Jazz audiences have always been deeply respectful towards age, maturity and experience. The assumption glibly maintained in rock n’ roll that youthful energy is the lifeblood of all important music simply does not exist in the jazz world. For sure, there have been ‘young lions’ and, more recently, prodigious conservatoire students, but the great survivors of the music have a hallowed status that towers over all. The great Sonny Rollins and Ahmad Jahmal still perform today, continuing to bring their passionate spirit to different contexts, even if there is now a greater vulnerability in their music.
The master saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter seems to be at a totally singular level – atop his own remarkable peak. He has been instrumental at so many of jazz’s major turning points – playing with Miles Davis’ second great quintet (contributing some of its most innovating compositions) and making seven of jazz’s key works in just four years as a bandleader on Blue Note records in the 1960s (the extraordinary run from Night Dreamer to Schizophrenia). A later collaboration with legendary Brazilian musician Milton Nascimento on Native Dancer in 1974 and with Joe Zawinul in Weather Report pioneered the fusion movement. That he is now making some of his most searching, radical and restless music and back on Blue Note in his eightieth year is extraordinary.
Without A Net is a third live recording of his acclaimed quartet with Danilo Perez (piano), John Patitucci (bass) and Brian Blade (drums), but this is surely the best way in which to capture this staggering, wild and visionary ensemble. It is hard to imagine this untethered, spontaneous, inspired sound being contained within the confined space of a recording studio. The music they make is not for everyone – it is propelled into increasingly breathtaking, intense and ecstatic states. The whoops and gasps of the musicians are frequently audible, their delight and surprise as vital to this music as their skill and experience.
Wayne Shorter Quartet performances often involve radical workings of a wide range of selections from his vast catalogue. This tendency is reflected in the selection here, the opening track being a skittering, agitated take on Orbits, an enduring piece first written for the Miles Davis group. It is recognisable from the original theme, but covers a wide area here, beginning with a palpably menacing low piano motif before bursting into a brilliant ray of light when Shorter himself plays the theme. Weather Report’s Plaza Real gets a very different treatment too, delivered at a similar tempo, but with more bite and attack, and reordered to highlight specific parts of the original form.
This is a group of musicians all demonstrating fearlessness and commitment to the pure adventure of improvised music. Danilo Perez’s rapid flurries at the piano are exhilarating and commanding, but so is the more romantic, transcendent side of his playing (the glorious introduction to Starry Night being a prime example). He also provides brilliant rhythmic impetus on S.S. Golden Mean. Brian Blade remains a gleeful and volatile provocateur, his sudden explosions of volume and energy prompting a range of inspired responses from the others. Shorter himself mostly plays soprano, creating an excoriating, piercing intensity that cuts through the rhythm section even in their wildest moments. The music often appears to be on the edge of madness – free spirited, virtuosic and tempestuous, but always anchored by strong concepts and a sense of musicality. For all the clatter, there is also ingenious deployment of space and silence.
The sole studio recording here is the 23 minute landmark Pegasus, which is augmented by the wind ensemble Imani Winds. The group previously collaborated with Shorter at the North Sea Jazz Festival in 2008 and recorded his composition Terra Incognita for their 2010 album of the same name, but this is the first recording of the group playing with Shorter. It is another remarkable new direction for Shorter, demonstrating his command of complex harmony and his ability to create striking, powerful tensions.
It begins with a plaintive whisper from Perez, before moving through lushly orchestrated, meticulously organised terrain. Eventually, the music takes on a more percussive hue, driven on by the entrance of Brian Blade’s drums and some staccato accompanying figures from the wind ensemble. It’s all intelligently arranged, but also in thrall to the energy and swing of jazz tradition – there is plenty of rhythm and blues during the improvising. This applies to much of the music here – it’s intuitive rather than instinctive – born from both a wild, radical spirit of adventure and a deep understanding of the music’s core language.