Critic’s pick 267: Wayne Shorter Quartet, ‘Without a Net’

It seems only fitting that the first notes of Wayne Shorter’s new concert recording, Without a Net, go to someone else. A masterful composer for the past five decades and a saxophonist of intense invention for equally as long, Shorter (who turns 80 this year) has rightly been hailed as one of the most important and influential jazz artists of several generations. But part of his genius comes in knowing how to operate in gifted company, and when to let that company have its say.

So it is on Orbits, the introductory tune from Without a Net. It’s an original composition that dates to 1966, when Miles Davis cut it on his album Miles Smiles with the famed group that included Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams.

The original version was a darting, lyrical dash, with Davis and the young Shorter matching wits. The intro on the Without a Net version, all stark and ominous, comes from Danilo Perez, the pianist in the extraordinary quartet that Shorter has led for more than a decade. The piano rumbles with the sort of dark, askew motion that brings modern stylist Matthew Shipp to mind. When Shorter enters on soprano sax (he played tenor on the Davis version), his voicing approximates a court jester, with a joyous bounce that counters Perez’s doomsday prelude. Then the melody lightens and takes shape with a musical will that separates it forever from the days of Miles Smiles.

Without a Net later offers a similar facelift to Plaza Real, a forgotton relic from 1983’s Procession, the first post-Jaco Pastorius album by Weather Report, the champion fusion band that Shorter co-piloted with Josef Zawinul during the ’70s and ’80s. The Procession version was built around a jungle of keyboard atmospherics that included a melodeon-like chant. On Without a Net, Shorter and Perez cut to the chase (or in this case, the song’s chorus) and forge a sunny duet for piano and soprano. With rugged support from bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade, Shorter’s sax lead builds to a hearty boil but then gracefully deflates.

The joys simply mount from there, culminating in a 23-minute suite, Pegasus, that brings in the Imani Winds for a sound that further excavates bits from Shorter’s past for a light orchestral romp that eventually yields the record’s most devilish playing from Shorter and Blade.

But even that level of thrill-seeking pales next to the playfulness that guides Flying Down to Rio, a retooled theme from the 1933 Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers film of the same name, with Shorter and Perez engaging in colorful exchanges, meaty solo passages and, ultimately a conversational tone that sounds undeniably youthful.

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