It was billed as Wayne Shorter's 75th birthday celebration, but his quartet's concert Wednesday night at a sold-out Berklee Performance Center was much like any other the group has done in the past eight years. Not a word was spoken by the saxophonist or his colleagues - pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Patitucci, and drummer Brian Blade. Instead the music did the talking for 86 glorious minutes.
People attending their first Wayne Shorter concert - and I'm betting there were a lot of them, judging from the youth of the audience members, most of whom appeared to be Berklee students - could be forgiven for assuming that the quartet either played one incredibly long tune or merely made it all up as they went along. That, however, was not the case, despite the fact that no song titles were announced. Even afterward, the musicians had a hard time remembering what they had played. (For the record, they think they did "Sanctuary," "Zero Gravity," "Myrrh," "Smiling Through," "She Moved Through the Fair," and "Joy Ryder," plus "Prometheus Unbound" for the encore.)
Shorter is widely considered to be jazz's finest living composer and, with Ellington and Mingus, one of the three greatest in history. Yet when he performs these days, he uses his compositions as the barest of sketches upon which to improvise. Snatches of melody were heard here and there, serving only as guideposts for wild improvisations. These guys do not take turns soloing, per se. They operate at such a high level - and their empathy is so refined - that they essentially all solo at the same time.
As the musicians arrived onstage, music developed out of nothingness. Blade did a little pitter-patter on the toms, Perez found a couple of minor-key chords, Patitucci plucked and then bowed the bass, and finally Shorter allowed himself a few sparse notes on his tenor sax. It was a dangerous mix of the composed and the free, tender and ominous at once. The music grew near-chaotic in places, but the drama always settled back down when it threatened to boil over.
I have a hunch that some of the older folks who showed up Wednesday had been expecting either the Wayne Shorter who played hard bop with Miles Davis in the '60s or the one who played light fusion with Weather Report in the '70s, because a smattering of them left around the halfway point. Their loss. They missed one of the richest nights of jazz many of us will ever experience.