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Wayne Shorter: Emanon

Ian Patterson By

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Just the fifth release from Wayne Shorter's celebrated acoustic quartet in its near two-decade career, the triple-CD plus graphic novel that is Emanon marks something of a creative high point in its journey. The first CD, a four-part suite for quartet and the thirty-four-piece Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, is Shorter's first studio recording since Alegria (Verve, 2003), while the second and third discs capture the quartet live in London. The accompanying forty-eight page comic-book, co-written by Shorter and Monica Sly, with illustrations by Randy Duburke, is a science-fiction epic of Homer-esque proportions.

The comic-book tale is thematically related to the suite and depicts a dystopian world of tyrannical government, censorship and a climate of fear that engenders apathy, suspicion of the foreign and dehumanisation. Changing the status quo can only come about via change within the individual. A revolution is called for. A parable of our times? Perhaps so. Although the musical narrative is open to interpretation, the tensions and drama inherent in Shorter's orchestral score broadly reflect the heroic struggle of the comic-book hero, the rogue philosopher, Emanon.

All the music was recorded in 2013, which begs the question as to why it's taken so long for this recording to see the light of day. In effect, Emanon musically represents a snapshot of the quartet half a decade ago. The live music on CDs two and three is as thrilling, for the most part, as we've come to expect from this rather unique improvising unit, but it's the orchestral suite that stands out for its originality.

The fifteen-minute "Pegasus" sees early sparring between Danilo Pérez, and Shorter on soprano, the pianist's probing creating little stepping stones for the saxophonist's improvisations. A brief strings and brass call-and-response ensues before a three-note brass motif ignites the string section. Melody and rhythm are inextricably linked as short, staccato phrases from brass and strings in turn, strung together like beads, provide a punchy rhythmic current. Brian Blade, John Patitucci and Perez trace the orchestral pulses, with Shorter arriving late to ride the cresting wave with a spiralling solo.

The full orchestral voice regally announces the intense yet repetitive "Prometheus Unbound," which toggles between gently treading quartet interludes and bouyant orchestral passages. The lush romanticism that opens "Lotus" is soon swept up in an epic orchestral wave, a grand, three-note ostinato transferred to piano, which then underpins a quartet dialogue where Perez and Shorter's free blowing is anchored by Blade and Patitucci's steady course. The baton passes back and forth between orchestra and quartet in a sustained segment that marries lyricism and bold phrasing. The quartet eventually tears loose with skittering exchanges between Shorter and Perez, the three-note ostinato resurfacing as the prelude to a stirring, closing fanfare.

Shorter plays soprano, and to a lesser extent tenor, on "The Three Marias," an episodic piece where restless quartet exploration is framed by distinctive orchestral lines that are melodically pronounced and rhythmically vibrant in turn. The greater ebb and flow of this final piece, with its dramatic denouement, provides an emotionally intense, uplifting conclusion to the stirring fifty-minute suite.

The live discs faithfully document of one of contemporary jazz's most exciting small ensembles. Disc two features a sprawling, twenty-seven minute version of "The Three Marias," where protracted collective ruminations, with Shorter on tenor saxophone, seem always on the point of lift-off. In the final few minutes a quickening rhythmic pulse briefly signals collective release, before the quartet makes the softest of landings. Without pause, the quartet slides into a medley of "Lost" and "Orbits," Perez' riffing stoking the quartet's fire as Shorter follows his muse. Perez and Blade gradually force their way to the forefront of the narrative in a fiery finale that provides dramatic release after nearly forty minutes of simmering tension.

The subtle percussive stirrings of "Lotus," which kicks off disc three, quickly give way to more robust terrain, with Perez' restless tilling freeing Shorter, on soprano, and cajoling Blade, whose explosive accents are all the more effective for their sparing release. "She Moves through the Fair," unrecognizable from the quartet's studio version from 2003, begins with a burrowing Patitucci solo before developing into a Perez' feature, the pianist's animated solo punctuated by Blade's snap and crackle. A short but lively "Adventures aboard the Golden Mean" sees the quartet go straight for the jugular, with Shorter on soprano leading the way, without preamble, through an uncluttered, blues-edged workout colored by Perez' Latin-tinged vamps.

The set concludes with a hypnotic, fourteen-minute "Prometheus Unbound," the soft initial stirrings of bass arco, high-register piano, rumbling mallets and lowing soprano ceding way to greater rhythmic impetus. A middle section of delicate understatement—lightly coursing, bluesy piano and earthy bass—is steered by Perez and Shorter into exuberant collective exploration, with a mantra-like motif, played in unison by Shorter and Perez, unleashing Blade's fire and guiding the quartet towards a spectacular finish.

Shorter's most ambitious project in his sixty-year career, Emanon is in some ways a curious release. The orchestral arrangements represent some of the most impassioned and arresting music Shorter has ever committed to disc. The two live discs, as tirelessly inventive as the performances are, serve up more of what has come before and arguably detract from the singularity of the orchestral collaboration. The graphic novel is a take it or leave it affair. Still, it's cause for celebration that Shorter and his remarkable quartet are still fearlessly pushing the sound barrier with such evident joy.

Track Listing: Disc I: Pegasus; Prometheus Unbound; Lotus; The Three Marias. Disc II: The Three Marias; Lost and Orbits Medley. Disc III: Lotus; She Moves through the Fair; Adventures Aboard the Golden Mean; Prometheus Unbound.

Personnel: Disc I: Wayne Shorter: tenor and soprano saxophones; Danilo Perez: piano; John Patitucci: bass; Brian Blade: drums; The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra: violin I: Richard Rood, concertmaster, Martha Caplin, Laura Frautschi, Joanna Jenner, Renee Jolles, Sophia Kessinger; violin II: Calvin Wiersma, principal, Ronnie Bauch, Adela Pena, Eriko Sato; viola: Dov Scheindlin, principal, Mark Holloway, Daniel Panner, Nardo Poy; cello: Eric Bartlett, principal, Melissa Meell, Jonathon Spitz, James Wilson; double bass: Donald Palma, principal, Jordan Frazier; flute: Susan Palma Nidel, principal, Elizabeth Mann; oboe: James Austin Smith, principal, Alexandra Knoll; clarinet: Alan Kay, principal, Alicia Lee; bassoon: Frank Morelli, principal, Marc Goldberg; horn: Stewart Rose, principal, Julie Landsman; trumpet: Louis Hanzlik, principal, Carl Albach; trombone: Michael Powell; timpani: Maya Gunji.

Title: Emanon | Year Released: 2018 | Record Label: Blue Note Records

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