Wayne Shorter and Wynton Marsalis with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, Barbican

Wayne Shorter and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra – that sounds like a dream pairing. Shorter, now 82, is one of the true greats, a saxophonist and composer with an enchanting and unpredictable approach that makes him instantly recognisable. He had a defining influence on Miles Davis’ Second Great Quintet and on Weather Report and, for many, his current quartet represent the pinnacle of modern small group performance. Under the leadership of Wynton Marsalis, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra have come to represent the pinnacle of repertoire big band playing, so this collaborative rummage through Shorter’s back catalogue with arrangements by JLCO members ought to be sublime.

But we’ve been here before, and as we take our seats in Barbican Hall I’m sure I’m not the only one feeling a little nervous. At the London Jazz Festival back in 2013 Shorter and his quartet teamed up with the BBC Concert Orchestra to perform a new commission with a similarly colossal billing. It didn’t work. The saxophonist was swamped by the orchestra, there were too many different ideas going on at once and the whole thing felt messy rather than free. Left alone, the quartet were superb. What if the saxophonist and large ensembles just don’t mix?

Last night’s opener, an arrangement of “Yes or No”, from Shorter’s 1964 Blue Note classic JuJu, was less than reassuring. It was so straight-laced it could have been written for anyone – a generic big band chart that turned a blind eye to Shorter’s experimental legacy. I was fearing the worst, but then the orchestra kicked into an arrangement of “Diana” (Native Dancer, 1974), by alto-player Ted Nash, and my concerns melted away. Nash’s arrangement was a beauty: dream-like and impossible to get a handle on, with sudden brass hits and airy woodwind melodies that seemed – like so much of Shorter’s music – forever out of reach. It ended with a fragile piano figure fading away to nothing, like a dying music box.

After that, there was hardly a misstep, the arrangements were seldom less than ingenious and they were always in the spirit of Shorter’s work. Tenorist Walter Blanding’s setting of “Lost” (The Soothsayer, 1965) was a glorious jumble of textures and colours, with melody lines passed around the orchestra and the time feel pitching and rolling like a ship at sea. “Hammerhead”, written for Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers and arranged by alto-player Sherman Irby, was gleeful and brilliantly subversive, a classic hard bop number upset by shrieking clarinets in jarringly close harmony; and “Endangered Species” (Atlantis, 1985) was full of sudden scribbles and smears in the brass, like the gestural flourishes in Shorter’s solos.

With the rhythm section supporting him and feeding him ideas, the great saxophonist produced many such solos, commenting on orchestral passages and embellishing pauses, taking off on flights of fancy, worrying notes and arguing with snatches of melody. “ESP”, a classic from his days with Miles Davis, brought mewling soprano lines and pecked motifs and he seemed to delight in stopping solos short and leaving pregnant pauses – in going for a note, deciding against it and snatching the saxophone out of his mouth, creating thrilling tension and uncertainty as a result.

In person he seems as rarified, enigmatic and enchantingly naive as you’d imagine from his compositions. There were moments when he looked at his tenor in disbelief (“did I just play that?”) or as if he were seeing it for the first time. Throughout the performance he didn’t say a word, leaving Wynton to introduce the tunes and comment on the sources of inspiration behind them, mystery, indecision and uncertainty being prominent themes.

Among the highlights of the second set was a superb setting of “Armageddon” by Marcus Printup, who took the melody with Shorter and played a firebrand trumpet solo as the rhythm section laid down the tune’s brooding riff and the orchestra busied themselves with slurred ensemble figures full of unexpected twists and turns. An Irby arrangement of “Mama G aka Nellie Bly”, first recorded on Wynton Kelly’s 1959 release Kelly Great, was a strong finisher lifted by a storming solo from trombonist Elliot Mason and trading between bass and drums. It did everything you’d want in a big band chart, but it was also very Wayne Shorter, with an intriguingly muffled rendering of the melody – hardbop through a layer of muslin – and plenty of space for the saxophonist to have his say. This was a dream pairing after all.

by Thomas Rees
Source: The Arts Desk

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