Following in the footsteps of his employer from 1964-70, Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter doesn’t believe in looking backward — even when a program is intended to celebrate the entirety of his nearly 50-year career. On the brink of turning 70, Shorter continues to cement his reputation as jazz’s finest living saxophonist (sorry, Sonny Rollins) with links to the music’s greatest artists. He’s an adventurer, though, and rather than encapsulate his career in the “Life and Music” concert, he performed ambitious and highly cerebral compositions that made for an unusual thinking man’s night.
His last two albums, “Alegria” and “Footprints Live” (Verve), have been championed like little else in his career; “Footprints” is an explosive exploration of some of his greatest compositions, while “Alegria” finds him exploring tunes with an expanded wind/brass ensemble. The musicians with which he made those albums — pianist Danilo Perez, drummer Brian Blade, bassist John Patitucci — have a simpatico relationship with Shorter that provided some shining moments Wednesday, navigating the sharp curves of Shorter’s compositions with precision.
Patitucci was the night’s driving force, signaling time and tempo shifts as the quartet performed a series of movements linked together by improv segments. Shorter, first on tenor and then soprano sax, chose to play each part with a different mindset; he’d lay back for long passages and attack others, avoiding any sort of extended lyrical playing. Inspiration came from all sorts of odd angles, one moment its operatic singing, later it’s the bleat of a sheep.
The parade of guests provided a mixed bag. Pianist Herbie Hancock and Shorter dueted as two musicians on two different routes to the same destination; Carlos Santana stood at the opposite end of the stage and proffered a generic, uplifting solo but had no interaction with the front man; and Savion Glover, of all people, delighted the crowd with a percussive dance that actually worked with the musical piece. He returned for the encore and the tap-dance/jazz improv formula worked even better the second time around.
The Hollywood Bowl Orchestra gave Shorter’s music a heaviness, coming and going as the quartet plowed on. “Midnight in Carlotta’s Hair,” a dense, funky tune Shorter recorded eight years ago, actually found the quartet and orch in sync. Set’s closer, “Palladium,” from Shorter’s 1970s band Weather Report, hit a vibrant, flowing stride that would have been perfect for Shorter to leap in and improvise wildly.