Last month I had the privilege of seeing the Wayne Shorter Quartet at the SFJAZZ Center.
Over the years, many of his compositions have become standards in the jazz world, and he has had a long and illustrious career with Art Blakey, Miles Davis Quintet, Weather Report, and more. In each case he has reinvented and reinvigorated his music, most recently with an all acoustic quartet featuring Danilo Pérez (piano), Brian Blade (drums), and John Patitucci on bass. It was this band that we saw on this occasion.
This band took a very original approach to Shorter’s compositions, some of which were very recent (there was a suggestion some the material was even new for the show). What made it most interesting was how subtle and sparse the music was, rarely did we hear a head or chord pattern in its entirety. The music was nonetheless extremely intricate and tight. There weren’t defined roles of a rhythm section and solo instrument in a traditional sense, but everyone took on every role, including Brian Blade’s drums. Especially when Wayne Shorter was playing, it affects the whole tenor of the proceedings (no pun intended). He would only play a few notes and then pause for a time, but those few were enough to take command of the direction of the song. But each musician had a role that transcended their instrument. Blade’s drumming could be at times quite forceful and his use of vocalizations quite curious, but these were moments of punctuation and in between he was very metric and even quiet at times with just enough hint of time to keep things moving. Danilo Pérez was a force of nature on the piano, and his pouring through reams of sheet music as he played was a reminder that these were fully formed compositions and not simply free improvisations.
The complexity and subtlety made it challenging even for seasoned fans to pick out the individual tunes. But we are pretty sure we heard an extended workout on Sanctuary (best known version appears on the B side of Bitches Brew); Aung San Suu Kyi (timely given the elections in Myanmar); and we thought that encore was an acoustic and distilled version of Joyrider. It was a perhaps funkier and more accessible way to send the audience off for the evening.