Oct. 2, 2011
Better than: Listening to songs shorter than 40 minutes long.
Stripped of his pen, notebook, and incredibly necessary glasses, the concert reviewer can't help but feel out of his element, totally unprepared to eventually write a proper piece on the merits of a show.
But with Wayne Shorter at Herbst Theatre last night, this reviewer in particular isn't sure that any number of pens, notebooks, or prescription eyewear could have prepared him for the task. Not in the slightest.
Now 78 years old, Shorter took the stage with Danilo Perez on piano, John Patitucci on bass, and Brian Blade on drums. As Shorter's tenor sax warmed the room -- a beautiful, refined concert hall that seemed like the closest thing to a natural habitat for the group's music -- the first piece stretched past the 10 minute mark. Then 25. Then 40, before finally sputtering to a last gasp and allowing the audience to unleash a thunderous applause.
Along the way, Shorter's group unleashed a tidal wave of challenging sound; at one point, his melody alluded to a line from Coltrane's "A Love Supreme." In some ways, his quartet's sound seemed to pick up where that classic piece left off, with discordant parts wailing in seemingly isolated derangement but then uniting to create something that challenged the audience's ears but still managed to reward them immensely.
The SF Jazz Festival's website describes Shorter as "god-like," but "incomprehensibly fascinating" would be a better fit. This wasn't the typical approach of trading eights or virtuosic, jaw-dropping solos, but rather of peaks and valleys of energy within some mysterious but certainly coordinated musical agreement.
Commenting on Shorter's age feels pedestrian, but it's absolutely worth noting that the 78-year-old showed no signs of feebleness or fragility, commanding his instrument like any other spritely musician. (Physically, he looked perhaps a decade younger than his years.) With a lengthy musical resume that includes membership in Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers and Weather Report, Shorter is not an artist with something to prove, but he still earned the audience's attention and enthusiasm.
After the initial 40-minute exploration, the quartet concluded the main set with a (relatively) short piece of about 10 or 15 minutes before returning with another of about equal length in the obligatory encore. In both songs, Shorter switched from his tenor to a soprano sax, which he coaxed with equal mastery.
Throughout the set, the band toyed with a variety of moods and approaches; some moments of the songs even felt like musical humor, delivering meandering set-ups with perfectly crafted punchlines. These are the kinds of metaphors the critic must resort to without the benefit of his usual tools -- though, to be fair, some members of the audience did literally laugh along with a few moments of the set.
The crowd seemed almost universally awed by the performance, and understandably so -- how to comprehend a song longer than the average television show, especially without a notebook?