Wayne Shorter may be the most respected man in jazz—a member of the legendary Miles Davis ‘60s quintet, a brilliant leader of legendary Blue Note dates during the same time (Speak No Evil, 1964), an innovator and composer whose involvement with the music has spanned hard bop, Brazilian fusion, and then the jazz-rock of Weather Report.
But he has also been the mystery man of jazz, in his tone and in his actions. He has always spoken in koans about his art, and when he left “mainstream” acoustic jazz to co-found Weather Report, he seemed to vanish from “serious” jazz for way too long. From 1971 until 2002—what amounts to an entire career for most musicians—Shorter’s music was brilliant but cold, a little plastic, too often trapped in a synthesized (‘80s-ish?) package that didn’t seem to allow for interaction or dialogue. To fans and fellow musicians alike, Shorter seemed like a bit of a void, a ghost, a genius in remission.
All that changed about a decade ago when Shorter put together his quartet with Danilo Perez (piano), John Patitucci (bass), and Brian Blade (drums). Seemingly overnight, Shorter was back with a vengeance. In concert and in a live recording, the band was everything that fans could have hoped for: all dialogue, a continual stew of musical conversation—an innovative group that was not merely playing great tunes and taking turns playing solos over the chord changes but actually creating innovative structures in the moment, setting up a daring new model for how an acoustic jazz group might work within tonality to still improvise with extraordinary freedom. Collections have come somewhat regularly since then, each one a revelation.
Without a Net collects performances by the quartet mostly from 2011’s European tour, and it represents yet another wondrous outing from the group, four dazzling players whipping up a magic froth from compositions that cross Shorter’s career from the ‘60s Davis group to music freshly composed for this band. As has been common in recordings by the quartet, Shorter has conceived of settings for film music and has again arranged one of his tunes for a woodwind ensemble in a manner that is gripping and highly integrated. This collection may be more of the same, then, but it is a brilliant continuation and elaboration on this strain.
There isn’t a single thesis statement here, and that keeps Without a Net from seeming like a landmark. But that simply isn’t where Shorter is as an artist at this point. His singular statement is in his band and the way it works, uniquely, across different kinds of material. That Wayne Shorter, days short of his 80th birthday, is leading what is one of the most thrilling bands in modern music, is more than notable. And because Without a Net also represents Shorter’s return to Blue Note records after 43 years, attention must be paid.
And your attention will be repaid.
First, it’s exciting to hear so many new Shorter compositions. The range of his ideas remains one of the wonders in jazz. “Myrrh”, for example, is a focused idea that expresses itself in three insistent minutes: a syncopated bass line with lurching octaves in Perez’s left hand, set against an angular melody for soprano saxophone, around which Blade bashes and boils and flings rhythm like Jackson Pollack. In contrast there is “Starry Night”, which begins as an impressionistic ballad with a shifting melody and then develops into a free-time collective improvisation that builds to a thrilling climax. “S.S. Golden Mean” is a classic Shorter tune, with a brilliant melody set in the rhythmic piano accompaniment alone and Shorter’s soprano saxophone coursing all around the margins with supreme inventiveness (and starting with a notable quote from “Manteca”).
The second thrill here is the amount of this music that is improvised seemingly from whole cloth. Nearly every track has the quality of being a journey, with the players veering toward themes but rarely coming right out and stating something with clarity. On a tune like “UFO”, the entire tune comes off as a meditation on energy, with piano and tenor going at each other with a nervous brilliance. A written “melody” never appears—and you don’t miss it. “Zero Gravity” appears to be a fully improvised performance as well, with all four instruments beginning by improvising in seeming democratic balance around a dancing pulse, with Shorter’s tenor saxophone eventually fading to the background so that Perez can spin a complex solo that seems like the soundtrack to thrilling chase scene—only to have Shorter return to challenge his bandmates before things end with a series of stuttering repeated notes.
The tunes that may attract the most attention here are the older compositions that are recast. “Orbits” goes as far back as the Davis quintet, but this version is darker: the main melody is stated in a fragment by Perez’s left hand, and then the whole thing rises up on Shorter’s soprano sax. “Plaza Real” is a song Shorter wrote for Weather Report, recreated here without electronics but maintaining the grace and majesty of the original’s careful arrangement and distinctive harmonies. There is only one non-Shorter tune, that that is “Flyin’ Down to Rio”, an old Fred Astaire tune that is largely unrecognizable here, as it skips along on a piano groove with a long-toned lead on soprano sax before Perez begins improvising in a series of strange time feels. Blade proves invaluable here, controlling the tempo, allowing it to shift easily into a meditative non-tempo, and then bringing a groove back with a very quiet backbeat as Shorter conjures the melody from thin air.
The true centerpiece of Without a Net, however, is the 23-minute performance “Pegasus”, for which Shorter composed a complex web of woodwind parts, played here by the Imani Winds. The track starts off with a beautiful rumination on some of Shorter’s most admired melodic strains, including a direct quotation from the famous fanfare lick that starts his tune “Witch Hunt”. Soon, though, “Pegasus” is off on its own, with the quartet and the Imani Winds blending into a single unit and the new colors blending into a pulsing theme that lays on top of pulsing groove from Blade and Patitucci. Rather ingeniously, Shorter soon has the winds playing with the rhythm part, however, while he rides the groove with a soprano sax solo.
Playing in this context, with his rhythm section as urgent as it has ever sounded but supplemented by fresh colors and textures, Shorter seems as youthful and urgent as at any point in his career. His tone and power on soprano saxophone seems heightened and pungent, soaring, idiosyncratic but also the very voice that we all felt we had been missing during the 1980s and 1990s—a jazz voice coming from Coltrane but also from a million other places, wizened by a lifetime of playing in different and new ways, coming back to the most emotional and personal side of the music.
Which is to say this: Wayner Shorter and his quartet are not just a good or great jazz group, they are a single voice of one the best American musicians we’ve had in the last 50 years. This is a musician who is far from in his valedictory years. Wayne Shorter seems, only now, to be saying all that has had to say. And Without a Net out to get a superb listening. It’s the shape of where jazz has been and where it is today.
As for where it’s going? No one ever knows, but this superb recording is as good a place as any to find a decent map.