Wayne Shorter & Orpheus Chamber Orch: Prometheus, promising but self-bound

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Wayne Shorter’s quartet with Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, in workshop or rehearsal

The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra came to play with saxophonist Wayne Shorter‘s quartet at Carnegie Hall Friday, Feb 1, and — though conductorless — showed the cohesion and verve that will make a jazz-with-symphony program a triumph. If Shorter’s writing and improvisations had matched their readiness, the night could have been truly historic.

This orchestra, celebrating its 40th year and proud of its radically democratic ethos, in the first half of its evening’s program used clarity and pacing to give wistful, introspective nuance to Charles Ives’ Third Symphony, Camp Meeting. It tossed off Beethoven’s energetic Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus, his only ballet, with complete self-assurance. And it dug into the glossy, silken hues that Shorter wrote for its accompaniment of his four compositions, including the world premiere of “Lotus,” as if eager to prove that genre-crossing is a strong part of its game.

Yet for an orchestra to engage with jazzers, the jazzers must be responsive, too. While Shorter, who turns 80 next August, seems physically robust, working hard against the resistance implicit in his instrument the soprano sax, he has become an oblique frontman and disappointing soloist. His collaborators await his leadership while  at least some of his listeners hope he will burst forth with the dynamic lyricism that has marked his best efforts over the past 50 years. And while Ben Ratliff has written in the New York Times that Shorter is “generally acknowledged to be jazz’s greatest living composer,” his strictly linear approach to writing for large ensembles is essentially melody-dominated homonophy, in stark contrast to the multi-dimensionality that Beethoven took for granted and Ives exploited to touching and/or rousing affect.

I have been a big fan of Wayne Shorter’s music since the ’60s, but that was a long time ago. Back then his classic Blue Note albums Juju, The All Seeing Eye and especially Speak No Evil were at the  top of my playlist. His compositions such as “Footprints,” “E.S.P.,” “Iris,” “Orbits,” “Dolores” “Masquelero,” “Nefertiti,” “Pinocchio,” “Fall,” “Limbo,” “Vonetta,” “Paraphernalia” and “Water Babies” graced Miles Davis’ recordings and/or set-list (as “Children of the Night,” “Tom Thumb” and others had been in Art Blakey’s book for the Jazz Messengers). His collaborative work with Freddie Hubbard, Lee Morgan, Tony Williams,  McCoy Tyner always enhanced their albums, whether with tunes or the steady-focus “spontaneous composition” of his solos and the rich depths of his horn (he then played tenor sax exclusively). His brilliance continued to find outlet in Weather Report, in the Herbie Hancock-led quasi-Miles Davis reunion band V.S.O.P. (no Miles, but Freddie Hubbard gave his all to that project)  and occasional guest appearances, including Steely Dan’s Aja, Joni Mitchell’s tribute to Charles Mingus Chair in the Sky and Carlos Santana’s The Swing of Delight. I gave five stars in a DownBeat review of Shorter’s masterpiece Native Dancerwith Brazilian vocalist extraordinaire Milton Nascimento, upon its release in 1975.

But when Shorter left Weather Report in 1985, he seemed to enter a period of struggle, or exploration. High Life, his 1995 release, was, I thought, his best work in a decade (he hadn’t recorded under his own name for seven years), filled with intriguing songs. The elaborate orchestrations, including an orchestral ensemble and electronics, highlight his soprano playing, which had developed the characteristic uppermost register piping sound he’s continued to employ. Indeed, having all but dropped the tenor completely, Shorter is probably known to a generation of listeners mostly for that sound, which he seems to always be squeezing as if to break an incontrovertible range barrier.

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Danilo Perez and Wayne Shorter

Since 2000, Shorter’s music has been made in company of his quartet members: pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade. They’ve released three albums from live performances, including just this weekend Without A NetI’ve heard it once, and it’s the band at its best, very energetic and interactive, evidently flowing with intuition, often daring and successful in maintaining precarious balance. Sample it at NPR Music.

