Been mulling this one over for nearly a fortnight now, not really knowing what to say. Wayne Shorter is clearly a major name in postwar jazz, having contrived to be in the right place at the right time in terms of being a member of three hugely influential bands – Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, the mid-60’s Miles Davis Quintet and the peerless Weather Report. This would probably be my fifth or sixth encounter with Mr Shorter in a live context and I have to say that, like each of the previous encounters, this one left me disappointed in some ways, though this time, I think we can excuse him to a large extent.
Shorter’s recorded legacy up to the dissolution of Weather Report in the late 1980’s is pretty impressive. Musical partners like Blakey, Miles and Zawinul always seemed to be able to get the best out of him in the studio and apart from his work with them, there was an impressive run of solo albums with Blue Note, beginning with 1964’s ‘Night Dreamer’ .
Once Weather Report got going around the end of the 60’s, Shorter initially seemed an equal partner with Joe Zawinul and they survived a rotating slate of drummers and bassists through the mid-70’s before apparently settling on the ‘classic’ line-up with the extraordinary Jaco Pastorius on bass and the marvellous Peter Erskine on drums towards the end of that decade.
From that point, it seemed to be Jaco who took on the role of Joe Zawinul’s sparring partner in the band and in a succession of Weather Report gigs I attended through the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, it was noticeable that Wayne Shorter’s presence and contribution appeared to be diminishing. He would seemingly emerge from his shell only to duet with Zawinul on a medley that usually turned into ‘In a silent way’ and to lead the way on the marvellous ‘A Remark you made’ .
Increasingly, it was a similar story in the studio, with Zawinul adding layers of polyphonic synthesiser riffs from which Shorter’s horn emerged only sporadically. During this era, it could easily be argued that it was the astonishing bass playing of Jaco Pastorius that became the main counterpoint to Zawinul’s huge multi- keyboard concoctions. Either Wayne had lost his chops or he had lost interest due to the impossibility of competing with the band’s electronic barrage.
The classic Weather Report line-up from 1978; (L-R)Pastorius, Erskine, Zawinul, Shorter.
Emerging from the wreckage of Weather Report in the late 1980’s, it surprised no-one to see Shorter opting for more acoustic settings for his playing. He made a succession of albums in this style, often collaborating with the likes of Herbie Hancock and Tony Williams whilst continuing to slum a little with Steely Dan and Joni Mitchell. What really couldn’t be said was that escaping from late-period Weather Report’s electronic world music ghetto had provided Shorter with a new lease on his playing. The solo cd’s that emerged from this period revealed someone whose playing and style both lacked conviction. Of course, there had been problems; Shorter lost his daughter, Iska, to an epileptic seizure in the mid-1970’s and his second wife in the 1996 TWA Flight 800 disaster off Long Island, but he has been a practising Buddhist for many years, so maybe he was somehow able to come to terms with these awful occurrences.
By the millennium, he had put together a new acoustic quartet featuring Panamanian pianist Danilo Perez, multi-talented drummer Brian Blade and bassist John Patitucci. This band have made a number of critically acclaimed albums in the 12 years they’ve been together, but I must confess that whilst I am familiar with Patitucci’s work with others and (in particular) with Blade’s superb Fellowship band, I have heard only snatches of this quartet and was therefore sufficiently intrigued to check out what someone told me – and it may even be true – was their only UK performance at the Town Hall on 1st November.
We had seats quite close to the front of the hall and my first surprise was to see how old Wayne Shorter looks, but then I hadn’t appreciated that he is nearly 80. As he led the Quartet on to the stage, it was quite noticeable that Pianist Danilo Perez was close behind him with his arms slightly extended in case the main man was to keel over. Similarly, Shorter was fenced in with the piano at his back, a music stand in front of him and a stool (unused) to his left. Seemingly, balance is now an issue and there were a couple of points in the performance where he would grab at the piano, presumably in order to support himself.
Wayne Shorter & Danilo Perez at Birmingham Town Hall, 1/11/12
The band were impressive, particularly Blade, who would play as softly as falling thistledown, then punctuate proceedings with sporadic explosions from his kit that reminded me of Animal from ‘The Muppet Show’. Patitucci was muscular and effective, despite intermittent technical problems that had techies crawling about underneath the piano in order to sort out the connections to his bass. Perez, as might be expected of a pianist with a Latin American background, utilised a highly percussive approach with his left hand whilst plunging into occasional rhapsodic interludes.
In amongst all this, Shorter bobbed and weaved with occasional interjections that could best be summed up as intermittent phrases rather than flowing thematic statements. Unsurprisingly, he was infinitely more fluent on his soprano sax than on his tenor, but even on the soprano, his presence among the shifting ebb and flow of the music was an ephemeral butterfly which flitted and fluttered and occasionally caught the eye (or the ear) without ever really imposing itself on proceedings.
Shorter is, of course, one of the last representatives of that whole post-bebop generation dominated by the likes of Miles, Mingus and Coltrane. Perhaps because of this, there is perhaps a tendency to allow veneration to overcome common sense. Since this gig, I have read a number of glowing reviews suggesting that here was something extra-special, but the reality is that Shorter’s extremely accomplished quartet spent much of the gig papering over the cracks in their leader’s contributions; it wasn’t that he was bad per se, but he is 79 and clearly not in the best of health. Clearly, despite any financial incentives, he cares enough to get up on stage at an age when most of his peers were either dead or retired and that should be applauded. However, both his contributions and his inspiration are severely diminished from his heyday and what I heard made me a little sad.
Sad, yes, because I never seem to have heard Wayne Shorter at his best in a live setting. All the previous Weather Report gigs I saw failed to show him at his best; often drowned out by thundering bass guitar or tsunami keyboard washes. And now, he just doesn’t have the chops any more, I’m afraid and as I close in on my sixtieth birthday, I am perhaps more aware of mortality than ever before. We spend the first 50-odd years of our lives feeling immortal, then wake up to realise that we have very little time left. Wayne Shorter is one of the last members of a generation whose musical endeavours and achievements have stretched a long shadow across my life and now virtually all of them are gone. Only Shorter, Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner come to mind as members of a constituency that have retained their abilities into their late 70’s, but it has to be said that Wayne Shorter is just clinging on by his fingernails.
As I remarked to someone afterwards, the problem with sax players is that when they’re young, you just can’t shut them up and when they get to Wayne Shorter’s age, they don’t really have anything left to say or lack the puff to say it. Like the man said, sic transit gloria mundi……..