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Wayne Shorter: Life & Music

Wayne Shorter stands as one of the living giants of jazz, a towering presence over the last half-century of the music both as a saxophonist and a composer. With his seventieth birthday coming on August 25th, a celebration entitled "Wayne Shorter: Life & Music" was held at the Hollywood Bowl as part of the Wednesday Night Jazz Series. Performing alongside Mr. Shorter were his working quartet--bassist John Patitucci, drummer Brian Blade and Danilo Perez on Piano--the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra under the direction of Nicole Paiement, and three very special guests: longtime musical associate Herbie Hancock, Carlos Santana and the dancer Savion Glover.

As the last rays of sunlight disappeared behind the Hollywood Hills, the Wayne Shorter Quartet took the stage. How best to describe the experience of hearing them? I suppose it is relevant to note that their first set consisted of about twenty-five minutes of near continuous improvisation beginning with Wayne Shorter playing the tenor saxophone on "Sanctuary," that Wayne alternated between tenor and soprano during the set and that one of the highlights was the group's version of "Juju," Pattituci’s introductory bowing really drawing you in. That said, it nevertheless seems to me an inadequate way to describe the dynamics of this group-a bit like describing a national forest as containing a few rows of elms, some pines and maples, and so on. The overall effect of their performance is altogether more than the sum of its parts.

Although Wayne Shorter is considered in some quarters to be the greatest living composer of jazz, his performances with the Quartet seem less a set of tunes than a extraordinary conversation between four very talented musicians who share a communicative talent that, if you’ll pardon the pun, borders on E.S.P. To use another analogy, the group functions like a remarkably talented and unselfish basketball team with a keen understanding of spacing, one where each player is an all-star in their own right yet nonetheless willing to defer individual glory to advance team goals. The Quartet passed several musical and extra musical ideas around the stage, with each player including Shorter content to modestly advance the dialog to a logical resolution without undue pyrotechnics and then pass it over to the instrumentalist in the best position to take it from there. Now, if that’s not Zen enough for you--I’m tempted to say that that probably means you’ve been spared having to listen to Phil Jackson too much--I’ll offer this metaphor, which occurred to me the first time I heard this group three years ago in San Francisco and again during this performance in L.A. Sonically, their music has the quality of the ocean’s waters, Shorter’s saxophone breezing humidly above Danilo Perez’s glistening piano, Pattituci’s bass bubbling along as the melodies crash against Brian Blade’s cymbals, the sounds flowing back and forth among the different instruments.

Following that brief set, the rhythm section left the stage and Herbie Hancock sat down at the piano to an enthusiastic response from the Bowl audience, joining Mr. Shorter for a duet. On some level inextricably linked since their joint tenure with Miles Davis’ second great Quintet in the 1960s, the two living legends continued their forty-year association with a labyrinthine, abstract improvisation in the manner of their underrated 1997 release One + One. Before taking an intermission, Mr. Hancock spent a few minutes talking about his friend and colleague and expounding on the implications of the evening’s title, saying that Wayne Shorter’s music is about life and that his life is also about music-more inextricable links.

The Hollywood Bowl Orchestra trickled onto the stage during the intermission, joined by the Quartet as the houselights dimmed. Under the energetic baton of Ms. Paiement, the combined groups performed several pieces, some dating all the way back to the Davis era and perhaps half of the set culled from Alegria, Wayne Shorter’s current Verve release featuring a small orchestra. As Shorter has become more interested in classical and traditional music outside the jazz idiom over the last several years, increasingly featuring such compositions on his recordings, it is perhaps unsurprising that Milka Himel & Joso Spralga’s "Vendiendo Alegria"--the current CD’s nominal title track--was one of the set’s highlights. Herbie Hancock was on and off the stage, once standing in for Perez, other times doubling him up on a Fender Rhodes keyboard. Savion Glover joined in on a couple of number, his percussive tap dancing energizing the crowd and, at it’s best, interacting with Brian Blade’s drumming in a way that recalled the interplay of Grateful Dead percussionists Bill Kreutzman & Mickey Hart.

It was in the middle of this set that Carlos Santana--who toured with Wayne Shorter on at least two occasions in the 1980s, once on a joint Weather Report/Santana tour and another time leading Shorter, Hancock, Ron Carter & Tony Williams--joined the group, playing on "Novus." As has he has taken to doing of late, Carlos began the tune playing a mounted Spanish guitar before switching to the more familiar electric instrument that slung from his shoulder. Shorter and Santana alternated lines and then came together beautifully. Perhaps conscious of his greater celebrity and not wanting to take any glory away from Wayne on his night--it’s one thing, after all, to be on the cover of DownBeat or even Rolling Stone, but quite another to be featured in publications like People--that was to be all that we heard from Carlos Santana. I’d say that was unfortunate, but for the brilliance of the other musicians involved and the fact that it was great simply to hear him at all in a pure jazz context.

The Hollywood Bowl’s presentation of "Wayne Shorter: Life and Music" was another successful event in the 2003 Wednesday Night Jazz Series, a fitting tribute to the artist’s legacy and, better still, a brilliant display of his continuing relevance. In his sixth decade as a saxophonist and a composer, Wayne Shorter is still an improviser of the highest order, Ornette Coleman and Sonny Rollins perhaps his only real peers. With so much to look back on, it’s all the more amazing to realize there is more left to come.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Wayne Shorter
  • Concert Date: 8/6/2003
  • Subtitle: Herbie Hancock, Carlos Santana and others pay tribute to a friend and living legend
  • Venue: Hollywood Bowl
  • City State Country: Los Angeles, CA
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