Although he could sensibly rest on his laurels and his stellar songbook by now, Wayne Shorter is not going easily or lazily into his 80s. Creative pistons are firing on multiple levels, and long-labored-over projects are coming to fruition in the last half of his 79th year on the planet, including the release of his first new album for Blue Note Records in some 43 years, Without a Net, by far the finest document of his current, dozen-year-old band yet.
In some ways more significantly, actually, Shorter unveiled an inherently ambitious new half-hour piece, Gaia, with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, his own quartet and an especially challenged-and challenge-conquering-Esperanza Spalding as featured vocalist. As the centerpiece of a concert in the grand, acoustically glorious Walt Disney Concert Hall on Saturday, February 9, which also featured a short piece by the Shorter Quartet (with Danilo Pérez, John Patitucci and Brian Blade) and six shorter orchestra-equipped works after intermission, Gaia is a masterful piece of work, and one for the books, an orchestral jazz opus that manages to transcend the frequent communication obstacles of the genre.
Not surprisingly, Shorter has some interesting and left-of-center ideas about how to use the orchestra palette, but all within the identifiable musical vocabulary of his conceptual voice. To open, lines are passed around the orchestra while low brass plays a simple ostinato as a base to music with a distinctly cinematic quality. Dense chatter of orchestral sound turns to open-sounding air passages, with those climbing, looping Shorter-esque chords-no beginning, no end, but a beguiling middle space to hang out in. Hardly an afterthought in his grand design, Spalding’s register and interval leaping, mystically inclined vocal parts within the whole-delivered with a kind of ecstatic virtuosity and yet also a sagely sweetness of being-hint at some kind of new cosmic jazz-vocal aesthetic. Could vocal music be a next phase in Shorter’s life? If so, this is a stunning preliminary step.
In the concert’s second half, the orchestral adventure continued, this part, like Gaia, ably guided and genre-mediated by arranger/conductor Vince Mendoza. Mendoza knows something about the music of Shorter, and also Shorter’s old Weather Report ally Joe Zawinul, both of whose music Mendoza has arranged and expanded on over the years. Among Mendoza’s gifts to this evening was a lean and lovely arrangement of Shorter’s ballad “Diana,” with the saxophonist soaring angularly atop sumptuous string beds.
Shorter touched on his own earlier brush with orchestra with the piece “Vendiendo Alegría,” from his 2003 album Alegria, and upped the ante of originality and orchestral derring-do with his pieces “Flagships” and the wittily named, and scored, “Forbidden Plan-It!”
As inspiring as the evening was, and as illustrative of Shorter’s profundity as a creative compositional mind, what we didn’t get much of in the L.A. Phil encounter was the sort of delicate balance of free play and strict structures on the piece “Pegasus,” from Without a Net (and which Shorter has recently completed an orchestral version of). That collaboration between the quartet and the Imani Winds, actually recorded live in this very hall at a concert two years ago, is a paradigm of showcasing Shorter’s skills as both a through-composer and restless freedom seeker, chasing the element of surprise as he goes. By contrast, on this January night at Disney Hall, his quartet’s role was primarily a supportive one, issuing its jazz band gestures in the margins of the overall sound.
For the final piece, “Midnight in Carlotta’s Hair,” Spalding returned, now with acoustic bass in tow (Patitucci took the high register road, and she the low), and singing one of those simple yet haunting Shorter melodies-a task vastly easier than her Gaia score.
After all was sung and played, the evening’s prevailing memory was clearly the world premiere centerpiece. Gaia, graced with a lofty word and notion as its title, reaches high and gets where it wants to go. Let’s hope he, or the record company powers that be, don’t wait so long to make it public.