by Ian Mann
November 05, 2012
This is one elder statesmen who is still fully in control of his creative powers and who remains the focal point of his ensemble.
Wayne Shorter Quartet / Jazzlines Trio, Town Hall, Birmingham, 01/010/2011.
This was a memorable evening spent in the Victorian splendour of the (fairly) recently refurbished Birmingham Town Hall. It was a great honour to be asked to cover this prestigious event which was jointly arranged by the newly formed Jazzlines in conjunction with Town Hall/Symphony Hall. Incredibly this was Shorter’s only UK date on his current European tour, he wasn’t even playing London. Thanks to Fiona Fraser of TH/SH for inviting my wife and I both to the concert and to the pre show drinks and canapés where it was good to meet up again with Tony Dudley Evans and Mary Wakelam of Jazzlines and to put a face to the names of some of the TH/SH staff with whom I’ve traded emails - Fiona, Abi Barrington and Lyle Bignon, Thanks guys it was good to meet you all.
The support act at tonight’s event was the young Jazzlines Trio consisting of pianist Reuben James, bassist James Banner and drummer Ric Yarborough. I’d seen James perform earlier in the year at Cheltenham Jazz Festival as part of the late Abram Wilson’s quintet and had been hugely impressed by the vitality and talent of the young pianist. Yarborough, too, had impressed at the same festival as part of a youthful ensemble from Birmingham Conservatoire led by visiting American saxophone star Chris Potter. Banner had also been part of the festival performing in one of the young Anglo/Norwegian groups at the Trondheim Jazz Exchange concert, a series of performances featuring collaborations between jazz students from Birmingham Conservatoire and its sister organisation in Trondheim.
The tragic early death of Abram Wilson (1973-2012) stunned the British jazz community. The New Orleans born trumpeter, composer and educator had become a much loved figure on the UK jazz scene since his move to London in 2002. The Jazzlines Trio, now all aged 20 or 21 have been playing together since they were fourteen or so and had been mentored by Wilson. They are now looked after by Jazzlines and as Tony Dudley Evans introduced them to the Birmingham audience he dedicated tonight’s performance to the memory of Abram Wilson. The knowledgeable audience responded with a wave of spontaneous applause
This was big night for the young trio, playing to a crowd of approximately 900, probably their biggest audience ever, and opening for a bona fide jazz legend can’t have been easy. However they exhibited a youthful zeal in a brief but well balanced set and an attentive and appreciative Birmingham crowd gave the young local heroes a genuinely warm reception. On top of everything else it was James Banner’s 21st birthday, what a birthday present opening the show for the great Wayne Shorter!
The trio opened with a James original, “Gumbo’s Lullaby”, a tune inspired by Wilson and his native city. A solo piano introduction quickly gave notice of James’ precocious talent and both he and Banner later soloed impressively supported by Yarborough’s crisp, precise drumming.
Next came a hugely enjoyable contemporary arrangement of the Duke Ellington classic “Sophisticated Lady” with James’ brilliant solo attracting another round of spontaneous applause.
A lovely version of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Skylark” represented the set’s ballad interlude with James’ subtly bluesy solo and Banner’s lyrical, deeply resonant bass feature complemented by Yarborough’s assured brush work. This was a commendably mature performance that brought something fresh to this perennial jazz staple.
James handled the announcements throughout and he dedicated the trio’s final offering to their late mentor. The tune was Wilson’s own “Steak and Potatoes”, a lively tune that blended the feel of old New Orleans with the classic hard bop Blue Note sound. James’ ebullient solo was brilliant, his dazzling right hand solo complemented by strong left hand rhythms. Banner also featured strongly and there was also an entertaining drum feature from Yarborough. Abram Wilson would have been proud of his boys, it was a shame that he wasn’t still around to come and add his trumpet to the proceedings. Nevertheless the trio’s version of his tune was a vivid celebration of his life.
This ended a short but but superbly paced set and the audience gave the young trio the kind of rapturous reception normally only reserved for headliners. This was born of genuine enthusiasm and love for the music and although short the set was a triumph for the group. There is great potential here and James, in particular, is a star in the making. After the performance I spoke briefly to him in the reception area and he was still buzzing. I bet Banner had one hell of a birthday party afterwards!
WAYNE SHORTER QUARTET
Membership of three of the most iconic groups of the second half of the 20th Century - Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, the Miles Davis Quintet and Weather Report- have ensured that Wayne Shorter’s name is indelibly etched in jazz history. Then there’s his abilities as a composer, a much covered writer from whose pen many contemporary jazz standards have flowed. Shorter’s impressive solo career includes many gems from the Blue Note catalogue among them “Speak No Evil”, “Adam’s Apple”, “Super Nova” and “Juju”. He has experimented with Brazilian music (on the lovely “Native Dancer”, which in turn inspired Pat Metheny’s Brazilian fantasies) and continued Weather Report’s flirtation with funk and electronics but the 21st century has seen him return to acoustic jazz with a quartet that evokes comparison with those famous bands of old and one which seriously deserves to be considered as one of the all time great small groups.
