Dave Douglas Talks Wayne Shorter’s Without a Net

I was listening to Wayne Shorter's new album on the Taconic State Parkway when I heard a woman's voice yell, "Oh my God!" It was intense...

I was listening to Wayne Shorter’s new album on the Taconic State Parkway when I heard a woman’s voice yell, “Oh my God!” It was intense, one of those things where you think maybe you should pull over and find out what’s going on. When I got home, I realized it was actually on the recording. It was one of the players in the woodwind quintet Imani Winds, who join the Wayne Shorter Quartet on “Pegasus.” (This happens at 7:16.)

It was the perfect reaction to the immediacy and urgency of this music. Shorter’s quartet plays with incantatory fervor and heavenly grace. Every moment is alive with possibility and charged with electric energy. It’s music where you feel like anything can happen, and once you start to grasp the rules of the game you pick up on the profundity of the choice of what actually does happen. Without a Net presents a side of Shorter we haven’t heard before on record — there’s a new freedom and flight of imagination, as well as a crucial re-imagining of the meeting of composed and improvised music.

Even if you aren’t familiar with Wayne Shorter’s music, there’s more than enough oomph in this record to get to you. It might deepen the experience to know that he is one of the most influential and crucial figures in jazz at present, in part because of his essential place in the music of the past 50 years or so.

Wayne Shorter’s recorded path begins on Vee-Jay Records under his own name in the late 1950s. (You know these records if you live in the New York area and listen to “The Leonard Lopate Show” on WNYC.) Shorter continued as saxophonist, composer and music director for Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, then joined Miles Davis’ second classic quintet and wrote much of the music that defined the era. Shorter also made a series of groundbreaking and enduringly powerful records under his own name on Blue Note, featuring giants such as Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, Reggie Workman, Tony Williams, Elvin Jones and Joe Chambers. In the early 1970s he co-founded Weather Report with Joe Zawinul and also appeared on records by Joni Mitchell, Steely Dan, Carlos Santana. He also pioneered Brazilian music fusion on Native Dancer, featuring Milton Nascimento. Soon after this he began to appear alongside Hancock in VSOP, a quintet that presented a new approach to the music Miles Davis’ group had played in the 1960s. Simultaneously, Shorter released groundbreaking records of mid-sized ensemble compositions, often with electric rhythm sections. Albums such as AtlantisJoy Ryder, and High Life began to shine a light on Shorter as a composer for larger ensembles.

It was around 2000 or 2001 that the current quartet began to take shape. In a sense this is an extraordinary development because the new group draws on the entire panoply of Wayne’s previous music and yet uses that language to break down the rules and reinvent them. In jazz (for lack of a better word), standard operating procedure is to have some material played as written on the page, and then have improvisations based on a set form. Wayne Shorter was never one for standard operating procedure. There’s a famous story where someone asks John Coltrane about Shorter’s playing, saying it just sounds like scrambled eggs. Coltrane’s reply: “Yeah, but it’s the way he scrambles them!” In this new group the quartet finds an even more scrambled way of scrambling the eggs.

The Wayne Shorter Quartet liberates many of the normally fixed elements of the music, beginning with the very idea of form. In interviews Shorter espouses a Buddhist view that there are no beginnings and endings in the universe. Likewise, a performance by the current quartet removes planned beginnings and endings from their arrangements, finding new sorts of unplanned resolutions with the material. There is no moment when someone is playing written music as opposed to improvised music. Every note choice is part of finding the crucial addition to the conversation. This kind of playing takes an incredibly skilled set of musicians. Without each player’s intimate knowledge of the material this game wouldn’t work — the music would either be handcuffed to the written parts, or simply dissolve into unrelated free improvising. The record is aptly titled — without a net, everything may be at risk, but the song always defines the mode of play.

In the current quartet Wayne has found three remarkable companions: Danilo Perez on piano, John Patitucci on bass, and Brian Blade on drums bring exquisite sensitivity and power to the stage. Each of them is a brilliant bandleader in his own right and each of them has profound knowledge of every phase of the musical practice Wayne has pursued through the years. They are all uniquely suited to take this next step in the music with him.

At its best, all jazz has this quality of absolute freedom, even from its earliest origins. But as with anything, over time, certain established, ritualized practices come into use. Using those practices to push the music into entirely new territory is where Wayne and his quartet shine. It’s a profound development for the music.

All of the pieces on this album emerge from and dissolve into improvisation. “Orbits,” the opening track, starts with the piano and bass playing a small piece of the melody. This evolves into a give-and-take around this short bit of material. The two-bar segment morphs into a four-bar chunk of the tune and then gets stretched every which way. The “actual” melody isn’t sounded until nearly the end of the track. Within the chewing up of the material there’s an incredible mix of rhythmic inflections and harmonic variations. There’s no “soloist” — all the players are in constant dialogue. Each player adds the crucial details. Crucial, “as in a sudden life change, a unique transformation… to an unknown adventure,” as Shorter himself has said. There has never really been a jazz band that played quite this way. The musicians weave in and out of an intricate tapestry of harmony, melody and rhythm.

Engineer Rob Griffin traveled with the band and captured an entire month of live shows with beauty and accuracy. Shorter himself pored over the many hours of tape to pick the tracks. The performances were culled from many different venues but feel seamless. The sound is fantastic.

“Plaza Real” is a re-imagination of a piece Shorter wrote and recorded with Weather Report 30 or so years ago. Again, the approach is collective, with improvisation straining at the seams of a complex composition. It’s an example of beautiful, delicate writing exploded through the prism of re-working in each moment. The result is an immense well of emotion, elusive but profoundly powerful and lovingly expressed collectively. Maybe some of that power comes from the way the band arrives at it: through dialogue and an evolving sense of the arrangement as it goes along.

A good example of how these “improvised forms” work is to listen to two versions of a song. “S.S. Golden Mean,” for example, was also on the Wayne Shorter Quartet’s 2005 album Beyond the Sound Barrier. The two versions diverge widely in terms of form, and present a completely different featuring of players. The tune has a great hook and a deceptive simplicity. From one version to another the path to dynamic climaxes follows an organic flow that no rehearsing or predetermining could have achieved. It’s a voyage of discovery in music, a new way of encountering form and material.

“Pegasus,” the piece on which the quartet is joined by Imani Winds, is a new take on an ancient idea: creating a context to bring together improvising and non-improvising musicians. Thank the Imani Winds for commissioning Shorter and making this collaboration possible. Jazz and classical (again, for lack of better words) so often get segregated for reasons historical, cultural, and political. To some extent the tragedy of race in America has made (and continues to make) it hard for black composers and improvisers to find a place in the concert hall. (A recent article in Slate by Seth Colter Walls goes into fine detail on this topic.)

Shorter has given us a meeting of different musicians (who, by the way, he has said he does not see as being at all different), and we get a glimpse of his unique way of bringing everyone into the conversation. “Pegasus” is a great piece of American Music, capital A, capital M. Not for nothing that Shorter’s music was recently paired with Charles Ives on a concert with Orpheus Chamber Orchestra at Carnegie Hall.

“Pegasus” makes little fuss over the differences in playing styles or languages. The jazzers read, the legit cats blow. The music works from brilliant themes and especially strong grooves. It’s remarkable to hear the timbre of the winds in this context. Imani dig into the music. I get the feeling Shorter may not consider this meeting extraordinary, but rather, normal. But successes in this realm through the years are rare.

“How do you rehearse the unexpected?” Shorter asks. That’s an important question to ask in experiencing jazz, and by extension, all music and art. The legacy of music is about feeling and expression, about our experience on the planet: in the blues; in the red and in the black; in the spirit of progress and growth, advancement into an unknown that is beyond what we all inherited. It’s about the mysteries of life. It’s about love. It’s in the feeling of why we are here. “To me, the word jazz means ‘I dare you,’” he recently told NPR’s Laura Sullivan. “The effort to break out of something is worth more than getting an ‘A’ in syncopation.”

Wayne Shorter’s current work shines a flashlight on ways forward. In February 2013, Shorter recorded a set of new compositions for the quartet plus Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and he is embarking on a tour celebrating his 80th birthday. Without a Net is just one page in the unfinished book of Wayne Shorter, one that we can value dearly in coming years as we begin to perceive more and more of the mysteries of his brilliant vision.

Dave Douglas is a prolific trumpeter, composer and educator from New York City, whose many accolades include a Guggenheim Fellowship, an Aaron Copland award and two Grammy nominations. He has developed work for many unique ensembles and has released 38 albums as a leader. He owns and operates an independent record label, Greenleaf Music.