Opera House, Wellington
Wednesday, June 8
This quartet has been performing together across the last few years as Shorter leaves his reputation as a composer to the side and explores lengthy tone-poems, improvisations based around grooves that are mostly just implied, the waft of his horn often little more than a remnant, hardly ever the key to the tune, a texture, a set of tones that works sometimes with though mostly against the other musical ideas.
There’s an old joke about jazz being four of the most talented players on the planet all going at once or as if leading four different bands. It was hard not to think of that, even when Blade’s dazzling skill at switching between sticks, brushes and multi-rods never seemed to interrupt the flow of his dancing hands; even when Perez reached inside the lid of the piano to mute the strings and play as much with his mind as his fingers; even when Patitucci found the space for a warm weave of bass-line; even when we were reminded via a strain of soprano-saxophone that Wayne Shorter had not only left his own indelible markings on jazz via compositions and appearances on records by Miles Davis, Art Blakey and under his own name but had also powered pop hits by Steely Dan and Joni Mitchell.
Yes, the playing was astounding, sometimes – in little stolen moments – it was even mesmerising. There was of course great skill in the way it morphed from casual to cacophonous, seemingly within a split second. Shorter is one of the greats. Here he was carefully protected by three phenomenal players. At times we caught a glimpse of his vulnerability. This was often and probably by mistake, when the music – or the environment around the music – seemed most moving. When he winced because he didn’t like his own tone, couldn’t hear the notes he wanted to hear, couldn’t make the music into the shape he craved or simply struggled with the mouthpiece. That was when he had us connected.
The rest of the time this was noise, shapeless, and ironically lacking dynamically when judged as an entire set. Each improvised work was roughly the same length, the same blob of sound, the same blocks of noise being shifted about the stage. It was great to see a living legend, the playing was impressive. But it didn’t mean anything. We couldn’t catch it, couldn’t hold it. Like smoke it was hard to manage. And then it was gone. Not quite the fire I expected.
This review first appeared in The Dominion Post and online at Stuff here
(Erratum: In the original draft I wrote ‘alto’ saxophone when I had meant ‘soprano’. An unfortunate typo, a result of being pressed for time – though it does not change the tone of what I meant the outraged jazz fans latched onto it, so I’ve changed it to the correct instrument in this version).