Wayne Shorter Headlines His Own Birthday Party

Recap: The Night Dreamer at Town Hall, NYC, June 2013

If any figure in jazz deserves a historic-concert birthday fete while not requiring that kind of hoopla to reaffirm his greatness, it’s Wayne Shorter. His reputation as one of jazz’s invaluable composers and saxophonists was cemented decades ago, but he forges ahead with mercurial quartet performances that continue to draw lines in the sand. To be both institution and instigator at 80 is an achievement that transcends acknowledgement.

Fortunately-mercifully-Wayne Shorter’s “80th Birthday Celebration” at the Town Hall in New York City, held on June 28 as an apex of the 2013 Blue Note Jazz Festival, sidestepped the lameness of so many jazz anniversary concerts. At this tribute, one of several scheduled this year both before and after Shorter’s actual Aug. 25 birthday, he wasn’t encouraged to face off with his own history, nor was he asked to collaborate with acolytes or unworthy celebrities. If anything, the program erred on the side of understatement: three working (or semi-working) bands, including the Shorter Quartet, performing club-length sets. No guest spots, no surprises, no disappointments.

The evening began with Sound Prints, the quintet headed up by saxophonist Joe Lovano and trumpeter Dave Douglas, as a vehicle for their original music informed by Shorter. If you weren’t made aware of this band’s intention before showtime, you might miss it, or mistake the group for an homage to the seminal quartet of Ornette Coleman-particularly in the restless, almost giddy chatter of the frontline. With some foreknowledge, though, the Shorter era of particular importance to Sound Prints is obvious: the 1960s, when his work in Miles Davis’ second great quintet and his recordings as a leader changed jazz’s paradigms of composition, harmony and interaction. (Seeing as Shorter no longer references his ’60s LPs in any overt way, such touchstones were welcome here, even necessary.) There were a lot of strategies in play: rootless avant-garde conversation, arch counterpoint, go-for-broke solos, sterling midtempo lyricism and immaculate, athletic swing courtesy of drummer Joey Baron, whose rapport with bassist Linda Oh indicated a band far older than Sound Prints.

ACS-the supergroup of pianist Geri Allen, drummer Terri Lyne Carrington and bassist Esperanza Spalding-followed, and presented an enticing blend of groove and density, with overhauled renditions of familiar Shorter compositions. ACS, like Sound Prints, made inventive use of the tribute concept. “Mysterious Traveler,” “Nefertiti,” “Infant Eyes,” “Virgo” and others were thoroughly recast via reharmonization and rhythmic facelifts. The set became one of atmosphere, of vibe-Carrington fusing traits of swing, R&B and drum-and-bass with the apparent virtuosity of her hero Tony Williams; Allen sustaining a cloudy, commanding rumble for stretches, as if pointedly evoking McCoy Tyner; and Spalding often functioning melodically as Allen vamped.

And then there was Shorter, headlining for roughly an hour with his long-running band of pianist Danilo Pérez, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade. The Shorter Quartet aesthetic is that of high-stakes creative risk; in other words, the unit’s willingness to fail in the name of exploratory pursuit is what makes it great. And this was an on night. Shorter, whose muse can be fickle, sounded confident and purposeful on tenor and soprano, playing fuller statements rather than clipped phrases exclusively. Throughout the saxophonist’s “Orbits,” “Lotus,” some free music and an encore of “Joy Ryder,” Blade seemed to put forth a constant rubato roil: a steady undercurrent of rhythm whose details were fragmented but whose sense of propulsion surged steadily like a wave. Shorter’s enterprise was startlingly fresh, bursting with vigor. Most bandleaders in their 30s are more nostalgic.