Wayne Shorter, Roscoe Mitchell & Oliver Lake

Martin Longley By

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The Wayne Shorter Quartet
The Town Hall
February 9, 2011

When observing Wayne Shorter on the stage, he's immediately remarkable for possessing an eccentric body language. In his childlike way (particularly the exploratory, enquiring nature of the as-yet-unformed), Shorter reveals his inner self, always responding to his surroundings in an intuitive fashion. So, it was clear that, at the outset of this performance, he wasn't settled, comfortable or happy with his tools. He had a problem with his soprano saxophone mouthpiece and reed, so curtly downed the horn, switching back to his tenor. This dissatisfaction ended, forming part of Shorter's musical strategy, influencing the course of the improvisation.

Usually, within this quartet setting, Shorter might stick with a single horn (most often his tenor) for the best part of an hour, before turning to an alternative. But, for the opening stretch of this gig, he was regularly swapping between the two, playing a few phrases before alternating. Eventually, he seemed happy with the soprano, but the rapid changeovers remained in place. Later on, Brian Blade had a problem with his snare drum, which once again influenced the music, as his three colleagues were forced into a trio run. This is so unlike the world of rock and pop: such a high profile gig, and the musicians were fiddling around with their malfunctioning instruments. Where were the roadies?!

It's always magnetizing to observe Shorter's internal workings, revealed so plainly in his demeanor. He was openly hesitant, as he anticipated a suitable entry point, to join the patterns being constructed by Blade, pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Patitucci. This lineup has been together for just over a decade, and their immeasurable rapport has become famed within this music as the ultimate example of stable improvising instability. In other words, they dedicate themselves to surprising each other, night after night. The game plan is often similar, yet the details change. The format is to play what sounds like a seamless improvisational piece, for at least an hour, without pause. Even if different compositions appear, segueing into each other, it all still sounds like a single impro-suite. On this night, Shorter stood slightly apart, responding to the rhythmic unity of the other three players. He was embellishing, stitching and weaving around their constructions with the freedom of the loner. This outsider approach led to Shorter making sharp bursts of sound, rippling statements that would suddenly cease for a spell of contemplation.

Once Shorter settled down in his surroundings, it became easier for the audience to immerse itself. There seems to be something about this venue which courts inattention from its punters. The rows seemed too full of cameramen, loud talkers and folks fiddling with their illuminated devices. Because the band adopts a certain casual relaxedness, this might be taken the wrong way by the audience: as a sign that fidgeting is allowed. The quartet's music demands great concentration, their explorations loaded with atmosphere, space and tentative pauses. Because this is a society function, much like a night at the opera, folks felt the need to make themselves heard more than is usually needed, as if to make their personal communication with Shorter. Normally, I advocate verbal audience interjections, up to a reasonable point, to take jazz back to its raunchy whorehouse past. But this wasn't really the kind of music for that: this was music that demanded complete silence, for once.

For an artist who is now one of the greatest living creators of jazz, Shorter takes an astounding series of chances. He's never complacent. He's always searching for new ways to state his thoughts. Because of this experimental approach, the quartet opened itself up to occasional failure. The last time that I witnessed them, before this gig, was at the 2010 Jazz Middelheim festival in Belgium—the best set I've experienced from this lineup. The first time that I saw them play was near the beginning of their journey, in Birmingham, England. On that occasion, they were strangely meandering.


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