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Wayne Shorter Quartet - Without a Net

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Artist: Wayne Shorter Quartet

Album: Without a Net

Label: Blue Note

Review date: Feb. 11, 2013

During his 79 years on the planet, Wayne Shorter’s saxophone sound has lived several lives of its own. From the Coltrane-enamored tenor of his first sides as a leader in the late-1950s for Vee-Jay through his early-’60s ascendancy on Blue Note and epochal tenure as Miles Davis’s frontline confrere, then onward to the serpentine soprano-favoring fusion of Weather Report, Shorter’s style has always been idiosyncratic and porous. His compositional language has followed suit, changing with the times but retaining a singularity rooted in a vast and multidisciplinary pantheon of influences from Hollywood musicals and science fiction of all stripes, to theoretical astrophysics and vintage Marvel comic books.

Without a Net aligns with the same basic design behind Sonny Rollins’s Road Shows discs, presenting cherry-picked concert performances with his working band of pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Pattitucci and drummer Brian Blade. Like that point of comparison and the band’s previous two records, it’s a bit of a mixed bag; transcendent moments intersperse with relatively quotidian ones. Perez, Pattitucci and Blade are about as blue chip as they come, and they easily outclass their somewhat calcified counterparts on the Rollins outings, but there are still sections in the collection that don’t feel on par with Shorter’s storied brilliance.

The disparity is particularly present during the first half of the disc and the primary culprit to these ears is Perez who repeatedly veers into dramatic, heavy-handed block chords and lurching incrementalism at the expense of more varied accompaniment and interplay. His lugubriousness reaches an apogee on the bruising but brief “Myrrh.” “S.S. Golden Mean,” a titular riff on an earlier Shorter composition, is another puzzler as the band wriggles unexpectedly through the theme to “Manteca,” burrowing into the same patch of harmonic ground for much of its terse duration. It’s all really a matter of personal taste, though; everything the ensemble does carries diamond sharp purpose and agency behind it.

Shorter favors soprano across much of the program and surprisingly even sounds Steve Lacy-like on the opening rendering of “Orbits,” affecting an intentionally dry shrillness to his lines that is surprising in its harshness. Elsewhere, he’s his usual elliptical self, often eliding rather than exclaiming melodic material outright. The sprawling “Pegasus” is the centerpiece at over 20 minutes and adds a wind quintet (flute, oboe, clarinet, French horn and bassoon) to the mix, as well as some welcome doses of wry humor that find both audience and band adding audible interjections of approval. Shorter’s tenor is as slippery as ever on the forays through “Starry Night,” “Zero Gravity…” and “UFO.” Perez channels his more baroque impulses on the former for a ballad performance, which becomes outright explosive in its penultimate passage thanks in large part to Blade’s powerful drumming.

Reception to the disc so far has been predominately positive, though a small, but vocal minority still seems inexplicably stuck in ancient argument of “swing” as an obligatory element of legitimate jazz expression. That crowd’s collective disappointment is understandable if immaterial since “swing” in any explicit sense isn’t even remotely the point of this music. The disc’s title and the quartet’s preference for live albums succinctly announce the intent. Their brand of collective improvisation breeds best under such spontaneous circumstances where risks are many, but rewards are plenty.

The liners contain a welcome affirmation to the “Keep Wayne Weird” contingent (of which this writer is a card-carrying member) with Shorter’s dedication of the album to “life forms everywhere” and “aliens throughout the Universe.” More importantly, his long-stated philosophy-in-practice — “I ain’t got nothin’ to lose” — still holds reassuringly manifest throughout the music, whether one agrees with all of his choices or not.

By Derek Taylor

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