(Blue Note Records)
The opening four piano notes on “Orbits” offer a brooding, pseudo-sinister introduction to Wayne Shorter’s much anticipated return to Blue Note Records, Without a Net. It repeats for 22 hair-raising bars with Shorter and his band injecting quick spurts and jabs underneath; a soundtrack of someone turning around a dark corner, fearful of what they may encounter on the other side. Soon, he and the quartet kick into the familiar sound of the song he composed for his former employer Miles Davis on his landmark Miles Smiles LP. However, don’t expect this 79-year-old to reach back to the old days. No, this is the sound of the future, and Shorter intends to not just to be included but to recruit anyone who’s stuck in the past.
It’s been 43 years since the legendary tenor saxophonist made a record for Blue Note, a label where he created some of jazz’s most inventive, time-tested albums, such as Speak No Evil, JuJu and The Soothsayer. Without a Net is a fateful title; he and his longtime quartet of pianist Danilo Perez, drummer Brian Blades, and bassist John Patitucci, bypassed the studio all-together and recorded six new Shorter compositions before a live European audience. Knowing that his audience and the music world at large have come to expect nothing short of spontaneous genius from this legendary composer, Shorter came well prepared and took the crowd on a ride high above the big top.
On “S.S. Golden Mean,” he gives a nod to Dizzy in the beginning with a short dig of the hook of “Manteca.” Soon after, the quartet moves into what has become know as the signature Wayne Shorter sound: frantically cerebral melodies and subliminally cunning cadences, accented by Shorter’s solos that still, as he approaches age 80, has the idiosyncratic emotion and execution that’s always been akin more of a mad scientist than a jazz improviser.
“Myrrh,” at 3:07, is the shortest track and expands on the ominous vibe of “Orbits” thanks in large part to the erratic drumming from Blade and Perez’s menacing piano strikes. The all-too-brief “Myrrh” is, ironically enough, followed by the album’s longest performance. Accompanied by a chamber ensemble, “Pegasus” clocks in at 23 minutes. The epic tune starts as is a pleasing detour from the shadowy head-trip of the previous songs, but commences to take the listener through a tone expedition that makes stops through serenity, terror and the surreal. Patitucci, who made his mark providing the bottom for GPR Records’ smooth jazz catalog, shines brightest during “Pegasus,” playing a possessed double bass that illuminated the song’s multi-hued atmosphere.
The half-dozen new songs on Without a Net are certainly worthy of placement in Shorter’s pristine catalog, making his inclusion of two past compositions here proof of such a proclamation. Along with the aforementioned “Orbits,” the band re-shaped “Plaza Real” – from Shorter’s Weather Report tenure – from spacey pop-jazz into a rigid, groove exercise.
The same Wayne Shorter behind game-changing standards like “Footprints,” “Nefertiti,” and “Kryptonite” was ever-present throughout this album, but that also indicates he’s on a pathway to unknown territory, too. Without a Net flies a heart-pounding trapeze of dizzying melodies and acrobatic rhythms that leaves the listener breathless and exhilarated. Never has it been so great to feel so unsafe.
Words by Matthew Allen (@headphoneaddict)