Wayne Shorter at 80, London Jazz Festival, Barbican, London – review

When Wayne Shorter left Miles Davis in 1970, his body of work had pushed jazz harmony to its limits and he had managed the transition from acoustic to electric jazz. He went on to found Weather Report and in the 1980s developed a fractured, somewhat bleak electronica that is only now being fully appreciated.

In 2000, he distilled these experiences into his first acoustic quartet, creating a free-flowing maelstrom of invention still at the forefront of acoustic jazz. Their performances are marked by jagged angles, shifting shapes and audacious changes in pace that leave audiences gasping for breath. And it was this band that was the focus and climax to Sunday’s day-long event marking Shorter’s 81st year.

Shorter opened with mournful tenor sax stabbing single notes over a shimmer of piano scales and chords. The key changed, tension grew, there was a bash from the drums and then a moment of silence. And the performance had scarcely begun. The dynamic range and detail of their tightly focused first-half set were extraordinary.

The quartet’s freewheeling abandon finds structure in their mutual accord and understanding of the Shorter canon. Roles are fluid, but John Patitucci’s figured bass and Danilo Pérez’s harmonic discipline on piano act as points of reference, while the saxophonist directs from within, adding oblique lines when the occasion demands.

The set was loosely based on “Plaza Real”, “Orbits” and “Zero Gravity to the 10th Power”, but really should be seen as a whole. Step by step, it grew in tension and menace before climaxing in Brian Blade’s drum thunderbolts exploding behind Shorter’s sustained soprano sax.

The saxophonist recently turned his hand to orchestral writing, and in the second half the quartet was joined by the BBC Concert Orchestra to perform four of Shorter’s latest works. Here the quartet was in the background, emerging only periodically to reproduce the magic of the first half.

Shorter’s orchestral writing is on a continuum with the angular rhythms and panoramic textures of his earlier work with Weather Report. It is supple with syncopation and constantly surprises with its array of textures and moods. At times it was magical, and when Shorter’s soprano was more to the fore, it was a warm reminder of the lyricism at the heart of Shorter’s music.

The event began with the UK premiere of The Language of the Unknown, a revealing documentary that explored the method, if not the detail, of Shorter’s music-making. Shorter has a reputation for being oblique, but here his message was clear enough even though, as in his solos, there were long pauses for thought between each phrase.

Sandwiched between film and concert, pianist Geri Allen, drummer Terri Lyne Carrington and bassist Esperanza Spalding delivered their own take on Shorter’s free-flowing approach. In other circumstances, it would have been a highlight event. As with Shorter, themes were stretched and motifs re-examined, solos emerged and there were dynamic extremes. All three players are strong characters, but the highlight of this set was Spalding’s genre-roaming vocal strength on Allen’s composition “Unconditional Love”.

London Jazz Festival continues to November 24, londonjazzfestival.org.uk

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