What’s the greatest working band in jazz today?
That’s only a difficult question if you haven’t seen the Wayne Shorter Quartet. Once you’ve had that privilege-and, indeed, it is a great privilege-then the answer should be obvious. Well, at least it was when the mighty foursome performed on June 29 at the 33rd annual Montreal International Jazz Festival.
Shorter, of course, is no stranger to landmark groups. He was a member of Miles Davis’ Second Great Quintet, which also featured pianist Herbie Hancock, drummer Tony Williams and bassist Ron Carter, in the ’60s. Shorter was also the co-leader, alongside keyboardist Joe Zawinul, of the influential fusion troupe Weather Report in the ’70s and ’80s. His current quartet-which has produced such stunning albums as Alegria, the 2004 Grammy winner for Best Instrumental Jazz Album-is certainly in the same league as those earlier ensembles.
The proof behind that assessment was in ample supply during the group’s roughly 100-minute performance at the festival’s Théâtre Maisonneuve. The saxophone titan and his three equally talented bandmates-pianist Danilo Pérez, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade-slowly but steadily cast a powerful spell on the capacity crowd. The audience applauded lustily at the sight of the players taking the stage, but then seemed to slip into a state of deep hypnosis.
Shorter and crew wove the songs together like movements in a symphony, with no real break in the action during the main set. Their playing was relaxed yet purposeful, and the notes were usually given plenty of room to breathe. The latter occasionally changed, as the music would escalate to dramatic crescendos.
The core rhythm section of Patitucci and Blade was downright spellbinding, twisting and turning through Shorter’s brainy compositions. Blade’s ability to make every single beat feel undeniably hip is beyond impressive. Then there was Perez, who complements Shorter as well as Hancock once did.
Shorter would live up to his own multifaceted legend on this night. His playing, both on the soprano and tenor saxophones, was diversely appealing and he made every note matter. And the whole evening underscored why so many people rank him as the greatest living composer in jazz.
Above all else, however, this show argued that Shorter’s greatest strength is as a bandleader. The fact that he has been able to hold this acoustic quartet together for so long-a dozen years and counting-is simply amazing. But then again, what musician in his or her right mind would want to leave the greatest working band in jazz today?