Beyond the Sound Barrier picks up where its predecessor left off: It’s another compilation of concert recordings from the band’s extensive travels. But where the epochal Footprints-Live! raided the classic Shorter catalog for material, this album sprinkles in several new tunes. They tend toward a mysterious rippling quality that justifies long and cosmic titles. The best of the bunch is the title track, which spins a seductive ostinato into a vast and mysterious koan.
It’s impossible to talk about these songs without mentioning the interpretive actions of the band. Shorter’s soprano and tenor saxophones are bright and bracing as always, whether they’re serving as the focal point or as ornamental filigree. Bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade manage the tricky task of abstracting tonality and rhythm without forsaking earthly roots. And pianist Danilo Perez provides both gossamer harmonics and punchy accents. But the musicians’ individual contributions are inextricable from the ensemble whole. There’s a magic moment on “Over Shadow Hill Way” where Perez and Blade hit an unlikely accent in unison, and react with audible surprise. Similarly, near the end of “Joy Ryder,” a rhythmic peek-a-boo actually causes a slip-up-which serves as a humanizing gesture.
Beyond the Sound Barrier is not without its faults. At times the band gets too emphatic-Perez lets loose a particularly torrid run on “As Far as the Eye Can See”-and the group lumbers where it’s clearly seeking to soar. More frustrating is the album’s reliance on fade-ins and fade-outs-a necessary evil, but no less evil for being necessary. (Perhaps Verve will someday issue a complete box set, a la ECM with Keith Jarrett.) Still, these are minor quibbles with a major success.
“We’d rather go for elusiveness than clarification,” Shorter instructs his musicians in Michele Mercer’s book Footprints: The Life and Music of Wayne Shorter. This album will fascinate any listener willing to take them up on the pursuit.