“What do you give as a present to life, in celebration of life, when life has it all? The effort of being original is like, ‘Thank you’.” – Wayne Shorter
“Music means, ‘I dare you’.” – Wayne Shorter
Wayne Shorter is a jazz musician. A saxophonist. He gained prominence composing and performing with the genre’s iconoclasts of the 60s & 70s (Art Blakey, Miles Davis, Lee Morgan, Herbie Hancock) and has since accumulated a Forrest Gump-like resume, founding fusion group Weather Report alongside Joe Zawinul and Jaco Pastorius as well as his namesake quartet and collaborating with the likes of Santana and the Rolling Stones. Lover of science-fiction, outer space, and comic book super heroes. Practitioner of Nichiren Buddhism. Age in earth years: 83. Spirit (in his own words): Eternal.
I went to hear and see the Wayne Shorter Quartet in concert last night at the SFJazz Center. I’m not exactly sure what I heard and saw. I was lifted by what I heard and saw. I was floored by what I heard and saw. I am continuing to piece together exactly what I experienced during that 90 minutes. For now, I’ll call what I heard and saw a “play”.
The band members assemble on stage in a comfortable amble. Danilo Perez, piano. Wayne Shorter, Saxophones. John Patitucci, Bass. Terri Lyne Carrington, Drums. Act one: four musicians settling into a room. Preparatory tones commence and give way to non-directed rhythms as soon as the collective settle into their positions in their chairs, behind their instruments. Shorter percussively moves sheet music and mouthpieces around his music stand, tapping his chair and drawing with his pointer finger on the side of Perez’s piano as the other three players lay a delicate, slowly rolling foundation. Shorter breathes shallowly and quietly into the tenor, fingers its keys for several minutes as Carrington files behind Patitutici’s driving and exact lower end and fills Perez’s building clouds-passing-ever-quickly-by flourishes with cascading triplets and melodic cymbal rolls. Something astrally significant seemed to be unfolding.
As the voice of Shorter’s saxophone entered in a graceful gale several minutes later, we were swept into a stream and away with the Quartet’s current of eternal sound for the remainder of the set. Their majestic, rising, multi-part melodies and stormy tension-&-release sequences were naturally and in turn accented by all manners of vocalizations and expressive body language throughout the set: laughing, hand signals towards the skies, swirling whistles, whimsical pointing and winking games with one another and audience members. The sheet music? I didn’t see Shorter look at it once.
An intentionally intuitive, purposefully experimental form of playing prevailed through the series of spirited exchanges that comprised the performance. This anchored yet adventurous approach served as a powerful reminder: Communication is the fundamental basis of music, and music is the evolutionary byproduct of expressive communication.
Conversational dynamics became absorbed into the music. The musical dynamics formed a sort of unlimited conversation. And boy was the conversation lively. There were no discernible solos. No one in the audience “knew” when to clap. To clap would have seemed an interruption. When the sound simmered, the hall spasmed in hoots and hollers. The only words spoken into the microphone during the performance, were delivered by Shorter himself during one of the three pauses after the group had resolved a particularly tempestuous passage: “The Wicked Witch of the West is dead!”
An hour went by in a minute. That minute lasted a day. The beginning of the set immediately ceded to the conclusion. The end waved as it snaked past the start.
It was, without a doubt, the most personally impactful jazz experience I have had in 10+ years avidly following, and trying to understand, the art form. I have seen hundreds of heralded groups perform, including the Shorter Quartet several years ago with Brian Blade on drums, and have never seen or heard anything as cosmically in-tune and high frequency as I did last night. I was out of my seat for most of the night and marched back home to Oakland with more gusto than when I head left that afternoon. I was riveted. I was perplexed. I deeply wanted to understand what I just witnessed and to feel it again. In the words of Jack Kerouac, I emerged from the concert “mad to live.”
What I heard and saw was, clearly, in one way, jazz. Was, clearly, in one way, music. Yet it was clearly not jazz. Jazz would be an insufficient phrase in this instance. Music seems too narrow a phrase as well. What I saw and heard was more expansive than that in terms of its expressive and communicative qualities.
Shorter has mentioned in recent interviews that, at this stage in his career, he prefers to avoid rehearsal with the Quartet and would rather not write songs. He suggests such practices are limiting in their over-definition. Their over-prescription. Conversely, he speaks fondly of his unstructured childhood days when he and his friends were allowed to play with no awareness of time or task, an innocent and curious state he revisits and reflects as a practicing Buddhist. Sitting on my porch late last night, I began to piece together how such beliefs informed Shorter and company’s “performance”, if you can call it that. And I won’t.
What I heard and saw was proof that songs aren’t a precondition of music. Not even close. That music can travel across a spectrum of sound, of which songs occupy only one, at times distant, end. That a spectrum of eternal sound exists and sits upon a lofty plane of human communication that can only be reached by those who play around in the spaces that connect music to sound to communication. The most pure, unadulterated account of what I saw and heard last night is that four players were “play”ing music. “Play”ing with music. With each other. It did not seem to be a performance. This was more of a “play”. A “play” as in a high form of expressive communication beyond spoken language and physical action in which humans engage in acts & sounds both ephemeral and eternal
That’s my best attempt to explain what I saw and heard last night.
(4/29-30/2017 -Hayes Valley, San Francisco & Adams Point, Oakland, California)
MORE ON WAYNE SHORTER
See this 2013 documentary about Wayne Shorter, “Language of the Unknown”, courtesy of Max Web on YouTube:
Here is the Shorter Quartet’s full 2012 Paris performance that makes up the concert footage of the documentary, again courtesy of Max Web:
Lastly, a film about Wayne Shorter is on the horizon. Titled “Wayne Shorter: Zero Gravity”, the film’s website claims the project is currently in post-production and will be released sometime in 2017: