Sunday, November 20, 2005

Best Jazz of 2005: #4

Wayne Shorter Quartet
Beyond the Sound Barrier

I think Wayne Shorter's albums receive five stars before the label begins mailing promo copies. The only exceptions are the reviewers who try to appear aloof by docking a half-star, as if to prove they're not impressed by Shorter's history. I don't think these reviews have much to do with the music — although it probably doesn't matter, because everyone's going to buy his albums anyway.

It's unfortunate that writers focus on Shorter's history instead of his music, because his music is some of the more interesting jazz ever recorded. He has always worked outside the box with regard to form; and here, he continues to stretch popular conception. This quartet reminds me of the original Bill Evans trio with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian. They share the same dynamic: Everyone participates. Everyone instigates. Shorter's name is on the ticket, but the band is clearly a democracy.

I think this band surprised everyone. Danilo Perez received a lot of attention for PanaMonk in 1996, but those headlines dried up fast and he hasn't scored a hit since. John Patitucci is known best as the bassist from Chick Corea's much-maligned Akoustic Band (a great record, by the way) and a handful of forgettable records under his own name. The only rising star was Brian Blade; and although fellow drummers invariably name him among their favorites, his own records have met with lukewarm sales. Shorter might have picked bigger names; but when you hear the group dynamic, it's clear why he chose these guys.

The music here is more open than many listeners are comfortable with, both in terms of time and texture. That's a delicate dynamic, and it only works if you've got guys who can strike a balance between taking initiative and knowing when to exercise restraint. Jazz musicians tend to play a lot, all the time; and sometimes the hardest challenge is knowing when not to play. These guys walk that balance like a tightrope; there isn't a single moment here when the music dips into excess, where what's being played isn't thoughtful and inventive.

My only complaint is with the editing. This isn't a live concert; it's a glimpse inside several live concerts recorded over the course of 18 months. The album was produced by Shorter, so I suppose I can't argue that these cuts second-guess the judgment of the artist; but regardless, I'd rather hear a complete portrait. I don't approve of fade-outs in jazz. It's like piloting a boat: Cruising in the open water is easy; navigating your way into and out of port are the difficult parts, and that's what I'd like to hear.

That aside, this record remains a stellar series of performances from a band that reaches into the stratosphere of jazz at every moment. It'll be interesting to look back on this album in another 20 years; my guess would be, these guys are ahead of their time.

Beyond the Sound Barrier: Smilin' Through; As Far as the Eye Can See; On the Wings of Song; Tinker Bell; Joy Ryder; Over Shadow Hill Way; Adventures Aboard the Golden Mean; Beyond the Sound Barrier.
Personnel: Wayne Shorter, tenor and soprano saxophones; Danilo Perez, piano; John Patitucci, bass; Brian Blade, drums.


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