Wayne Shorter Quartet [Wayne Shorter (soprano & tenor saxophones), Danilo Pérez (piano), John Patitucci (double bass) & Brian Blade (drums)]
BBC Concert Orchestra
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 17 November, 2013
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
One hears so much about jazz artists who died ‘before their time’ that it is always reassuring to remember those who have not only lived through to old age but also continue to make music at the highest level. Among those still on active service, Wayne Shorter, recently turned 80, is as significant as any. Whether in his pioneering work with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in the 1960s, his association with Miles Davis in the emergence of jazz fusion at the turn of the following decade, or then his involvement with the ground-breaking Weather Report, Shorter has been an influential yet undemonstrative presence – continued this past decade with his eponymous Quartet, which was the focus of the two sets in this Barbican Hall concert.
The first of these was performed by the Quartet alone, its brace of substantial pieces (though given the evidently intricate chord charts from which the musicians were playing, these were ostensibly extemporisations rather than improvisations) – each playing for just under 20 minutes – a veritable masterclass in chamber jazz whose premises are all too often taken for granted at a time when size and impact have become determining factors in assessing musical quality. The first emerged gradually and almost teasingly from fugitive gestures on bass and drums, but it was not long before the piano entered with Danilo Pérez’s distinctive amalgam of post-impressionist chords and a rhythmic incisiveness evoking his Panamanian roots. For the most part Shorter restricted himself to brief yet exquisitely placed phrases that upped the expressive ante towards a lithe close made more so by Brian Blade’s animated drumming. The second was more elaborate and more wide-ranging – beginning as it did with the poetic interplay of John Patitucci’s bowed bass and Pérez’s elegant chording, then embarking on a gradual yet remorseless intensification whose climax was signalled by Shorter’s switching from tenor to soprano saxophone for a tensile and thrilling outburst such as propelled the music-making onto another level. Technically and emotionally this was the highpoint of the evening.
The second set saw the WSQ joined by the BBC Concert Orchestra and the dependable Clark Rundell for a selection of four numbers from Shorter’s back catalogue. While this was hardly a disappointment in terms of musicianship or maginative arrangement, it did point up the question as to how jazz soloists can best be combined with larger and more generalised forces. Not that the BBC Concert Orchestra’s contribution was other than well prepared and finely attuned; only that these massed groupings of wind and strings (with an effervescent ‘garnish’ from percussionist Alasdair Malloy) tended to dilute the solo playing such that there was a sameness of texture as well as expression, besides positioning the music within a broad big-band ambit ranging from Bill Russo to Gil Evans. Yet there was much to enjoy, although the pieces were not named; there was no programme or any announcements from the platform, so one number enjoyed effortless acceleration and close-knit integration of quartet and orchestra, while another was reconfigured to resemble a scherzo with two trios such as emphasised the orchestra and the quartet accordingly. Then the two entities were more closely aligned, in which a piquant contribution from the woodwinds helped throw the playing of Shorter and Pérez into relief, before the finale enabled Shorter to demonstrate his soprano sax at its most eloquent and thus bring the second set to an energetic and rousing close.
The reception was predictably and yet not unreasonably enthusiastic – the punters clearly hoping for an encore that was not forthcoming – and Shorter remaining as self-effacing as at the outset while clearly appreciative of the contributions from his colleagues and of the BBCCO. Some two-and-a-half years since he last played at the Barbican, his reputation has only grown and, while it would be idle to pretend future appearances will be frequent, one can be gratified that his playing has retained its suppleness and poise. The highlight of this year’s London Jazz Festival? It is hard to imagine otherwise.