Can we have a new spectacle now? Please?

Can we have a new spectacle now? Please?

The old one is about as tired as the power grid that serves the Superdome.

Somewhere in the middle of Sunday night’s 34-minute third quarter power-outage delay, as reporters on the sidelines scrambled to get anything resembling credible information, it occurred to me that this unusual drama was more engaging as “entertainment” than the super-polished, beautifully staged Beyonce performance just concluded. Not that there was anything specifically wrong with the halftime show – this morning’s reviews praise the singer as “electrifying” (haha) and on her “A game” (groan).  In the context of a normal Super Bowl, it was flawlessly rendered, with precise camera angles and lighting cues nailed down to the nanosecond.

But what followed wasn’t normal, and as soon as the TV commentators had to go “off script” and yammer to fill time, there opened up a moment to ponder, in a “is this all there is?” way, the megawatt extravaganza we’d just witnessed. A cast of thousands doing yet another update on the line dancing routines we’ve loved since Michael Jackson and Madonna. A star looking invincible in designer threads and heels while executing proto-robotic choreography. A perfunctory reunion of Destiny’s Child, Beyonce’s old act. Solid, once-engaging hit songs reduced to puree inside a whirlwind medley. Somehow, despite her beauty and starpower and abundant energy, Beyonce seemed trapped inside an utterly canned, inevitably contrived mode of performance. When, in conclusion, she said “Thank you for this moment,” it was less about whatever had just transpired musically – because, let’s be real, the needle on the Excitement Meter barely moved – and more about further validation, a crowning ego moment, another exclusive stamp in the passport of a megastar.

And that’s boring. The images of half a stadium in darkness held more suspense, sparked more curiosity – was it an accident or the work of hackers? A philosopher might argue that Americans, hotwired for movies with lots of explosions and music with blazing nonstop hooks, get the mass spectacles they deserve: This kind of relentless show might actually be the only remaining way to enchant numb, overly entertained audiences. Still, when the power failed you couldn’t help but wonder how far the spontaneity-free empty spectacle thing, with staging considerations clearly outweighing musical ones, can go.

There was no mystery, nothing even particularly human, about the halftime show. And what followed was all too human, riddled with an unsettling sense of “what happens now?” You know things are out of whack when the lights going off in half of a stadium turns out to be more compelling than a gazillion lights blazing to perfection, in dazzling computer-coordinated sequence, exactly the way they did in rehearsal.

Two Shorter Scenes…..

Through an unusual release date confluence, this week brings the chance to hear saxophonist Wayne Shorter at two revealing points in his career – playing in Europe in 1969 as part of Miles Davis’ little-heard “third” quintet, and leading his own group at various European stops in 2011 on his first album for Blue Note in 43 years, Without A Net.

Taken together, the works offer a chance to zoom in on the evolution of one of the last remaining jazz mavericks, a masterful composer and improviser whose impact is impossible to precisely gauge. Without Shorter, who turns 80 later this year, the notion of composition in jazz would be very different. As would the notion of the compositional mood dictating what happens when the solos begin. Check out the version of “Footprints” from Live in Europe 1969: It’s got the upheaval we associate with that tumultuous year, it’s got Miles playing with more rat-a-tat fury than he ever did, and still, somehow, the melancholic brood of this durable tune prevails.

Jazz musicians leave status updates every time a performance is documented, of course, but few have done so for so long, and at Shorter’s level of inspiration. From very early solo recordings through his stint with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers through the Davis ‘60s quintet (the one with Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams), through such solo landmarks as Juju and Speak No Evil through his work with Weather Report and subsequent solo endeavors, Shorter blazed a trail of profound and often disruptive originality. His discography describes rapid – and, as Without A Net demonstrates, still in progress – evolution.   Each band and each period seems to bring forth something different from Shorter: His solos on tunes from the 1960s are studies in scampering, impulsive-sounding runs (notice the torrents of blurry superfast lines on “Directions” from Live in Europe 1969). His ballads for Weather Report endure as brooding, stately elegies. His new tunes on Without A Net  have an insistent, keenly alert pay-attention quality – their beseeching melodies offer quirky, wonderfully ragged respite from everyday bebop proficiency.

Shorter has always been a meta-musician, his work a constant reminder that in jazz, a singular conceptual vision can be as important as technical acumen. In 1969, responding to the crisply chopped accompaniment from Chick Corea, Shorter plays at lightning speed – but he’s never slinging stuff he worked out practicing. Instead, he’s reacting to and trying to influence the frequently-shifting direction of the music. If you go right from the 1969 live material to the new work, which is also recorded live, the first thing you may notice has to do with energy: These guys in Shorter’s band (pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Pattitucci, drummer Brian Blade) are playing hard and fierce, with a lust for life that has been missing from just about everything sold as “jazz” in recent years. Exhilarating and alive, studded with rhythms that have great swing fluidity as well as the stomp of funk (sometimes all at once!), these performances expose the emotional bankruptcy of jazz as practiced by fussy scholarly preservationist types. Using wild lunges and pinpoint-precise gestures, Shorter’s group shows just how timid even great musicians are when interpreting his complex, endlessly challenging tunes. If it’s been awhile since you’ve been thrilled by improvised music, consider taking this two-part journey: Start with Davis’ little-heard ’69 quintet to hear the group’s high-speed chase scenes, pushed by Shorter to the brink of frenzy. Then flip over to the saxophonist’s new Without a Net to encounter a current group operating on the interactive frequency that was so prevalent in 1969 – except they’re using current vocabulary, and current notions about consonance and dissonance. Though recorded more than 40 years apart, these two ripping good titles somehow land in the same spot: This is music that puts you on the edge of your seat, and keeps you there.

http://www.npr.org/2013/01/30/170662462/a-1969-bootleg-unearths-miles-davis-lost-quintet