New Wayne Shorter Music: Not for the Shorter Attention Span
These days, the unveiling of any new music by Wayne Shorter, the saxophonist and composer, qualifies as an event. Shorter's work represents a creative pinnacle of jazz composition, and his influence in this realm approaches the saturation point: Virtually everyone aspiring to write for small jazz ensemble has been influenced by him.
But it's been awhile. And so when Shorter and his working group - pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Pattitucci, drummer Brian Blade - entered the Philadelphia Museum of Art's acoustically rascally Great Stair Hall Friday evening, they were greeted with a sense of anxious, almost nervous, anticipation. Where is the great man's head at right now?
The occasion was the world premiere of Shorter's Lotus, an extended piece commissioned by the museum that, according to the printed materials, was inspired by the museum's East Asian collections. One estimate put the crowd at over 2,000 people - the throng gathered under a huge Calder mobile was a test for the security detail, which could be heard during quiet passages admonishing patrons, "You can't stand here."
Incredibly, the quartet seemed impervious to the near-constant crowd commotion; it was locked, instead, on the many challenges of bringing Lotus to life. The piece started in a murmuring drone, and as Shorter toyed with the initial theme on soprano, his musicians followed the arc of his line at a distance and with some caution, creating an overriding sense of fluidity. The restraint proved wise: Shorter's melodies swelled with an explorer's anticipation, crested, and then slowly drifted away. It was up to Perez, Pattitucci and Blade to mark the changing tides, and they did this with great sensitivity, often using just subtle touches - exactingly placed cymbal splashes and slight tonal colorations.
The most striking aspect of the through-composed Lotus, which is structurally closer to contemporary classical works than jazz standards: Very little of it happened at a firm tempo. For more than an hour, Shorter and his group journeyed in a mostly placid rubato, detouring only occasionally into rhythm. Normally, that's a recipe for tedium. But this group, which has been together for ten years, seized the languid mood and went deeply inside it; their immersion and curiosity lured listeners into the exploration, made them participants.
That struck me as a revealing measure of Shorter's gift: Not many musicians, working in any style, can transport a roomful of people who are enduring unusual (and, for some, downright uncomfortable) conditions into an entirely different realm. Lotus did exactly that, for over an hour. It offered listeners very little in the way of the "familiar," not even so much as a toe-tapping rhythm. And it was enthralling.