Wayne Shorter’s appearance at USC provided a tantalizing glimpse of the legendary but elusive saxophonist and composer — the closest thing jazz has to a J.D. Salinger figure. On the one hand, the four tunes Shorter played with his quintet to open the evening marked his first leadership of an acoustic group in many years — big news in itself in the jazz world. The high level of musical empathy suggested the thrills that would undoubtedly be in store if this band tours and records. On the other hand, the second half of the concert, with backing from a full symphony orchestra, was marred by the kind of bland and pointlessly busy arrangements that made Shorter’s last solo album in 1995 an unlistenable creative dead-end. But an orchestration of classic Shorter compositions from his fertile mid-1960s period — when he was the creative engine of the Miles Davis quintet — was more promising.
In recent years, long-suffering Shorter devotees have largely had to make do with Shorter’s impressive but brief appearances as a guest on other albums, or even movie soundtracks (unlikely but true: “Glengarry Glen Ross” had some evocative soloing). His own recordings as a leader, with proficiently boring electrified backing, have been both frustratingly infrequent (four albums in the past two decades) and so complex as to be emotionally uninvolving.
But there’s been reason for hope. The austere and lovely 1997 duet album he recorded with Herbie Hancock suggested a return to Shorter’s previous creative heights was in the offing.
Thus, the first half of the concert was the equivalent of a much-dreamed of drink of water after a long march across the desert. The loose interplay among the musicians — particularly young phenoms Brad Mehldau on piano and Terri Lyne Carrington on drums, both of them hugely sensitive players — was near-telepathic.
While the group rapport was reminiscent of the 1960s Davis group (with Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams), what was most impressive was the clear sense of Shorter’s own personal stamp on this band.
Shorter is a musical impressionist whose particular gift is to be intense, gentle and passionate at the same time. But his reticent personality means he has sometimes been overshadowed in groups, as in the later days of jazz-rock outfit Weather Report (which he co-founded).
So it was particularly satisfying to hear Shorter leading a band that reflected his own musical personality so well, even if one wished he’d given himself more solo space. The quintet closed with an extended outing on Shorter’s 1964 classic “JuJu,” with Carrington breaking into an infectious samba beat at the end. Shorter hasn’t led music this enjoyable since the heyday of Weather Report in the late 1970s.
The second half of the concert focused on Shorter’s collaboration with conductor Robert Sadin (who produced the recent Hancock tribute to George Gershwin, “Gershwin’s World”), with the USC student orchestra joining the quintet. The most ambitious piece was also, alas, the most disappointing: a long new composition of Shorter’s called “Capricorn II,” which segued into “Szygy.”
Like the funk tunes on Shorter’s 1995 album “High Life,” these orchestral pieces consisted of an endless stream of brief motifs and tricky time changes that ultimately added up to very little.
Far more effective were the orchestrations of “Angola” and “Orbits,” two Shorter tunes from the 1960s. On “Orbits” (from the 1966 Davis album “Miles Smiles”), the orchestra set the stage, then dropped out as Shorter delivered his meatiest tenor sax solo of the evening.
The engaging rhythmic punch of these briefer pieces reminded one that Davis once said Shorter was a great short story writer, less suited to epics and sagas.
Sadin and Shorter are currently shaping this material for an album due next year. Let’s hope that Shorter and his label, Verve, make plenty of room for the new Wayne Shorter Quintet as well.