Wayne Shorter may be approaching 80, but he’s still looking ahead as a composer, bandleader and instrumentalist. The quartet he’s led since 2002 is a formidable one, and their Friday night concert at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center was an intriguing mix of improvisational works and collective excellence.
Their first tune was a dynamic rendition of “Pegasus,” a 20-minute plus masterpiece with multiple parts and a piercing melody. It was the first of many times throughout the evening that the majestic Shorter soprano would be in the spotlight.
Shorter’s tone, range and imaginative style remain impressive. His playing has depth and warmth in every register, and was brilliantly powered by Perez’s darting, aggressive accompaniment and equally strong solos. Patitucci, a marvel on the electric, showed he is also an accomplished, outstanding player on acoustic.
Blade’s contributions ranged from fiery on “Pegasus” to being more restrained on “Myrrh,” another piece from his latest Blue Note release “Without A Net,” which provided most of the music for that set.
My only regret was the absence of any commentary – or program notes – from Shorter about the songs during the segment. This remains a constant irritation at jazz concerts, the assumption that most (if not all) of the audience is familiar with the material being played. But it certainly didn’t detract from what was alternately explosive and soothing, challenging yet accessible music.
The second half integrated Shorter’s group into an orchestral setting, which included two numbers with special guest vocalist and bassist Esperanza Spalding. This put the spotlight on Shorter as arranger/composer plus contributing saxophonist. Vince Mendoza served as guest conductor during these numbers.
Shorter supplied the arrangement for the opening number “Vendiendo Alegria,” as well as some marvelous soprano work. Mendoza’s arrangement of “Diana,” a great number from Shorter’s “Native Dancer” LP nicely balanced splendid sax with nice piano fills by Pérez.
But the biggest audience response came when Spalding walked onstage with her bass. Friday’s version of “Gaia” was a bit shorter than the 30-minute one Shorter debuted in February with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. But it was long enough to highlight both her ability to execute impressive vocal leaps and display far more range and technical flair than some critics think she possesses.
The piece was also a good test for the Nashville Symphony, which definitely ranks among the nation’s premier orchestras. Shorter’s composition stretches, tests and demands an orchestra be able to smoothly flow from one passage to the next.
There was plenty of rhythmic tension between Spalding’s vocal flurries and Blade’s drum responses. Meanwhile the orchestra adeptly handled the piece’s transitions; the eventual returns navigating back to the central melody were intense and delightful.
The night’s finale, “Midnight in Carlotta’s Hair,” was even more compelling. Spalding joined Patiucci in a dual bass backdrop, while Blade supplied excellent percussive support and the orchestra was again in fine form behind them.
While it would have been nice to hear some Shorter tenor during these segments, they presented another side of a great player and composer whose versatility and refusal to take a predictable musical course is inspiring.