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.