Review: Wayne Shorter Quartet

In some quarters, the music that the Wayne Shorter Quartet makes has a reputation of being heady, unconventional and mysterious to the point of inscrutability.

Wayne Shorter Quartet

Dominion-Chalmers United Church

Reviewed: Sunday, 7 p.m.

In some quarters, the music that the Wayne Shorter Quartet makes has a reputation of being heady, unconventional and mysterious to the point of inscrutability.

And yet, even if the legendary 79-year-old saxophonist and his group delved into a musical world all its own Sunday night, the crowd that packed Dominion-Chalmers United Church was with the band every step of the way.

The audience seemed primed from the get-go to take in and support the Shorter group’s wide-open playing, from the moment when they greeted Shorter’s arrival on stage with a prolonged standing ovation.

In that respect, the concert was something of a love-in, with Shorter’s accompanists for more than the last decade and by now seasoned initiates regarding his musical modus operandi – pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade – grinning and applauding almost as much as audience members were.

What followed was unlike anything heard in the 2013 TD Ottawa Jazz Festival’s previous 10 days, indeed unlike anything heard in Ottawa since Shorter last played the festival’s Confederation Park main stage in 2009.

In the church, where the sound quality was absolutely pristine and natural, the band played nonstop for 65 minutes, working as a team to build the musical equivalent of a novel or a movie in real-time. Shorter and his musicians laid bare the creative process, joining snippets of written material, group improvising based on written material and totally unscripted spontaneous playing in an unfurling narrative.

It was, indeed, mysterious and rich with intrigue, with not a word ever uttered from the stage to demystify the proceedings. Even Shorter buffs were hard-pressed to recognized elliptically played snippets of some of his brilliant compositions. (Within the
65-minute musical story, an exploration of a few bars from Shorter’s tune Orbits, which the saxophonist recorded with Miles Davis more than 45 years ago, did leap out.)

And yet, there was so much clarity to what Shorter and company did – the collaborative gestures, the swelling in unison, the spontaneous segues – that for the audience, the unfamiliar became the entrancing.

There was so much emotion and intention from every man on stage — from Perez’s smallest suspenseful trill and grand, orchestral improvisations to Patitucci’s dramatic bowed passages and marvelous low-end anchoring, to Blade’s subtle, tribal rhythms and celebratory cymbal crashes — that the audience could only be hooked by the unfolding story.

That’s not to mention what might have made the greatest impact, which was the sheer expressiveness of  Shorter’s playing. It was frequently sotto voce, occasionally heroically broad and at one point intensely shrieking.

And that, in turn, was not to mention Shorter’s patience and relationship with silence, which guided him in knowing when the music needed him to do something explicit and audible versus intuiting that his presence and a thumbs-up gesture or facial cue was enough.

All of these aspects made for an engrossing, unrepeatable experience in which multi-coloured musical passages flowed into each other, in the sound of a bell struck or an accentuated saxophone note or piano chord hanging in the air meant it was time to move on. The music kept tumbling and developing, growing from tension-laden passages filled with potential into especially lucid sections that felt like points of arrival. And yet, no musical episode every overstayed its welcome.

After 65 minutes, there was a moment of silence, and during those few seconds it seemed that Shorter was poised and about to play again, adding another chapter to the novel. But before he could, there was a standing ovation that seemed to catch the band by surprise. It was almost as if the listeners had had a hand in determining the contour of their concert experience.

The band played two much more brief, tautly focused but still exploratory pieces. Plaza Real, which Shorter recorded 30 years with the co-op seminal jazz-fusion band Weather Report, was a burst of joy.

The crowd whooped for an encore, and the band returned to deliver an abstracted version of a piece that appeared on his recording High Life.

With that, Shorter and his band left for good, the leader disappearing last from the stage after a final bow and two thumbs-up for a church filled people who had had their minds blown.

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