jazz and improvised music

Reviews - Wayne shorter
John Clare

Sunday 21 March 2010

Sydney Opera House Concert Hall, March 7

Shorter and Shorter, then longer at last. I’m sure that many of us would like to repeat at least one experience, but with one aspect changed. The second time round we win the race that was lost by a fraction of a second. We kick the goal that missed by a whisper. We watch the great movie without the crackling of that moron’s lolly packet beside us. The third is closest to the mark here, but you most likely can see the movie again. I cannot see Wayne Shorter again before writing this review. The lolly packet was Shorter’s saxophone(s).

I became fixated on them in a way that not only distracted me but coloured much of what I heard in a negative way. After a brief lovely theme on tenor, Shorter fiddled with the keys, put the instrument in his mouth, took it out, turned the mouthpiece on the neck to adjust the tuning, put one of those little cards under the keys and sawed away at the pads, put the instrument in his mouth, set his embouchure, took it out, adjusted the tuning – hey, played two notes – adjusted the tuning again, fiddled with the keys, played a three note phrase, took it out, leaned on the piano – and then at last put it in his mouth just as a cycle was ending, set his embouchure and played the theme … No he didn’t, he took it out and left the theme to the piano. He fiddled with the keys and set the instrument aside.

When he took up the soprano the whole process began again, with a vengeance. Hadn’t he inspected the instruments since taking them out of luggage? I tried listening with my eyes closed, but I knew he was doing it and it made everything seem disjointed. I tried to forget Shorter was there and listened to the trio – Danilo Perez, piano, John Patitucci, bass, and the quite phenomenal Brian Blade on drums. I know this is neurotic in the extreme, but never before had a performer’s ticks and quirks and seeming indecision thrown me to this degree. The tremendous torrent of polyrhythms, never-pausing piano, glorious bass and virtually frightening shocks of Blade’s surprise accents – which sometimes smashed out of a pattern of maybe three rhythms at once – went by me. It all seemed too loud for the tiny phrases, burbles and scribbles in watery ink that Shorter produced between fiddling. A second neurotic element figured. There must be people here who have never heard Shorter but have come to see someone they have been assured is one of the most creative saxophone players and jazz composers ever. And yet those interpolations on the surging flow were increasingly interesting. There was a brief, beautiful unaccompanied section. But it seemed too late for my interest to revive. I sagged in an exhausted rage, exasperated to the point of indifference. Until Shorter suddenly took off on the soprano and the abruptly rising uproar of the rhythm section, with the soprano screaming and piercing the brightest heaven of invention, sent a thrill of snowy adrenalin threw me from stem to stern. Someone roared in full throat from the audience. This was happening. Oh yes! It happened at least twice, and the tenor began gathering the intriguing fragments into something that approached the mesmerising, thrilling, spiralling, barking patterns and clusters that Shorter had produced on Miles Davis Live At The Plugged Nickel. Though he never played the tenor long enough for my liking, these moments, and the ghostly melodies that appeared and vanished over the complexity of the trio and brought smiles to their faces were worth all the irritation, but through wrong attitude I had missed much. At the end, flanked by his band, Wayne Shorter bowed almost imperceptibly. His smile glimmered dimly, as from a dark photo. Yet it radiated, and I can see it as if I had photographed it with a lens inside my head.

Other reviewers were overwhelmed by the performance from the very beginning, and to my amazement (I had thought ‘this has got to be going over the heads of many’), the crowd roared and held them to two encores. It seems it was only my head it went over. “A strange performance,” said my friend Michael Fitzjames, as we left. “But there was some fantastic stuff. Much to think about.” I wish I could wind back time but, through some quantum intervention, with my focus readjusted. As a substitute, I spent the next day listening to Wayne Shorter. Ju Ju, Speak No Evil, Night Dreamer, all the Miles Davis Quintets, all the Jazz Messengers, with still to come Lee Morgan albums with Wayne, such as The Gigolo, the Grachan Moncur album Some Other Stuff, with Wayne, Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams and Cecil McBee. Oh yes, Bitches Brew, Filles de Killimanjaro, In A Silent Way. The Real McCoy. The All Seeing Eye. Weather Report. And I know I have others.

I apologise for not being up to the occasion. I seem to be enjoying it more and more in retrospect. Andrew Dickeson told me he had seen the band twice: once fantastic, once ordinary. “But that can happen with a band that is so intense and out on the edge.” I wish he’d seen this performance so we could discuss it. I wish they were playing again tonight!