There was an almost palpable sense of excitement as Wayne Shorter and his quartet took the stage Thursday night. It manifested itself in a standing ovation from the audience before Shorter even picked up one of his saxophones.
What followed was roughly an hour-and-a-half-long concert (including encores) where none of the band members opened their mouths to talk to one another or to the fan base but somehow managed to convey a sense of amusement and excitement in their playing.
Seeing musical legends in concert can be interesting on a number of levels.
The viewer/listener could indulge in auditory reminiscing about the days when the artists were at their peak, an activity that would allow the person to remember the way things used to sound without taking into consideration what time can do to skills that were once paramount.
What’s truly interesting, however, is when a master musician like Shorter isn’t resting on the achievements of the past at the expense of growing in the present.
If that person displays a willingness to search for new ways of communicating his art and maintains an ability to do so, that’s when a concert can become more than a memorial service for an honored past, something capable of vaulting into the memory banks as an occasion to be remembered and cherished.
This current tour is nominally a celebration of Shorter’s 80th birthday, but it’s also a musical journey that reveals an intellect and heart that are still active. It’s more about where Wayne Shorter is these days, still working on the cusp of what has gone before even as he continues searching for new ideas through specific pockets of sound and rhythm that he may or may not have explored in the past.
There is no evidence of him coasting on his past stints with Art Blakey, Miles Davis or Weather Report, but there is an art informed by an impressive personal history even as it looks toward a future.
His band, with pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade, is an admirable support group for their leader’s musical flights, often receiving more space to operate in than Shorter but never to the point of overshadowing the leader’s presence.
There’s a strength and flexibility in this quartet that comes from years of playing together and reacting to one another, creating a flow of ideas that complements and drives the music from one level to another.
When Patitucci and Blade were playing around the beat, Perez was comping up a storm. In contrast, Shorter was choosing his phrases judiciously, spacing them above and almost apart from the activity generated by the other musicians.
At other times, he leaned back on a stool and gazed at his tenor sax, fiddling with the keys as if to discover a problem with them that only he could tell.
Then Shorter would lean into a phrase and add an accent to the mix. His soprano sax playing was even more impressive and distinctive.
In the end, this was a concert of new challenges by an old master. It wasn’t a program geared toward confirming old habits as much as it was an event that celebrated musical exploration. The audience loved it.