It seems fair to say that by the time most of us approach an 80th birthday – if we're fortunate enough to get that far – we've become rather set in our ways.
Not Wayne Shorter. In two months, the legendary saxophonist-composer will celebrate the great milestone, but Friday night at Symphony Center he clearly was intent on pushing himself and his band into the free-flying, free-flowing, free-wheeling outer reaches of jazz improvisation. The music proved challenging and amorphous at some moments, thrillingly unpredictable and ultimately triumphant at others. Though Shorter played considerably briefer and more telegraphic solos than in earlier years, the intensity, conviction, integrity and drive of this work were beyond question.
Shorter and his quartet launched the concert with the same music that opens their newest recording, the aptly titled "Without a Net" (Blue Note Records). But if the recording – a collection of live performances – documented the kinds of risks these artists are willing to take, the concert brought those perils into high relief.
The evening began with mists of sound, four instrumentalists producing wisps of color and texture – rather than any discernible motif – in Shorter's "Orbits." For quite awhile, listeners were left to ponder how pianist Danilo Perez's softly arpeggiated chords, bassist John Patitucci's ethereal lines, drummer Brian Blade's abrupt punctuations and Shorter's elliptical gestures on tenor saxophone interrelated. The diaphanous, atmospheric music seemed to float, unfettered by backbeat, time signature, tonal center or any of the other tools by which listeners usually get their moorings.
Instead, Shorter and the quartet produced a translucent music in which four distinct instrumental sonorities came together and came apart in ways that none of these musicians could have scripted. Only improvisers who have been working together for years would dare to start a concert this way, and only a bandleader who gives his audience credit for a great deal of musical intelligence would have attempted it.
In "Lotus Flower," which followed, pianist Perez's extended, exotic chords set the stage for Patitucci's legato bowed lines and Blades' exquisitely delicate mallet work. In effect, these musicians created gauzy layers of sound for Shorter to penetrate with insistent, piercing phrases on tenor (and, later, soprano saxophone). Rather than build to a dramatic and predictable climax, "Lotus Flower" swelled and contracted in waves of sensuous sound. When Shorter played a solo, it was compact but searing, terse phrases interrupted by startling silences.
So it went throughout an intermissionless set, these four players responding to each other swiftly in music that was harmonically complex and rhythmically volatile. None of it was easily grasped by the casual listener, but all of it bristled with a spirit of invention, Shorter's questing, slightly raspy lines on saxophones serving as the only musical focal point (if you could call his mysterious, ambiguous utterances that).
Certainly his high-register cries in "Joy Rider," near the end of the evening, underscored the power of his work, notwithstanding the economy of his statements. Here, as elsewhere, Shorter relied heavily on his younger collaborators to provide the lion's share of sound and rhythmic momentum. But his pithy exclamations attested to how far from the jazz mainstream he still wishes to work.
Even the evening's only standard tune, "By Myself," saw Shorter barely hinting at the famous melody line and offering only shards of it as his performance progressed. But anyone who can dismantle and reassemble a classic with this degree of alacrity clearly still has a great deal to say.