awakened” from 1995’s High Life, “Orbits” from 2003’s Grammy Award-winning Alegria and “Over Shadow Hill Way” from 2005’s Beyond the Sound Barrier. He continues in this through-composed vein with “Pegasus,” a new, as-yet-unrecorded Shorter piece.
With his longstanding quartet of Danilo Perez on piano, John Patitucci on bass and Brian Blade on drums, Shorter pushed the envelope on exploration within his own compositions. The quartet’s triumphant collaboration with the Imani Winds on three pieces was marked by rare intelligence and unbound intensity and featured the maestro himself wailing over the top with uncommon authority on soprano sax. The music-by turns joyous, dissonant, uplifting, mysterious, evocative and swinging-was imbued with such drama that it reached operaesque proportions at times, with Shorter’s swooping, keening sax lines providing some impassioned peaks. Instead of your run-of-the-mill jazz concert, it was more like hearing the soundtrack to the movie that plays inside Shorter’s head.