To celebrate his 75th year, saxophonist Wayne Shorter chose to acknowledge his own forward-thinking nature, alternating between a position within the intersection of jazz and classical composition and a rule-free role as a band leader. The nearly two-hour evening beamed with impressive musicianship, the strongest communicative moments coming in a final segment in which his quartet and the Imani Winds ensemble worked their way through some of Shorter’s jazz compositions, which were twisted in a multitude of directions.
The Walt Disney Concert Hall perf was similar to one held at Carnegie Hall last week. The Imani Winds, an African-American quintet of four females on woodwinds and Jeff Scott on French horn, performed Heitor Villa-Lobos’ “Quinteto em Forma de Choros,” a piece that motors along like a car ride from pastures into a busy city, and Shorter’s “Terra Incognita,” a commissioned work for the band. The jazz quartet partnered well in its use of alternating lead instruments, shared lines and the infusion of light.
The quartet played for 40 minutes with no stops between what seemed to be four distinct songs, “Joy Ryder” most likely being one of them. Set opened with the musicians transitioning from warm-ups and sound check techniques into a full-on performance, blurring the lines between an individual’s responsibility to sound his or her best and simultaneously adhere to a group cohesiveness. In retrospect, it’s evident Shorter is attempting to ignore the edicts of jazz scripture more than he has done in recent years, allowing harmony elements to support the tunes’ throughline. The musicians take individual directions at all times; Shorter is the only one who anticipates the moves of the others.
Shorter toyed with the concept as far back as 1967 on the tune “Kryptonite” and when he has used musicians half his age in his acoustic bands, as in this group’s 2005 album “Beyond the Sound Barrier.” At Disney Concert Hall, the methodology defined the act rather than playing a part in the overall definition of the evening.
In the moment, the music’s ambition was clouded by static blocks, passages that created neither tension nor movement. It exposed the risk Shorter takes by using this approach.
At about the midpoint, though, Shorter moved to more robust, earthy tones on his tenor saxophone, and the band responded with an appealing assertiveness; Brian Blade attacked his snare and floor toms as if he did not want them to last the night, and pianist Danilo Perez moved from stringing fragments together to find booming chords that brought resolution to his improvisations. Shorter switched to soprano saxophone — how he does so without echoing John Coltrane remains remarkable by itself — and the band further coalesced, taking the music to a boil while Shorter hovered above the heat.
With sheet music in front of them, the quartet and Imani Winds closed out the night performing the sorts of peppery numbers Shorter composed as a member of Weather Report from 1971-85. He sat with the other woodwind players, even having a laugh with flutist Valerie Coleman, and guided the musicians through scripted and improvised passages that felt perfectly measured.
Weather Report was just one of the three important bands of which Shorter was a member; the others were Art Blakey’s early ’60s edition of the Jazz Messengers and the Miles Davis quintet (1964-70) that extended “Kind of Blue’s” path and entered the electric phase. Were an outside programmer picking tunes for Shorter’s birthday party, certainly more of the music from those periods would have made it into the set. But Shorter, more than any other musician of his era, alerts his audience that the past is strictly a springboard from which ideas, rather than songs, play a key role in defining him as a musician. His fine band, all of them leaders on their own, has been with him for seven years on what has been more of a strong chapter than a comeback, a sign that this master is still providing lessons.