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Shorter Quartet delivers ‘transcendent tension’ at Palladium

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When the Wayne Shorter Quartet took the stage last month at the Palladium at the Center for the Performing Arts in Carmel, I was prepared for the type of show one might expect from a performer with such a long and storied career.

The next 90 minutes left no doubt, however, that Mr. Shorter has absolutely no interest in merely resting on his proverbial laurels.  While Butler and Notre Dame may have been playing each other for a trip to the Sweet 16, the real March Madness was being improvised 20 feet from my seat.  

At the age of 81, Wayne Shorter exists in a very small category of living jazz legends, keeping company with fellow saxophonists Sonny Rollins and Ornette Coleman.  His early career included stints with Art Blakey and Miles Davis, and in the early 1970’s he co-founded the jazz fusion group Weather Report alongside fellow Davis alum Joe Zawinul.

He has continuously released solo albums, several of which feature Indianapolis born trumpet player Freddie Hubbard.   He is even featured on Steely Dan’s 1977 pop classic, Aja.  The number of iconic groups and classic albums he has been a part of is staggering even given his age and pedigree.  And as I’m about to describe, he is still a man you absolutely must see live.  Around the dawn of the millennium, Wayne Shorter decided to put together a new quartet.  Like his first bandleader Art Blakey, he surrounded himself with musicians half his age, and their live performances feature almost 100 percent improvisation.

The only composed parts in the March 21 performance was the occasional theme.  It is no coincidence that the quartet entitled their latest live album Without a Net, a title the Grateful Dead used for a live album 25 years ago.  Like the Dead, this group is not afraid to take risks in order to experience beauty.  

In addition to Shorter, the quartet features Danilo Perez on piano, John Patitucci on upright bass, and Brian Blade on drums.  All four listen more than they play, taking their time to build musical conversations.  They all take turns directing.  Blade is the most animated, armed with the ability to punish his drum kit, he takes his time.

Perez seems to be his most notable counterpart, painting the music with a broad brush that encompasses everything from the improvisation of Thelonious Monk to the rhythm of his homeland in Panama.  Patitucci plays the upright bass with an effortlessness that is just downright frightening, driving the music to its unknown home.

Shorter shows a patience you would expect of a veteran musician, never more noticeable than on the 30 minute show opener.  About 20 minutes in, the quartet was playing off of each other on such an aggressive level that Shorter was simply climbing the scale on octaves, two notes at a time.

The musical tension filled the Palladium like humidity.  The payoff, and the landing of the song, were transcendent.

Perez took the time after the song to walk over to Shorter and fist bump him. Many smiles were exchanged between the musicians, and during moments of excitement you could hear the occasional grunt, and even one excited expletive from Blade during a particularly harrowing passage. 

But the artists never once spoke to the audience, and the audience didn’t utter a word—  Thank God. Words would have been superflous.

For details on upcoming performances at the Palladium, including Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock on April 18, visit: thecenterfortheperformingarts.org

Chris Lafave is the curator at the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library and spends all of his free time listening to music. You can email him at chrislafave@gmail.com

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