October 9, 2011 5:28 pm

Wayne Shorter/Phronesis, Barbican, London

Wayne Shorter’s sense of timing is so perfectly poised that it ushers in the future while summoning up voices from a distant past – the saxophonist joined Art Blakey in 1959 and Miles Davis five years later. At this gig, his playing was so concentrated that he squeezed 50 years of jazz invention into three stabs of his soprano sax.

Shorter formed his current quartet in 2000, and they have now distilled his aesthetic to its dark-toned, hard-edged essence. At this intense single-set concert, they built simple motifs into intricate tapestries, loaded fragments of scales with implication and delivered thunderous, synchronised crashes that lifted drummer Brian Blade out of his seat with bursts of sustained violence.

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The set started with bassist John Patitucci nonchalantly flicking the upper register of his bass – the three notes played were a recurring theme. Danilo Perez added two-fingered piano and Shorter built tension simply by waiting for the right point of entry – a single note on tenor sax was the one chosen; a keep-you-guessing run followed down the line. There were acerbic high notes and earthy interludes, clarion calls and low-note honks, and rhythms swirling in acres of space.

Later themes also bordered on the abstract – only the first encore’s “Joy Ryder” was from Shorter’s back catalogue; the band seized on it with glee. But though Shorter’s music is obtuse, it is rooted in harmony and pulse. There are reference points that give the unexpected turns and whatever-next twists a sense of overarching structure that is a given in classical music but rarely experienced in jazz. And at this gig, the sense of purpose was powerfully sustained through to the final chord of a blistering second encore. Shorter hadn’t said a word but his music was full of eloquence.

The evening opened with a short set from Phronesis, the London-based piano trio led by bassist Jasper Høiby. They too deliver trademark themes, juxtapose moods and mould episodic improvisation into coherence. Høiby is resonant, Ivo Neame spidery and drummer Anton Eger looks joyous at the variety of sounds he conjures from his kit. They sound great, and deserve to be more than a footnote.

5 stars

Barbican

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