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Wayne Shorter Quartet: Without a Net

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I saw five concerts by the Wayne Shorter Quartet between 2005 and 2011, in four countries. I thought every one was a failure. Their chosen format of unbroken improvised suites, Shorter compositions flying by in fragments, put a creative pressure on the ensemble that it could not sustain for 80 minutes. There were dead spots. They often flailed and floundered, searching for a path. Shorter sometimes noodled a little tentative run, pulled his soprano saxophone out of his mouth, stared at it and winced, and fell silent for several minutes.

Then, at the Umbria Jazz Festival in Perugia, Italy, in July 2012, Shorter’s band gave one of the most overwhelming, transcendent concerts I have ever witnessed. It was a religious experience for a secular man. They hit crescendo after crescendo. The whole band seemed to levitate. Shorter’s soprano raved and sang in a sublime delirium.

Shorter’s first album on Blue Note in 43 years is a live recording. I’d hoped it would contain a concert like the one in Perugia. The repertoire is very similar. But Without a Net is not a single concert. Blue Note has assembled eight tracks from an unspecified number of stops on a late 2011 European tour. Plus, there is a new 23-minute “tone poem” recorded with Imani Winds at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. Most tracks are followed by applause fades. At a real Shorter concert, tunes run together. The illusion of a single performance, and the cumulative power of a single arc, is lost.

But Blue Note chose really good tracks. There are six new Shorter compositions, a fact that, by itself, makes Without a Net important. “Starry Night” and “Zero Gravity” are the most likely to become standards. Both open like teasing Shorter exercises, preludes to songs that threaten to never begin. Pianist Danilo Pérez dominates their long preambles. “Starry Night” is first a hypnotic array of piano tremolos hovering over John Patitucci’s dark, cycling bass ceremonies. “Zero Gravity” starts as piano stream-of-consciousness that might flow forever, interwoven with Patitucci’s cryptic pronouncements. But both do commence when Shorter finally soars into each song, on tenor or soprano, and carries it heavenward. New pieces like “Myrrh” and “UFO” feel like specific single gestures, postulates leading to spontaneous ensemble composition, Pérez pummeling block chords, drummer Brian Blade thrashing and cursing, Shorter torrential.

Of the older pieces, “Orbits” is an obsessive anthem that becomes a conflagration. A reimagined “Plaza Real,” from the Weather Report album Procession, is also exciting; melodies are found in the moment, in wave upon ringing wave. “Flying Down to Rio,” from a 1933 Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers musical, might seem improbable, but Shorter is a film buff. The performance becomes a wild 13-minute tribute, liberated but sincere, an ecstatic movie theme buried in it like a time capsule.

As for “Pegasus,” totally out of keeping with the rest of the album, I dislike it intensely. Shorter’s venture into chamber music sounds pretentious and mathematical. The five-piece ensemble (four woodwinds, one French horn), meant as an enhancement to the quartet, is more often a distraction.

But this is where I came in: with doubts about Shorter. I thought his concerts were awful before one was wonderful. Either they got better over time, or I did. The great French writer André Gide once said, “Please do not understand me too quickly.” It may be risky to understand Shorter too quickly. “Pegasus” might grow on me.

Originally Published