Shorter’s quartet of Danilo Perez (piano), John Patitucci (bass) and Brian Blade (drums) was formed in 2000. I saw their last visit to Birmingham when they played at Symphony Hall in 2003 around the time of the release of the award winning “Alegria” studio album. I’ll confess to being a little disappointed at the time, it was long before I started writing and I think I was expecting some kind of “greatest hits” package featuring “Footprints” (arguably Shorter’s most famous composition) and maybe a couple of Weather Report tunes. This time round my listening has moved on and I knew more of what to expect. The quartet’s music treads the line between composition and improvisation, communication with the audience is minimal and pieces are often long and complex as this quartet of improvisers continue to challenge both themselves and their audience.
Approaching his 80th birthday Shorter is as forward looking as ever. A short, gnomic figure he doesn’t speak to the audience and only acknowledges the contribution of his fellow musicians with a wave of the hand or a nod of approval. Although all four members of the group were reading music one still got the impression that most of the set, which comprised of two lengthy pieces - the first lasting nearly an hour, was largely improvised. Shorter has just re-signed to Blue Note Records after a forty three year absence and one formed the impression that the title of the forthcoming album “Without A Net” is a pretty tidy summation of the group’s approach to music making.
The Shorter quartet create rich tapestries or patchworks of music, the shapes changing unhurriedly and gradually in a patiently run musical relay that sees each instrument taking its turn to carry the baton. Yet there is no conventional jazz soloing (Shorter’s approach is far more sophisticated than merely improvising around chord changes,) but neither is there the brawl and squall of free improvisation, this is music that is innately tuneful despite the lack of clearly defined melodies. It’s a collective, selfless method of music making that mirrors Shorter’s Buddhist beliefs. It’s serious, often contemplative, stuff that demands a lot of the listener, yet it’s music that is also capable of generating moments of great joy.
The first piece was introduced by Patitucci at the bass later joined by the gentle rumble of Blade’s mallets and the fluttering of Shorter’s tenor sax. This mutated into a thoughtful duet between Shorter and Perez at the piano before Patitucci picked up his bow to take the music in another, more ominous direction featuring vocalised saxophone sounds and the scraping and plucking of piano strings. Shorter’s playing is economical but he can still impart great emotion as his booming foghorn tenor did here above the thunderous sound of Blade’s mallet rumbles.
The leader was becoming increasingly animated and now picked up his soprano to deliver sharp, piercing phrases above the increasingly violent sounds of Blade’s drum explosions as the once calm surface became increasingly ruffled.
It was at this point that a couple of stage technicians began crawling about under the piano attempting to rectify some problem or other. I thought it was a problem with Patitucci’s bass pick up, others have suggested Shorter’s soprano, but at any rate it proved distracting. Just when it looked as if they’d got it fixed one of them came slinking back on again. It seemed to distract the audience more than the musicians, experienced pros who were all “in the zone”. Nevertheless I couldn’t help but find it irritating. Meanwhile the band played on, Shorter and Blade perhaps adding their own commentary with another dynamic soprano and drum barrage. Meanwhile Perez, whose imaginative comping and chording prompted his colleagues throughout entered into dialogue with Blade, his cascades of notes inviting a vigorous response from the drummer who also whooped his obvious delight at the challenge laid down. Shorter’s light and airy soprano over dampened piano strings was another moment of calm before a final saxophone and drum storm. The piece finally resolved itself with a passage of feather light soprano above gently supportive bass and drums, Blade adding delightful small percussive details (bells etc).
Throughout this marathon performance snatches of themes and melodies swam tantalisingly into view, hinted at but never obviously stated. I wouldn’t like to second guess what these were but other commentators among them John Lewis writing in The Guardian and Birmingham based pianist Steve Tromans recognised “Orbits” (written by Shorter for Miles Davis) and “Piazza Real”, an old Weather Report tune. Both are likely to appear on the forthcoming live recording “Without A Net”.
This sprawling first piece had lasted almost an hour and Shorter and his colleagues left the stage only to be summoned back for the inevitable encore. This “Second Piece” lasted almost another half an hour and initially featured brooding, round toned, vocally inflected tenor sax above Patitucci’s eerily bowed bass. Perez provided the link on piano as Shorter switched to soprano and Patitucci bowed on. There was another fiery exchange between Shorter on soprano and Blade at the drums, something that was threatening to become a bit of a cliché, before Blade climaxed the piece with a well received drum feature. Blade was the showman of the band, an aspect of performance that isn’t really in Shorter’s nature despite his often powerful playing. Perez is a good foil to Shorter and Blade, the harmonic glue that holds the quartet together, consistently probing and prompting yet rarely taking the spotlight. Patitucci fills a similar role but his rhythmic sense and the range of sounds he generates from the bass is impressive, with his arco work particularly distinctive.
The Birmingham crowd gave the quartet a tremendous reception and although the set had its longueurs and difficult moments there was still much to enjoy. Fair play to Shorter for continuing to push the boundaries and for refusing to sit on his laurels. This is one elder statesmen who is still fully in control of his creative powers and who remains the focal point of his ensemble.