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Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Wayne's Magical World

I went to see Wayne Shorter’s quartet last night, the now classic band that he’s had for more than 10 years. This is the second time I’ve seen them, and it was equally as good as the first. There’s something magical about this band. They’ve received a lot of praise and recognition over the last several years and they absolutely deserve it – and more. Watching them in action last night, I witnessed something quite unique – there’s nobody really doing what these guys do.

First of all, the music is so abstract, yet they are playing forms and structures. It’s free, yet it’s tied to the jazz conventions of melody and harmonic structure. They have a repertoire, but no set programme – sometimes compositions appear, are touched upon, only to disappear again. At other times a piece is explored for more than twenty minutes. There are solos of a kind, yet they are all collective – for a moment it seems one or the other of the quartet will be soloing, only for one or more of the other members to become involved and take over.

Over the course of the performance the music evolves organically in front of your eyes. I HATE to use this cliché, but in this case it’s absolutely the correct one -  at a concert by the Wayne Shorter Quartet, you are taken on a journey. The performance last night began in what seemed to be unfocussed meandering, with each member fluttering in an out of the music. It was hard to grasp any underlying or unifying structure, and you could be forgiven for believing that the band were unable to find any kind of forward motion, and were just noodling. But slowly, yet inevitably, the music began to become both more cohesive and yet mutate into something else. As a listener you got the sense of some greater structure rising out of the four constituent parts, yet being unable to put your finger on how this was being done.

And this is the magic of this band – the way they can collectively create something singular that is comprised of the four constituent parts. Something that is not pre-conceived, yet can attain the most formal structure, a structure that is created by the free-flowing narrative of the band. It’s an extraordinary balancing act, and one that can only be achieved by a) a band that has been together for this long, b) has such great virtuoso musicians within it, and c) is led by a genius….

And Wayne really is a genius, under even the strictest meaning of that overused word. Apart from the compositions themselves, his ability to guide the band simply by what he plays is extraordinary. His timing is perfect, his entry and exit points are masterful. And the choice of notes…… his ability to play such unexpected notes in relation to the underlying harmony, yet always remain lyrical is unique – nobody else can do this like he can.

And the band are perfect – Danilo Perez almost seems like the MD, free to start something, or suggest something or take the music in any direction he wants. Wayne allows him to do this, yet, by dint of his playing, remains in complete control of the ultimate direction of  the music. Brian Blade is the dramaturge in the band – his use of dynamics thoroughly energises the music, and when he really gets going, it’s one of the greatest sights in contemporary jazz drumming. And John Patitucci is the unsung hero of this band. The way he interweaves his lines with the other guys, while holding the bass function down is masterful. He knows exactly when to go and when to stay. When Blade slips off the metric grid in one of those blazing attacks, Patitucci will fix it in a split second. He is a virtuoso bassist who puts his virtuosity completely at the service of the music

Wayne is 80 this year and still looks and sounds strong, with no seeming diminution of his powers. But all humans are mortal and so if you get a chance to see this group – a group that will definitely be spoken of as one of the great bands of jazz history – you should go, and avail of the opportunity to see something unique and magical. The following video clip gives just a glimpse (but only a glimpse), of what will be in store for you.


  1. Thanks for the tip Ronan, I'm enjoying listening to the latest album at the very present, nice stuff.

    Actually it's interesting to remember that Weather Report's original ethic was actually based around the same idea. If you listen to the early albums (and in particular the live ones) you realize how the group just improvised their way around melodies moving freely between each piece. Unfortunately Joe Zawinul - great as he was - took more and more space with his highly arranged groovy pieces ... and then came along Jaco.

    Just for the information there are plenty of groups out there doing the same(ish) thing, you just have to remember that they're not as high profile as Wayne's group. Of course Wayne is an original so he does this type of thing in his way based on many years of experience - quite wonderful! However some lesser known heavy-weights could be: Clusone Trio, Dawn of Midi, Ma, Craig Taborn's trio, Mujician .. just some ideas that spring to mind, although I know what you mean about Wayne being an original.

    Keep up the good work, thanks again.

  2. Thanks for your comment Joesh - I absolutely agree that what Wayne is doing now is an outgrowth of what the original Weather Report did - their 'we always solo/we never solo' philosophy. There's a clear evolutionary path there.

    I'm not so sure however that there are other groups doing what Wayne's band do - at least in the same way. Of course there (and have been for a long time), collective improv groups in jazz. But none of them that I know of, use functional chromatic harmony (as understood in late 20th century jazz), as part of their collective improvisation.

    From this point of view, their music is more closely related to the Miles late 60s bands (pre-On The Corner) than to any of the bands you mentioned. For example Mujician are really a free improv group, and Dawn of Midi much more closely aligned to minimalist groove music like Nik Bartsch's Ronin. There's nothing minimalistic about Wayne's band, the music is richly harmonically opulent - almost romantic at times, yet can either be completely improvised, or based on a composition, or move between both. I'm not hearing any other bands operating exactly like that.

    Thanks for writing!

  3. Thanks Ronan I hadn't really thought about the harmonic context, but of course you have a point. Indeed Mujician are/were a free improv group and Dawn of Midi as you say more of a modal groove.

    I haven't seen Wayne's group live - as yet - but since I love the early Weather Report team work I guess I'll love what Wayne's up to now.