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.
The Imani Winds opened the evening with their tour-de-force, “Quintette en Forme de Choros,” a tightly woven piece by Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos that revealed a decided Stravinsky influence. Tackling Shorter’s “Terra Incognita” was definitely an ear-opening experience for the ensemble, and they rose to the occasion, exhibiting a newfound looseness in their rendering of the commissioned work, particularly in the animated call-and-response middle section which had Monica Ellis bearing down on her bassoon alongside her Winds colleagues Jeff Scott on French horn, Valerie Coleman on flute, Toyin Spellman-Diaz on oboe and Mariam Adam on clarinet.
Shorter’s quartet set flowed like one continuous suite, from the free-form collective improv opener “Zero Gravity” to “Sanctuary,” a tune he recorded 40 years ago with Miles Davis on Bitches Brew, and then into “Over Shadow Hill Way,” “Joy Rider” and the delicate ballad “Myrrh.” When he wasn’t carving out the harmonic contour of a piece, Perez’s sharply percussive articulations on the keys often provided a jagged contrapuntal commentary to the stately themes that Shorter layered on top with his tenor sax. The remarkable Blade, whose instincts are so keenly attuned to the dynamics of Shorter’s playing, created a kind of ongoing, organic dialogue throughout the set with his whirlwind approach to the kit, fueling the proceedings with explosive tension-release energy and constant surprise. Blade’s crash cymbal, snare and bass drum accents are so powerful that he lifts off his drum chair to make them hit home with extra oomph. At one point, caught up in the heat of the moment, the rail-thin drummer let out with a blood-curdling war whoop as he walloped a crash cymbal, and members of the Imani Winds turned around in their chairs, wide-eyed, to see what had happened. They seemed shocked and awed to be standing so close to the volcano on this bandstand.
Bassist Patitucci supplied the tether for the Shorter Quartet’s more extreme explorations, grounding the group with resounding grooves and deep counterpoint lines. Together the four function like a living organism moving forward, now lurching and halting, now zooming with ease, always arriving magically at the same point no matter how far out they might go individually. Over the course of eight years, they have developed this highly-evolved vocabulary, which has very little to do with standard AABA songwriting forms but is more about commitment, trust and real chemistry on the bandstand.
The concert, which had no intermission, hit a high-water mark when the Shorter Quartet and the Imani Winds joined together on an expanded, beautifully reharmonized rendition of “The Three Marias,” a memorable piece that originally appeared on 1985’s Atlantis and was re-imagined here with swirling counterpoint from the Winds while Shorter soloed heroically and cathartically over the interlocking ostinatos.
Shorter is creating a new language with this band, one that can easily interpret the knotty twists and turns of his intricate music while letting it breathe and flow and remain full of possibilities. Tempos change on a dime, or the rhythm might drop out altogether. Perez might playfully inject a Son montuno section underneath a certain section, eliciting laughs from Patitucci and a Cheshire grin from the bandleader. Or Shorter might improvise a counter melody, as he did on “The Three Marias,” which had the members of his crew sharing hearty laughs.
Shorter’s latest composition, “Pegasus,” showed that his composerly vision is deepening in his 75th year. Indeed, when Perez held up the score to this expansive, through-composed piece, it unraveled like the Dead Sea Scrolls onto the floor. This evocative Shorter original at times reminded of Leonard Bernstein’s soundtrack score for On the Waterfront or other powerful movie score from ’40s and ’50s Hollywood. Call it symphonic jazz or Third Stream, it remains uniquely and enigmatically Wayne. At one point during the performance of “Pegasus,” Shorter leaned over to flutist Coleman’s microphone and began whistling the melodic theme. The members of the Imani Winds, who clearly aren’t used to winging it in such a cavalier manner on stage, were caught off guard by Shorter’s impromptu gesture while Patitucci and Perez exchanged knowing grins.
For an encore, the Winds returned with the Shorter Quartet for an edited rendition of “Prometheus Unbound,” to the delight of the legion of Shorter fans who turned out for his 75th birthday celebration at this prestigious New York landmark.