That said, this is far from my favorite band. Perez, an impressionist, seldom touches on bluesiness, old school swing or what I think of as edge, leaning instead towards a pastoral classicism. Patitucci has a soft, warm and deep tone, which was audible even through the layers of harmony supplied by Orpheus in concert, more than any other of the quartet players responsible for their blend. Blade is likely the most aggressive jazz drummer now at the kit, always exploding, always on top of what’s happening so as to define it. He keeps close tabs on Shorter, calculating his every phrase-length and punctuating them with emphatic, declarative bombs. If Wayne would step forth with confidence, inspiration and command before this crew, Blade’s dynamism might make sense. But to my ears, he’s much too much by way more than half. It’s like Blade’s wanting the whole band to match his volume, but Wayne is just too passive to make such a move.

Shorter also has come to blow ever fewer notes, of increasingly limited imagination. For a saxophonist who came up in thrall to John Coltrane, and fulfilled the prolix role when in Miles’ deservedly hailed ’60s quintet, his minimalism borders on renunciation. He frequently seems to be looking always for just the right opening to present itself, which he can fill with a pitched stream that comes to him in a lightning strike of unselfconscious impulse. But the kind of rush that Sonny Rollins (going on 83) still can tap and sustain is not currently part of Shorter’s technique. Instead, he hops up the scale from time to time, and down it occasionally, too — usually hitting the same pitches. On Friday he only let lose longer, presumably improvised phrases once or twice. They were beauties, and some devotees believe these are exquisite brush strokes, the distillations of his genius creativity. Am I being greedy to expect much more?

Shorter’s writing for Orpheus was structured and detailed; perhaps his main interest now is in the composition of these long, fleet lines he prepared for the orchestra. Those lines had momentum and a variety of twists and turns — sometimes supporting the quartet, sometimes seguing in or out of activity as if in a moment of confusion or free play. What they lacked was countermovement and development of multiple facets that would become greater than any  one of the parts. Shorter, who has been, after all, a career-long virtuoso of the single-note line, gave the orchestra attractive and light textures, like silk or chiffon, which might knot up or be draped unevenly. But he didn’t afix these textures to shapes of their own that could unfold in substantive contrast to what he or his fellows played.

The scores for Shorter’s compositions “Pegasis” (originally penned for a collaboration with the Imani Winds), “The Three Marias” (from his 1985 album Atlantis, a Brazilian-inflected line  adapted for Orpheus by Patitucci and Perez, it was the  most gratifying of Shorter’s pieces here), the world premiere of “Lotus” and “Prometheus Unbound” (an expansion of “Capricorn II” from the 2003 studio album Alegría) kept the members of Orpheus busy. For a large ensemble holding themselves together without a baton to watch, their cohesion was remarkable — I could feel them as an aggregate tighten up at the music’s demand, or loosen when less tension was more fitting. If Shorter, Perez, Patitucci and Blade remained apart from — above? beyond? — the chamber orchestra, it was their own decision. And my criticism is surely a minority report — the audience in not-quite-full Carnegie Hall applauded the entirety of what amounted to a concerto grosso avidly, awarding Wayne Shorter & co. the usual standing ovation. Here is Emilie Pons’ blog posting on the show.

You’ll soon be able to hear and judge this music for yourself. Shorter’s quartet and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra recording pieces from their Friday program on Saturday, for eventual release on Blue Note Records. I hope the Carnegie Hall concert was a tune-up, and that in the recording, lightning did strike. Any remaining gap between jazz improvisers and large “classical” ensembles deserves to be bridged. We are past due for agreeing that jazz is equal, if different, to music stemming from Western European symphonic traditions. We are eager, once the gap is closed, to hear great orchestras mixing it up with great jazz bands for a synthesis that’s fresh, new, flexible and promising.


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  1. says

    Very insightful comments on his group. Listening to his latest on NPR, I was struck by how bombastic Blade could be. His playing didn’t always fit the context, and I found myself asking WWGCD? (What would Gerald Cleaver do?)