Joy Writer: Wayne Shorter

This isn’t a review of the Wayne Shorter Quartet plus Imani Winds at Carnegie Hall, it’s an appreciation. It was a pure joy to hear. It was pretty clear that the musicians felt that joy too.

The main thing that touches is how modern Shorter remains in the current environment and in the continuum of American music. That’s not for nothing, and his music continues to defy expectations and confront assumptions about melody, harmony, rhythm, and especially, form. But that sounds so academic – the music is powerfully moving, and so profoundly human.

Imani Winds opened with Villas Lobos – the acoustic sound of the Hall a perfect fit. They then played Terra Incognita, the piece they commissioned from Shorter a few years ago, nailing the open improvisatory sections as well as the more precise and driving sections that were, for lack of a better word, Shorter-esque. Hints of his melodies floated by, at one point the theme from Water Babies almost intact. But the thing about these melodies is that they all have such character. Strong intervals in unusual parts of the beat. And there are certain motives that just belong to Wayne, so I never had the feeling he was raiding his own book, more like airing it out.

Then the Quartet came out and played a little over an hour without pause. This group seems to be the perfect expression of Wayne’s (I’m going to go with the first name here, last name seems so formal) compositional mind. One of the hardest things in music is handling freedom. Real freedom, as demonstrated by this current phase of Wayne’s work, means listening, inuiting, knowing the material cold, and then going out and making something from nothing.

He would lead them to certain areas, only to head fake and go another direction. Each band member also instigated directions, Danilo Perez occasionally with explicit chords, John Patitucci with bowed or plucked lines, Brian Blade with those incredibly sophisticated and understated rhythms that timbrally worked the room in an uncanny way. They were each perfect, as individuals and as pieces of a puzzle that wasn’t always going to be solved in a linear fashion. But yet, there was never any sense that an invitation denied was a problem. On the contrary, Wayne seemed to revel in the clashing of two ideas that had maybe never been heard together before.

I recognized some themes, didn’t recognize others. It didn’t matter, it was all played with such ferocity, sincerity, humor, grace and humility. Like Shorter has found a way to put all of life into his music. I cried a few times, just from the sheer directness. And from joy – in the blessing of being able to be there to hear all the ideas, thoughts, feelings and emotions get expressed.

There are those who would rue Shorter’s divergence from common practice in jazz. There’s a story about Picasso presenting a portrait of the wife of a rich patron. The patron says,”That’s not what my wife looks like,” and presents a pocket photo to demonstrate. And Picasso says, “Oh. I had no idea she was so small.” Literalists may have cause for concern.

Even so, the quartet played Joy Ryder almost as a head-solos-head tune. OK, so the jagged edges of the bass line and the exaggerated harmonies are unusual. But they played the form faithfully, no doubt. And the tempo was the classic ‘several shades faster than the studio version’ that seems de rigeur in jazz.

In a way, the final act was the culmination of everything Wayne has done through the years. The Three Marias, a new treatment with woodwind quintet of a piece from the album Atlantis, brought home how free Wayne is with his ideas. The themes were all there, but there were extra bars, woodwind soli, extended improvisations, re-harmonizations. And I had the feeling that all of that was probably there when the original recording was made, but just didn’t make it in. This was a new vision of how free and how flexible those pieces really are.

Perhaps the most awesome part of this concert was the amount of writing. Reams and reams of composition, some of it played and some of it merely available. All of it surprising. Piece after piece, never getting predictable or even particularly ambitious – just pure expression page after page.

It was clear how much fun Wayne Shorter was having. He’d play lines and then mug at the Imanis. He would intentionally play one of their riffs on the wrong side of the beat. He even stopped playing at one point and whistled into the microphone. No big deal. He was there for the music.

And we are all so thankful for that. It is special to see someone who has been through so much, contributed so much, who is still giving everything he has for the creative act. For eternity, as he would say. After two hours without intermission, the crowd whistled his themes in their demands for an encore.