WITHOUT A NET
Review by Dave Liebman
For me Wayne Shorter is THE composer of the last half century, much like Duke and Monk were for previous eras. Most strikingly there is the constant evolution from the beginning compositions for Art Blakey in the early ‘60s (“Lester Left Town”) through the Blue Note recordings (“Speak No Evil” etc.); the notable “Native Dancer” (“Black Beauty”) and Weather Report (“Elegant People”); and the past 20 years with his solo work (“Three Marias”) of the ‘80s and ‘90s through the present group of the past decade. There is no other composer in the history of jazz with such a progression of stylistic change over that length of time.
As an improviser Wayne’s playing has always reflected the modus operandi that is part and parcel of any great composer’s methodology: theme and variation, timing of events, slow development, etc. These are constants in his playing even as his style has evolved over the decades much like the writing. Wayne is the composer as player while the majority of jazz musicians compose as an extension of their playing The underlying and consistent premise is the constant manipulation of the classic artistic mantra evident across all artistic endeavors… tension and release. To balance surprise and expectation in an evenhanded manner is in the final analysis what makes something work artistically speaking, especially in an improvising genre like jazz where there is no pre-planned agenda. In Wayne’s case this tension/release scenario is clearly and consistently demonstrated across the five elements of music: melody, rhythm, harmony, color and form.
Melodically, Wayne’s choice of notes veer between dense, fast chromatic runs that sound like a blur to clearly lyrical statements, while rhythmically Shorter is constantly on the cusp of inside and over the prevailing pulse rarely if ever playing the lingua franca of dotted/triplet based eighth notes one is used to hearing in jazz. In the harmonic realm everything is there….pedal points, vamps/ostinatos (amazing how much he can get from a one or two bar repetitive pattern) with occasional use of dense harmonies offset by more consonant sonorities. (When Wayne was with Miles Davis, this was largely the opposite case.) Color refers to the instrumental sound which in Wayne’s case includes an unusually diverse array of articulations from marcato/staccato to glissando; a searing sound in the upper register of the soprano sax contrasted with a more transparent and lighter tone in the lower; also extensive use of a wide dynamic range. Form in this discussion means the overall shape and emotional impact of his solos which never follow a predetermined or repetitive pattern. He does often begin haltingly (subtone register of the horn with little spurts of ideas behind the piano) leading to a climax that is crystal clear and not formulaic. Wayne is the ultimate programmatic artist, but subtly accomplished.
This present recording clearly demonstrates the points described above. Credit must be given to the rhythm section that has been together for over a decade. Others of Wayne’s stature present new “projects” year to year but Wayne has stayed the course and apparently agrees with me that a steady group is truly the way to find “improvisational bliss.” The dialogue between John, Brian and Danilo is constant and virtuosic with “solos” often not clearly delineated keeping the listener fully engaged. The three men each contribute in a unique manner: Brian’s explosive drumming marks off the energy and story line of the music; John is absolutely committed to the task of keeping things together while Danilo serves as the front line partner of Wayne both accompanying and as the second soloist.
Returning to Blue Note Records after forty plus years, this live recording is a gem. The standout track that highlights all of the above in one performance is “Pegasus” featuring the group with the Imani Winds. This track alone could stand as a summary of Wayne’s present writing and playing as he approaches 80 years old. There is no doubt that Wayne Shorter has and continues to make a major contribution to the music of our time.