When we talk about Wayne Shorter’s music we immediately run into obstacles. Wayne is like a Zen Master, deliberately confounding our every expectation. To begin such a journey our rational minds need emptying. As the journey unfolds we move beyond comforting reference points; this requires a letting go, real courage. The 2016 Wayne Shorter band is a musical ‘Voyager’, a spacecraft assembled out of earthly components, but sending encrypted sonic messages from an unknown place. What is on offer is a shared journey – but only if we are brave enough. Once you commit there is no looking back.
To attempt a detailed description of a concert like this is utterly pointless. Only the ears, eyes, spiritual mind, can evaluate this experience. That is the point – you have to be there – really be there – engaged – then let go. All I can say is how lucky I feel to have seen this band twice in my life. Once in a Roman amphitheatre in Verona Italy during the ‘Standards Live’ 2002 tour. Now 14 years later almost to the day, at the Wellington 2016 Jazz festival. The same band, Wayne Shorter, Danilo Perez, John Patitucci and Brian Blade. Immortals all. Back in 2002, the band unbundled tunes from Wayne’s long career – a career always advancing beyond the edge. It sounded brave and edgy back then. On this tour, he transcended those earlier reference points. Yes, there was form, even charts; just as a spacecraft has a shell. Inside the craft, the band moved freely in the weightless air.
This tends to confound some critics, people who need firm ground beneath their feet. A few have even puzzled over the constant adjustment of saxophone mouthpiece and neck. The perpetual adjustment phenomenon is common to all great saxophonists – it is a manifestation of the never-ending journey deep into sound. In the marvelously written Cook & Morton Penguin Jazz Guide, the word elided appears when describing Wayne’s sound. He often puts the saxophone to his mouth, then pauses and takes it out again – interpreting this or his frequent adjustments as uncertainty is missing the point entirely. The dictionary definition of Elision is; deliberately omitting components of speech or sound. When taken to its logical conclusion the remaining sounds (or letters) become a code. A code we must decipher unaided.
I think it was Lee Konitz who said. ‘Old men should play like old men. When I hear them trying to play like their young selves it sounds wrong’. Old men have important things to say from the viewpoint of life experience. Wayne played like his older self, wiser, braver and unafraid to show vulnerability. I am glad that he did.
After the gig, I spoke to a number of musicians. Almost all were in a deeply reflective mood, basking in the experience. Dixon Nacey a prominent New Zealand Jazz guitarist said to me. Man, I was thinking of you in there and wondering how you could find adequate words to review that? Of course, I can’t.
Dixon and I decided to walk a while, needing to clarify our thoughts. We walked the back streets, weighing it all up, sometimes discussing a particular facet, seeking to understand the importance of what we had seen and heard. Dixon said at one point, “I found that I needed to abandon my trained musician’s brain, the brain that looks for fixed rhythmic, melodic or harmonic structures. A profound lesson I learned from this was, if you decide not to come in, to lay out in unexpected places, that is OK. Trusting another band member to pick up the thread”. There were probably mistakes and this also created deep connections. This music is humanism personified. That vulnerable sound that Wayne emits from his horns is his Bodhisattva voice – it can confront precisely because it is so human.
All worthwhile journeys lead back to the start point, a place where art, imaginings, and life merge. We already understand this music, we just need reminding. Wellington Jazz Festival 2016, Opera House, Manners Street, Wellington