Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Legendary saxophonist Wayne Shorter redefines jazz's boundaries

Wayne Shorter has lived through many of jazz's finest moments. The art form is etched into his bones.

He was a protege during the bebop era, learning the craft under giants like Miles Davis and Art Blakey, making contributions here and there. In 1971, he founded jazz fusion mainstays Weather Report with Joe Zawinul, and took the first steps toward crafting his own indelible imprint upon the annals of jazz.

Shorter's recordings today are still steeped in those traditions he helped forge over 40 years ago. If you're looking for relaxing background jazz or a soundtrack for an elegant dinner party, this is not your album. If, however, you want to listen to a visionary capable of challenging most listeners' understanding of the art form, Shorter will provide riches in spades.

His quartet engages in a somewhat unusual style. Shorter is the bandleader -- on paper. In reality, it's more like a party of equals, so many times they'll go off in their own direction without losing their theme or sense of cohesion. This is truly a staggering feat; it literally opens up a hundred million directions they could go within a single piece. There are moments of pure cacophony, then there are little subdued moments that ease you into a lull, and sometimes there are moments of pure, lovely melody. But it usually isn't long before Shorter's sharp saxophone stabs penetrate into the foreground like an unexpected guest.

The songs on this album can be broken down into three separate categories. Let's start with Shorter's reinventions of previously recorded songs. He picked out three songs from different eras, rewrote them, and produced a work that fits cleverly fits under the umbrella of what he's trying to do on the album.

Album opener "Orbits" was a standard bebop piece he wrote for Davis's 1967 album Miles Smiles, but the version presented here sounds like a quartet directed by a mad scientist. It opens with some menacing piano chords from Danilo Perez and demented sax, setting the tone for the rest of the album. The main refrain from the original song is retained, but the rest is unrecognizable. Shorter employs shrill sax, and the piano work sounds like a five alarm fire is going off. But even as the band members drift apart from one another, they always manage to find their way back.

"Plaza Real" was a song Shorter originally wrote for The Weather Report. The original had more of a warm, eclectic flavor to it, with more whistling, flutes and electronic effects. The Without a Net version doesn't bear a great resemblance to its predecessor, but it does bring the same startling level of musicianship. This is one of the band's more passionate pieces. There are plenty of wild solos from Shorter as drummer Brian Blade goes wild. You can even hear whooping and hollering from the crowd around the 3:08 mark.

His last reinvention is the title song from "Flying Down to Rio." This one sounds virtually nothing like the original,  but appropriately is more subdued than his other two reinventions  It serves as a great showoff piece for Blade and Perez.

The second category consists of several original compositions preformed with Shorter's quartet only. "S.S. Golden Mean" is one of Shorter's greatest showoff pieces, which he coats in wild frilly saxophone solos that go all over the place. The song's underbelly is crisp and melodious, at least until the drums start to make their presence known about halfway through.

"Starry Night" is a more calm and subdued, allowing the talents of Perez and bassist John Patitucci to take center stage. Shorter picks up the pace later on and the whole band goes nuts at the end. "Myrrh" is one of the briefer but more enjoyable pieces, being predicated upon a sense of unease and tension established by Shorter's piercing sax shrieks and the clattering of cymbals and drum pads. It ends in a roar, finalized by the clanging crescendo of the piano.

"Zero Gravity to the 10th Power," meanwhile, provides Patitucci with his moment in the sun. The entire rhythm section is insane here. Shorter takes a backseat on this track until near the end, at which point he frenetically alternates solos between himself and Perez.

Finally, there is the 23 minute piece "Pegasus" which the Wayne Shorter Quartet recorded alongside the Imani Winds quintet. This gives the piece a strong orchestral feel; think Fantasia mixed along with free flowing jazz. The Imani Winds take the lead for the first third of the song, then they begin to lay a backdrop for Shorter to solo off of. He takes the lead in the song's second half, before tapering off and allowing the two outfits to masterfully complement one another for the last few minutes of the song.

Without a Net, like many of Shorter's recent releases, is a demanding piece of jazz. You have to be in the mood for it, and it certainly isn't for everyone. Given its length and density, there may be times this album  makes your head hurt.

Shorter has long had an affinity for experimentation and there's no chance he's shying away from that. Yet it perfectly captures what jazz is about -- the interplay, the improvisation, the way each bandmember can feel each other like putting on an old glove -- these have always been the core elements of the art form, experimental or not. The opportunity that Without a Net presents is a chance to hear some of the world's best doing it better than almost anyone else.

Score: 83/100

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