Wayne Shorter’s new album, his first on the Blue Note label since 1970, is called “Without a Net” — a pretty good description of the direction he was taking in his latest merger with the mighty Los Angeles Philharmonic on Saturday night. Idiosyncratic, rigorous in language, nebulous in texture, Wayne’s world of orchestral sound is like no other, and whether baffled or enraptured by it all, the sold-out audience leaped to its feet in tribute to the forward-thinking saxophone master at the close.
The program listed a series of orchestral compositions and arrangements — one of which was deleted for time reasons, others whose sequence was altered without a word from Shorter — plus a rolling, tumbling, abstract workout for Shorter’s long-standing, telepathic quartet alone, “Myrrh,” the sole representative from the new album.
Shorter has done this type of aim-high, big-thinking fusion before with his quartet and the Phil, but this concert had a special draw — the world premiere of “Gaia,” a longform, Philharmonic-commissioned piece that has a prominent vocal part for the jazz world’s hottest female star, Esperanza Spalding. “Gaia” was a murky, thick-set monster of a piece, 26 1/2 minutes in length, with hardly any audible moving lines within the cloudy harmonies after a certain point, almost like piano chords blown up for full orchestra.
Shorter — who, unbelievably, turns 80 years young this August — chimed in discreetly on soprano sax; Spalding sounded luminous even when stretched to the uppermost reaches of her range. But it was difficult to make sense of what she was singing about amidst the orchestral murk.
With one striking exception, the music after intermission pretty much followed the same outlines — massive, slow-moving, opaque textures; sometimes tracking Wayne’s distinctive long, snaking melodic lines on soprano; treating the sections of the orchestra as blocs. Parts of “Forbidden Plan-it!” sounded like a possible backdrop for a TV war documentary. “Midnight in Carlotta’s Hair” brought Spalding back on bass and wordless vocals, with crashing drums from Brian Blade and nice interplay between Esperanza and Wayne.
Which brings us to the exception — a lovely, economically harmonized arrangement for string orchestra of Shorter’s “Diana” by the conductor Vince Mendoza, an expert at classical-jazz fusions. Not only did this chart sound completely different from Shorter’s own, it inspired Shorter’s most soaring, deeply felt playing of the night. Perhaps this was his way of refreshing himself back on earth before trying to reach for the sky again.