It was about 45 minutes into the first work on the program (continuous, not broken up by movements) that I realized several things: there was no discernible ending in sight; any “review” of the performance would need to include a sociological and philosophical approach; many people would be offended and would sum up my impressions by saying that I “don’t get it.” What I was listening to was the Wayne Shorter Quartet at Duke University’s Page Auditorium. As Aaron Greenwald, Director of Duke Performances, told us in his opening remarks, Durham was a select city for a very brief tour by this esteemed quartet that only included Boston, New York and Toronto following the concert at Duke. Those remarks were the last spoken words that we heard all evening.
For those who are not familiar with Mr. Shorter, or are casual jazz fans, he is one of the most influential saxophonists/composers of the last 50 years, most notably in stints with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Miles Davis’s second great quintet in the 1960s, Weather Report, as well as other groups and original compositions too numerous to list. The current quartet, formed in 2000, consists of Shorter, tenor and soprano saxophones, Danilo Perez, piano, Brian Blade, drums and John Patitucci, bass. For anyone familiar with even a small part of Shorter’s career and output, it would have been foolish to have expected even a moderately traditional jazz quartet performance – perhaps a balanced mix of originals and standards – but what was heard tonight was way beyond what many had ever experienced. It should go without saying that one’s reaction is purely personal and should not imply a “hipper than thou” attitude or the contrary.
There was only one scheduled work on the program (the last two selections would be considered encores) and that was a nearly hour long free form and improvisatory composition that greatly challenged the audience’s attention span. I have no title or background to give since there were no notes about it in the program and not a word was spoken from the stage by any of the musicians. Shorter, unlike a majority of well-known jazz saxophonists – especially those coming from or influenced by the bop tradition of the late 40s and 50s – does not deal in busy and highly active scalar patterns, but is more interested in short, simple gestures and silence for expression. This was in direct contrast with the extremely active drummer Brian Blade, whose patterns are highly complex, and often displayed a ferocity that threatened to break the skins. Bassist Patitucci stayed as far away from the traditional “walking bass’’ lines that are essential to traditional jazz and employed several interesting extended bowed passages. Pianist Perez for long stretches seemed to give up his role as harmonic playmaker but broke out with some remarkable solo work. It was quite interesting and revelatory – for 10, 20, even 30 minutes – but as it approached an hour, tedium and weariness nearly negated everything that went before.
If an artistic expression is good, does an exponentially expanded version of it make it that much better? Do artists have an obligation to the audience – especially when it is a new, unknown work – to say even a few words about it? Would those same audiences have accepted with the same fervent enthusiasm the same performance by an unknown group? Yes, I was in the minority by not standing for a thunderous ovation, but I also observed many of those same people 15 minutes earlier either sleeping, heads nodding off, fidgeting and/or slumped in their chairs with pained expressions.
Paradoxically, it was the two encores which served as an absolutely perfect and exquisite example of what this concert could have been. The first was a frenetic but concise (about 10 minutes) rhythmically disjointed work that displayed Shorter’s compositional skills and the frightening virtuosity of the four musicians. As if a reward for enduring the self-absorbed opener, the group reluctantly returned for their final piece: the beautiful Arthur Schwartz ballad, “By Myself.” Shorter, on soprano sax, showed that there is plenty of life left in standards as he deconstructed the haunting melody as his rhythm section laid down some surprising harmonic changes. My suspicion is that even the hippest in attendance were glad to hear that old-fashioned closer.