EARSHOT JAZZ FESTIVAL
various venues, 206-547-9787 all-festival pass: $350; other discount packages available runs Thurs., Oct. 24-Sun., Nov. 11
THE EARSHOT JAZZ Festival gets the party started right this year—even if it means you've got an empty wallet after opening night. Headliners have rarely been the most exciting attractions during the annual two-and-a-half-week showcase (one of the great jazz fests in the country); it's the lesser-known names Earshot brings to light that make the concert series so special. But this year's top-ticket act, the Wayne Shorter Quartet (8 p.m. Thurs., Oct. 24, at the Paramount Theatre, $26.50-$39.50), is likely to provide one of its most memorable performances.
Shorter, 69, came of age at roughly the same time as other tenor sax colossi like Trane, Sonny Rollins, and Joe Henderson. Yet he's never had the legions of imitators that those players spawned. His amazing compositions changed the course of jazz and are as beloved as Monk's, but his sound—as rare and distinctive (though maybe not as revolutionary) as his contemporaries'—hasn't infiltrated the playing of every saxophonist of the last 40 years. Maybe for this reason, Shorter still feels fresh; there are no substitutes for his moistened coppery tone and sly, darting attack.
Plus, he's nothing if not underexposed. Shorter blew onto the hard bop scene in the early '60s as a Jazz Messenger, then, most famously, joined Miles Davis' great quintet, which pushed through to a freedom and complexity in small group jazz that, arguably, has never been surpassed (except by stripping away the rhythmic and harmonic frame entirely). During the Miles years, Wayne also produced his legendary Blue Note sessions, which contain some of the most revered, non-Tin Pan Alley standards in all of jazz.
But Shorter has been something less than conspicuous ever since. He spent most of the '70s in Weather Report, the unevenly brilliant electro-fusion band led by Joe Zawinul that employed some of Shorter's great writing but mostly created textures and grooves, with his "solos" more like brief, sidelong remarks. Drummer Jack DeJohnette (who also performs this week, in a duo with John Surman, 8 p.m. Sat., Oct. 26, at the Seattle Art Museum, $25) memorably bemoaned the great saxophonist's self-effacement in his 1978 tune, "Where or Wayne." And Shorter's profile has been even lower in the last 25 years, with just a few, largely unexciting recordings of fusion funk, as well as various "reunion" projects such as V.S.O.P.
His new band and new CD, Footprints Live! (Verve), prove that Shorter still matters, however. The quartet, with Danilo Perez, piano, John Patitucci, bass, and Brian Blade, drums, represents a compelling synthesis of the saxophonist's career. The band plays some of the Blue Note classics, like "JuJu" and "Go," but with a deliberately abstracted indirection, drifting in and out of tunes, the head almost incidental. There's a broken-up feeling, reminiscent of the Miles band, with Perez and Blade powerfully muscling into the open space with aggressive commentary, as Herbie and Tony Williams did; while at other times, the band seems to float, exploring space, refusing outright statements, making jabs and stabs, gesturing toward "solos" without ever taking them, in a way that dimly recalls Weather Report. Yet heavy grooves—of any variety— are nowhere to be heard. Occasionally building to impassioned squeals, Shorter mostly brushes by melodic phrases; diffident as ever, he makes the band far from a "star turn" and more of a striking constellation. Neither a time-capsule act, nor an effort to look au courant, this band ends up sounding absolutely right for the moment.