Wayne Shorter Quartet/Imani Winds, University of Michigan, 9.27.08

A few weeks ago, I managed to catch one of my heroes, Wayne Shorter, in concert at the University of Michigan, performing with his quartet (featuring Danilo Perez, John Patitucci, and Brian Blade ) and the Imani Winds.

The concert cemented my belief that Mr. Shorter, who released his first album in 1959, is making some of the most important music of his career. The “arrangements” presented by this group, which draw from Mr. Shorter’s compositions past and present, often sound more intricately composed than any of Mr. Shorter’s previous ensembles, yet are almost entirely improvised. This group improvisation is governed by an alternative set of principles: namely, the members of the band are scholars of both Mr. Shorter’s recorded literature and his compositional language, and Mr. Shorter conducts them (quite literally) to reimagine the music anew, night after night. Indeed, this epitomizes the idea of spontaneous composition in a highly unique and composite way.

Furthermore, the band follows Mr. Shorter’s example by embracing extremely tonal frameworks for their potential to evoke the archetypal (and arguably conditioned) responses we associate them with in western music. Mr. Shorter’s use of the unaltered F-major scale, the sound of which is synonymous in the minds of many with learning to play an instrument, at 6:16 in “Smilin’ Through” from Beyond the Sound Barrier, really drives this point home for me. Miles Davis foreshadows the current state of refinement of these skills in the assessment provided in his autobiography, noting that, “[Wayne] brought in a kind of curiosity about working with musical rules. If they didn’t work, then he broke them, but with a musical sense; he understood that freedom in music was the ability to know the rules in order to bend them to your satisfaction and taste.”

And, needless to say, Mr. Shorter, who once frequented John Coltrane’s home for lengthy practice sessions, never fails to remind anybody of the power of a sound.

Following the performance, my friends and I had the honor of meeting Mr. Shorter, his wife Carolina, and the rest of the band (Rob Griffin, the band’s acclaimed sound engineer, was responsible for this opportunity and I’d like to extend my thanks to him again). Barely able to speak, I managed to inform Mr. Shorter that my group would be performing material from the new quartet the following night in Oberlin, and asked for his advice as to interpreting his compositions. He stared at me for a long moment, then suddenly exclaimed, “Cover your eyes, and do like this!”, his ears tilted outwards, one hand covering his eyes and the other pouring his thoughts out onto the keys of the imaginary piano between us.