Wayne Shorter Quartet at Philharmonie Essen

Phillip Woolever By

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Wayne Shorter Quartet
Philharmonie Essen
Essen, Germany
November 8, 2013

Whatever waning stage of his career Wayne Shorter may occupy these days, a concert by his quartet remains one of jazz's premier performance attractions.

It would be a stretch to say the senior statesman Shorter is playing better than ever or even equal to earlier eras, but at 80 years old, he is still consistently capable of brilliance. Maybe that's what makes his shows so special these days.

Those new to the beautiful interior of Philharmonie Essen were bound to gaze at the architectural warmth and color. People settled in comfortably while the band made a casual entrance, exactly on schedule, and were received like extended family.

Thankfully, the quartet didn't play it too safe. Their live catalog remains revised, not replicated. Vibrant, creative energy surged from the stage, even during frequently covered territory, in an extended suite.

Much of the credit must go to the superb supporting lineup of Brian Blade, John Patitucci and Danilo Pérez, who played at superhero level.

That's not to imply that they carried Shorter for a second. After well over a decade on stage together, they can read and follow him instinctively, and it shows.

Shorter mused on a brief, silver surfing soprano introduction, then hit his gleaming tenor for an extended "Orbits" reference that simmered in almost imperceptive tones. Nuanced notes boiled up like piercing primal sludge that evolved into a fusion cosmos, then wound back down to singular octaves from whence they came. It was definitely not your standard mainstream prelude, and not entirely effective.

Opening brews were in too silent a way. Shorter appeared weary at some points, inspired at others. Still, however it sounded, Shorter's first notes established the deep footprints of both his individual achievements and connection to the holy Miles Davis grail.

Initially, it was the supporting crew who shined, whether by design or necessity. The quartet signaled each other regarding dynamics in the cone-like building. Shorter's most animated gesture of the show occurred when he put his fingers in his ears. Halls designed for symphonies can be hell for sound-men from other backgrounds, but most of the show sounded fine.

It was not the strongest lift- off, but stark stretches allowed everyone to display a lighter touch. A black dividing curtain and darkened floor helped highlight each band member's illuminated profile, while their proficiency added individual voices to the visuals.

Suddenly , the rhythm blossomed with a few snaps of Blade's hand, as he proved four drum skins is enough for almost any range. If there is a better drummer at foundational flurries or punctuating percussion than Blade, who switched sticks like a magician; we haven't seen them.

Puzzled patrons started to sway their heads. Soon the majority grooved to muted improvisational expanses of "Lotus," Shorter's 2010 piece commissioned by the Philadelphia Museum of Art through the Philadelphia Music Project. Blade's mallet mastery kept exposition shifts above the tide.

Shorter leaned against the piano without taking many runs during the set's first half hour. There is always a chair within reach of his chart stand. He has rarely used it, and didn't go near it tonight.

Shorter eventually got down so hard on tenor it made one wish he'd have held the golden instrument more than around twenty minutes. Such choices may have been made on acoustic conditions, as the soprano sax came through more clearly under the circumstances.

Overall the building's acoustics favored Perez, who kept a distinct, unifying flow on the keyboard while Patitucci provided a perfect pulse. There was a resounding connection between Shorter and Patitucci on "She Moves Through the Fair," and while "Prometheus Unbound" may not have reached classic proportions, it came close.

Shorter wobbled as he dipped into some finalized flats and stood, looking a bit shaky, but he made it to the finish line and soared on "Adventures aboard the Golden Mean."

The show ran almost exactly ninety minutes, so good it seemed to fly by. Maybe Shorter felt the same as he checked his watch.

Half the auditorium crowd leapt up immediately for a standing ovation. The other half took longer, or remained seated. The band stayed in high gear with an epic encore of "Joy Ryder" that drove to a dynamic conclusion and sparked two, nearly raucous curtain calls.

Shorter looked rejuvenated and waved to the surrounding crowd overhead, who showered him with sincere applause. It was a great, extended tribute that the show almost lived up to. Shorter already deserved it years ago.

It's nice to think Shorter's crew gets this kind of love at every stop. Afterward, Blade, Patitucci and Perez accepted accolades, charmingly, from people who'd hung around the stage. There were many educated younger fans who looked like students, performers or both. Dozens waited in the foyers hoping Shorter might appear. He didn't, but any respite was well earned.

Anyone around this lush, multi-theater complex who squawks that jazz is dead will appear ridiculous. Tonight, anyone who said Wayne Shorter wasn't still a great showman would sound just as foolish.

Shorter inevitably showed hints of decline before this year's celebratory octogenarian season began. Even so, it looks like he's decided to go out with a big bang. The final segment of his gala birthday tour is coming up, but from the sound of things in Essen, Mr. Shorter still has quite a bit to play.

Prometheus may be aging, but his heart remains unbound, and his jazz remains free.


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