When all is said, done and historically accounted for, jazz circa 2013 will likely be considered the Year of Wayne: Wayne Shorter, that enigmatic giant, casting his vast influence through the Real Book majesty of his tunes and advocating the importance of remaining free and spontaneous in his own current quartet, turned 80 this year, and was feted internationally as a lofty jazz veteran. But he is hardly an éminence grise resting on laurels. A long-awaited and poetic, feisty new album, Without a Net, brings him back to the clutches of the Blue Note label after decades away, and his increasing interest in large-scale, classically inclined compositional efforts has found him embarking on such ambitious new works as Gaia, premiered with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and a collaboration with Esperanza Spalding (as vocalist) at Walt Disney Concert Hall in February.
As part of the Year of Wayne, and ostensibly in promotion of Without a Net (although the mystic saxman wouldn’t view it as such), Shorter has been making the summer festival circuit with a fascinating collective troupe, including his own group, abetted by the score-yielding Imani Winds, duets with his old ally Herbie Hancock, and the logical, Shorter-minded “support” acts, Sound Prints (the vigorous fine new band led by Joe Lovano and Dave Douglas) and the potent all-star, all-female piano trio ACS, being Geri Allen at the keys, Spalding on bass and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington.
All roads on this summer tour led, in some way, to the massive, 17,000-capacity Hollywood Bowl-in Shorter’s hometown of Los Angeles, just over the hill from chez Shorter-where an 80th Birthday Celebration in late August amounted to what is probably the grandest jazz concert of the year in this city. This was a glorious night out (and “out” in more than one way), a hearty dose of fine, vital, thinking person’s jazz on this grand stage, where the jazz content isn’t always of the thoughtful or exploratory sort.
By serendipity and/or by design, the program showcased many angles on the curious, multi-faceted case of Shorter’s musicality. Sound Prints’ opening set represented a rousing new example of Shorter’s influential thumbprint, in a quintet context like that of the great Miles Davis ’60s quintet which crystallized and made public Shorter’s skills as writer and player. Douglas quoted “Footprints” on the first tune, and the going got Ornette-ish at times, but with an empathic bond and tradition-meets-progressivism flair between the players, also including drummer Joey Baron, bassist Linda Oh and limber pianist Lawrence Fields.
For its part, ACS continued the official and unofficial Shorter tribute character of the show with a set of inventively rearranged Shorter tunes, starting with his cool and angular Weather Report classic “Mysterious Traveler.” Haunting Shorter ballads, “Fall” and “Infant Eyes” were reimagined and recast in more energized settings and the immortal classic “Nefertiti” (heard in its original Miles Davis recording in a cryptic, solo-less form, unless you count Tony Williams’ ambling drum work) was fittingly approached in a semi-abstract way, as Allen danced entrancing circles around the theme.
Then came the man of the hour (well, two-and-a-half hours, closely accounted for by the polished Hollywood Bowl machinery). After a 10-minute, bittersweet-flavored free ride of a piece in duet with Hancock, of the sort heard on their memorable duet album 1+1, the band-pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade-came on, as the impish birthday celebrant joked, with his customary cryptic style, “Here come the rest of the guys. They used to be in Florida, but we got them out of retirement. We know where everybody lives.”
Easing into the quartet set, Perez slyly alluded to what had gone down earlier, starting out on the note that Hancock had left the stage on, and alluding to the “Mysterious Traveler” staccato chords before the ensemble conversation began, riffing and deconstructing themes and notions heard on Without a Net, but without a firm game plan. Even Shorter’s current band, which after a decade in the cosmic trenches now deftly heeds the leader’s quixotic mixology of score and collective freedom, doesn’t neatly or singularly convey the complexity of Shorter’s musical personality. He is a fascinating bunch of people, and remains so at 80.
Shorter, who has been leaning more toward soprano sax of late, gave more attention to the tenor during this half-hour set, before the Imani Winds joined the fold, in sit-down, score-heeding fashion in the final section of the evening’s program. The inspired genre-crossing Imani group, part of Shorter’s world for a few years now-and heard on “Pegasus,” a live recording from Disney Hall included on Without a Net-has done wonders in shoring up the deep compositional riches of Shorter’s musical thinking. When they play with the Shorter quartet, we finally get to the magical balance of elements that comprises Wayne’s internal and expressive world.
In short, Shorter’s Hollywood Bowl extravaganza, unequal parts celebration and cerebration, toasted a humble jazz titan still very much in action and in forward motion. Apparently, 80 is his new (insert age between 30 and 70 here).