Monday, February 24, 2014

Concert Review: Complex and Ephemeral—Jazz Legend Wayne Shorter and his Quartet

Danilo Pérez and Wayne Shorter. Photo from wikimedia commons.

Last Friday, I had the privilege of seeing Wayne Shorter, one of the most famous living jazz performers and composers. Despite turning 80 last August, he continues to tour and perform, and just won a Grammy last month. I couldn't pass up the opportunity to see Shorter live.

A different type of jazz

 Wayne Shorter's jazz is different than your grandparent's jazz in that it has been mixed with classical avant garde. More specifically, the chords that Shorter is using don't have the same hierarchical structure that characterizes most classical and popular music, structure most people's ears have come to expect. Because these chords don't have this hierarchical structure, they can basically be interchanged with each other, or placed in any order. This may produce new sound options, but at the end of the day (or concert), it's harder for a listener's mind to process and group musical ideas together.

On top of unfamiliar nonhierarchical musical structure, Shorter's music is based on improvisation, meaning what's happening on stage, while guided by a loose road-map, is somewhat made up on the spot. Each of the four musicians trade taking charge of the main musical idea. While this model lets each musician shine, sometimes it means that just when the music seems to get going somewhere, someone would sabotage that direction and purpose (as they would a conversation) and take the musical conversation topic a new way. While this sudden change in direction can be musically exciting, it can also be exasperating. Improvisation is risky, which is kind of the point. Because of the way the music is designed around improvisation, however, it is hard for the musicians to think through long-term music goals and structure on the fly, at least structure that builds on itself to achieve an end goal, as one would with a typical classical music number of the same length (I think they played 5-6 selections in the 90-minute concert).

I'm sure something happened, but...

The end result was a concert of music that seemed like a series or string of inconsequential, unmemorable ideas stuck together. By the end of the concert, I was sure that something interesting happened, but the music was so ephemeral that I couldn't capture any of it in my mind. About the only musical ideas I remember are the few short rhythmic vamps which were the musical glue holding many of the pieces together. These vamps continued or returned through a piece, often returning with different harmonic underpinnings. While this structure is interesting to those who are in the know, I imagine that many are left wondering what really happened.

In short, going to a Wayne Shorter Quartet concert is like listening in on a conversation for which we don't have any context, between a group of old friends we don't know. We can tell that they find the conversation scintillating, but we're not sure where it is going or why certain things are happening. At the same time, we get the impression that they are very accomplished musicians playing hard things, and that they feel it is very rewarding. To make the concert more palatable, it would have been nice for the group to announce their songs or explain a little of what they were doing or how the music was structured, bringing us in on the conversation, but there was literally no talking on stage. Perhaps they expect us to know. And I'm sure there were many in the audience who do know. But coming from the perspective of someone who has studied jazz history, music theory, and the avant garde, and still am not exactly sure what is going on, I would guess that number is somewhat small.

Have any of you heard Wayne Shorter live, or even his recorded music? What do you think?

Vocab: vamp, hierarchical, improvisation, chords, harmonic, avant garde


  1. So, ignorant question, do you enjoy a concert like this, or is this more of an anthropological study? There are plenty of things I find fascinating but don't particularly enjoy, and plenty of things I enjoy but don't particularly find interesting (e.g. most television I watch).

    1. I guess I wasn't really clear on that. I did enjoy the concert, and I'm glad I went, but I'm not planing to go out and buy Wayne Shorter albums.

  2. IMO, jazz stopped getting better in the 1960's with Hard Bob. I really like the wayne shorter from back then. (That's also true of Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, and others.) Try out Infant Eyes from Speak No Evil -- delicate stuff.