Without A Net
[Blue Note, 2013]
Tom Lundregan, February 22, 2013
Listen: “Try To Be”
here is a standard lament in the jazz community, one that grows in both its volume and its truth every year. The lament goes “all the good ones are gone, and no one is making quality old school style jazz anymore.” It’s apparent that a lot of today’s jazz is generally either a)of the “smooth” variety or b)a complete rehash of the classics from the bebop, free jazz or fusion jazz periods. The good news for those lamenters, however, comes in the form of 79-year-old Wayne Shorter. And if Shorter is the savior, Blue Note Records is the salvation. From 1964 to 1970, Shorter recorded 11 albums for Blue Note. Without A Net is his return to the famed jazz label 43 years later, and it is both long overdue and warmly welcome.
Over the past 55 years, Shorter has played the part of integral member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, recruited player in Miles Davis’ Second Great Quintet, co-founder of the Weather Report, flute and sax man for Steely Dan and the jazzy influenceonthe late 70s and 80s Joni Mitchellalbums. What may get lost sometimes is that Wayne Shorter is a true jazz composer. On Without A Net, we get six brand new compositions from him. The other three songs might as well be new compositions because Shorter takes the original versions and turns them around and inside out.
The quartet who play on Without A Net have been playing together for more than ten years, and that familiarity and polish is evident throughout the entire album. With Shorter playing both tenor and soprano sax, Danilo Perez on piano, Brian Blade on the drums and John Patitucci on bass, this foursome has crafted a lengthy tale of exploration – the album comes in at more than 75 minutes, time that flies by.
The album begins with “Orbits,” which was originally composed by Miles Davis and appeared on Miles Smiles with Shorter playing saxophone. While Davis’ “Orbits” bursts forth with trumpet and then settles into Tony Williams’ drums keeping rhythm until everything comes together, Without A Net’s version starts with Danilo Perez’ ominous piano setting the rhythm, giving way to Shorter’s sax. No longer playing second brass on the song, Shorter weaves through the song like he’s taking an ax to the original. It’s magnificent and jarring at the same time. The next track, “Starry Night,” again has Perez lead the way, but this time it’s the soft tinkling of keys to represent a multitude of stars. The whole song evokes a summer night with an upward swirling by all four musicians into a cosmic meteor shower, before Perez and Shorter close out the song with a return to the quiet, blinking stars.
“Plaza Real” is the song on Without A Net that sounds the least timeless, as if it were stuck in the 1990s free jazz period. This is perhaps because this is a reworking of Shorter’s own composition for the Weather Report, off of their Procession album. Even still, the original sounds incredibly dated today, while here, Shorter has removed the smooth sound, the synthesizer, and the whistling so prominent in the original and lets his soprano fly. The third piece that is not an original composition is perhaps the most interesting choice by Shorter. “Flying Down To Rio” is the third non-original composition here. This is the one song that could have been helped with a little shortening as it meanders too much in the middle, but the take on what was originally a three-minute vocal sung by Fred Astaire in his first movie role, is quite inventive. There’s some Latin rhythm here, but not as much as expected, based on the song title.
“Myrrh” is a 3-minute deep, plodding gem seemingly placed to whet the appetite for the album’s centerpiece, “Pegasus.” The 23-minute epic is the only track on the album that is not taken from the quartet’s 2011 European tour. Instead, “Pegasus” was recorded with the wind quintet, Imani Winds, at LA’s Walt Disney Concert Hall. Ironically, it is here, with these added musicians, that the quartet sounds the tightest. They follow each other seamlessly through the entire piece – Patitucci’s bass chasing Perez here and Shorter catching up with Blade’s drums there. “Pegasus” takes a few minutes to get going as it roils up through a classical feel and then whirls around as all the instruments take their turn. There are mini-compositions within “Pegasus” as, for example, Patitucci and Perez duet for a couple of minutes with no brass, wind, and minimal percussion. Shorter is the leader, here, though, and his saxophone takes front and center for most of the final eight minutes, staccato bursts marching into extended solos. “Pegasus” is a sprawling experiment in chord progressions, shifts in mood and tempo, and modality.
Blue Note Records, an ebb and flow force in jazz music for more than 70 years has proven itself relevant again – getting Wayne Shorter back in the fold was a masterstroke. Even the decision to use live recordings was a wise one as it helps evoke the past even while Shorter’s music moves forward. Capturing the “hey” and “whoa” in the background and even an amazed “Oh my God!” during “Pegasus” makes a jazz recording feel fresh and free. As Shorter said recently in a New York Times interview, “The word ‘jazz’ to me only means ‘I dare you.’” As he moves into the role of octogenarian, Shorter still has the ability to be daring and turn a track on its head. On Without A Net, he also shows the ability to turn a phrase on its head, as this old dog can teach the kids a few new tricks.