Navigating Wayne’s World proves to be a challenging endeavor

by Ryan Snyder

Wayne Shorter’s set in Durham was a riveting, if challenging foray into improvisational abstraction. (photo by Ryan Snyder)

On bass, John Patitucci. Playing keys, Danilo Perez. On drums, the masterful Brian Blade and on saxophones, it’s none other than the great Wayne Shorter. That’s a roll call sufficient to produce goosebumps on the skin of any jazz fan: arguably the greatest living composer of jazz music in the 77-year-old Shorter, surrounded by a group of players considered some of the most influential among their contemporaries, and all capable of communicating at a level that can boggle the minds of the neophyte.

As great of a composer as Shorter is, it’s he’s shown throughout his lengthy career that he’s an even better improviser. He’s not the type to scorch the earth with fiery, confrontational solos, though you get the idea that he’s fully capable, and his days of making jump-outof-your-seat funk and fusion more or less ended with Weather Report. His quintessential solos are a microcosm of his Buddhist beliefs: an imperturbably lucid exposition on his melodies that reveal ideas not evident on the studio recordings.

What Shorter does best, however, is impress upon his accompaniment his own vast and varied musical persona. He acts as a kind of puppetmaster to his quartet, only gently and haphazardly pulling the strings to produce sometimes unpredictable movements. His performance at Page Auditorium last Friday was just one example of how he’s instilled his own will into his counterparts. On one hand, it was one of the most enthralling jazz performances those who witnessed it might see this year. The unbroken, 75-minute set was thoughtful, demanding of its listeners and highly cerebral. It was an exchange between four jazz masters to which we felt lucky to be privy. On the other, the show was also profoundly frustrating: Those who came to hear the real Wayne Shorter in the flesh simply saw him, but never truly heard him assert his presence. The group wasn’t inclined to swing, instead opting to declare themselves in defiant idiosyncrasies.

But there Shorter was, calling out vague and highly abstracted melodies from his recorded work amidst his accompaniment loudly communicating amongst themselves.

The set began with a steady rumble from Blade’s Gretsch kit as Perez hung a darkly impressionistic mood on the audience. Shorter stayed out of the mix in the beginning, ensconcing himself by the crown of Perez’s grand piano, before finally offering up a series of incomplete phrasings to set the band on a loosely defined direction.

While Patitucci was off providing the counter melody to Perez, Blade was establishing himself as a one-man gang of rhythm.

Easily the most aggressive of the four players, yet maintaining a keen sense of space, Blade accented his layers of highly textured cross-beats with shocking outbursts of raw power that would put the most bombastic rock drummer to shame. All eyes were on the slightly built 41-year old for the majority of the set, who elicited gasps and an occasional misplaced whoop every time he let his mallet rip across the ride and tom.

The set as a whole, however, felt like the unit was constantly moving toward an undefined destination, with everyone having a different endpoint in mind. It wasn’t until just past the midway point when Blade let loose a thunderous mini solo that the quartet began a gradual, unified descent. The long, draining set ended just as it had began; Shorter propped himself against the piano, while Blade and Perez settled their respective melodies like dust kicked up by a passing car. They would return for not one, but two encores after a series of standing ovations, one of them being the most succinctly expressed piece of the evening in a crisp and decisive “Joy Ryder.” After one more standing ovation, the quartet returned to the stage, but only for one final curtain call. Not a word was ever spoken on stage, but however laboriously stated, there was an amazing conversation going on for those with the stamina to heed it.