It’s a jungle in here

by Ryan Snyder

Call it, “Between 12 Ferns.” The Wayne Shorter Quartet’s conversations Thursday night at Wake Forest University’s Wait Chapel often felt as impulsive, even aggravated as the ones Zach Galifianakis coerces on his fake sit-downs. Officially dubbed “Jamazon,” the evening’s theme ran analogous to its outcome. Its undercurrent of being a benefit for the Amazon Aid Foundation was characterized by the dozen or so ornamental plants flanking both sides of the stage, with another set running all along the backline. Roughly 30 feet overhead, a square still projection of even more plants provided a wonderfully kitschy touch to a performance that would’ve felt just as magnificent had it been staged around a tire fire.

These conversations, also absent of punchline, nonetheless possessed all of the perils of improvisational jazz and also all of its outbursts of glorious inspiration. The first 40 minutes of his set was a systematic power struggle between him and his laterally integrated small combo — Shorter on saxophones, Danilo Pérez on piano, John Patitucci on bass and Brian Blade on drums. New strands would emerge moments before the predecessors were fully plaited, intriguing passages veered teasingly off into the ether,and one Herculean muscle was flexed after another. The quartet seemed hell-bent on eluding its audience, save for a united front on the instantly recognizable “Orbits.”

As a composer, Shorter is like a painter with a masterpiece ready to jump from his brush.

As volatile as the strokes sometimes seem, each one plays beautifully and indiscernibly with the next. His palette holds only three primary colors at their most radiant, and with only minute daubing on his part, they coalesce into an explosion of shade and texture.

The group wasn’t inclined to swing, instead opting to declare themselves in defiant idiosyncrasies. But there was Shorter, calling out nebulous, highly abstracted melodies, only rarely phrasing his recorded material amidst his accompaniment loudly communicating amongst each other.

Some who attended Shorter’s Durham show last year might have recognized a few familiar idioms during the quartet’s opening extemporaneous binge: Blade’s penchant for shocking outbursts and rhythmic misdirection, Patitucci’s subsonic transmissions, Pérez constantly mounting the tensions with hyper-expressive swells and pulling the rug out from under every so often based on quasitelepathic cues from Shorter. Then there was Shorter himself, who seemed aloof to the stunning cacophony around him, absorbed in his slavish devotion to melodic ideas that bridged it all. Nearing the end of the lengthy opening volley, just when the band seemed to have achieved escape velocity while he settled into an ostinato obliquely referencing Davis’s “So What,” Shorter called a rare audible. “Wait a minute,” he said, as he hunched himself over the piano, and they did.

If there’s a most tangible way that Shorter honors his mentor Miles Davis, it’s in the direction, or lack thereof, that he gives his band.

Davis’ Second Great Quintet, of which Shorter was a key cog, was such a virtuosic powerhouse because an instilled philosophy prevailed over specifics. When there’s space, fill it.

More often than not, this duty was left up to the combustible Blade, who applied that idea on the most micro of levels. If there’s a trump card in a barroom “greatest drummer” debate, Blade is it. Given a sixteenth of silence, Blade was there to fill it with obliterating force or breathtaking finesse. His hurricane rolls sometimes came close to unseating him, alternating power to shake the old building’s foundations and businesslike diplomacy.

The evening’s second half was less fragmented, yet didn’t relinquish adventure for composition. Given a window to lead, Patitucci plucked almost human vocalizations from down near the tailpiece before passing the torch around again while Shorter resumed his recital. In a set that was overall short on ballads, Shorter left one of his most beautiful numbers lingering in the encore with his most dissertated presence to boot as he delivered a stirring “Infant Eyes” to sparse accompaniment. There seemed more on the way as the band circled around, including what sounded vaguely like the Star Wars theme, but the 79-year-old stumbled to the side, seemingly fatigued and ending the set on a droning piano and a gentle drum sweep. Appropriate, given the staunch individualism inherent, that the current is still dictated by a single man.