News Column

Wayne Shorter teams with DSO to perform his new piece, 'Gaia'

October 30, 2013


Oct. 30--The 2012 Detroit Jazz Festival honored the hugely influential saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter with several initiatives. There was a celebratory film about him, a set of festival-commissioned big band arrangements by others of his classic compositions and, finally, a performance by Shorter's own longtime quartet that turned out to be one of the most transcendent sets ever heard at the festival.

It also turns out that the jazz festival wasn't done celebrating Shorter, who turned 80 in August. Shorter returns to Detroit this weekend to perform with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. It's a big deal. The program is built around a new 26-minute Shorter composition, "Gaia," that pairs his quartet, the DSO and star bassist and composer Esperanza Spalding. The piece has been heard in only a handful of cities since its premiere in Los Angeles in Feburary. The invaluable Vince Mendoza is the conductor for the evening and Shorter's quartet, as always includes pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade.

The concert is part of a series of ambitious productions engineered by jazz festival artistic director Chris Collins that are designed to broaden the festival's footprint in the community beyond the Labor Day weekend event. In Shorter, Collins has hit on not only one of the true heroes of contemporary jazz but a maharishi of creativity, whose career has been defined by adventure, risk and innovation. The concert also represents a reunion of Shorter and the DSO, who first performed together at Orchestra Hall in early 2000.

Where to start with Shorter? Well, he's played in four landmark bands since the late '50s -- Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Miles Davis Quintet, the jazz-rock group Weather Report and, since 2000, his current quartet that specializes in four-way conversation and spontaneous abstraction rooted in the elastic forms of Shorter's compositions.

The tunes Shorter wrote in the '60s such as "Nefertiti," "Fall," "Infant Eyes" and "Speak No Evil" have become a cornerstone of the repertory. These are short stories, bewitching unions of elliptical melody and beautifully enigmatic harmonic color. His more recent compositions, which include "High Life," "Midnight in Carlotta's Hair," "Terra Incognito" and dramatic expansions of some of his older material unfold like novels. He eschews simple song forms for labyrinthine structures and thick clouds of brass and reeds. As always, Shorter's melodies are singable beauties that work magic on your emotions.

Shorter's idiom remains jazz, but classical influences percolate and sometimes predominate. One of his best recent works, "Terra Incognito," was written for Imani Winds, a classical quintet of flute, clarinet oboe, bassoon and horn. The piece is through-composed, but in a jazz-derived twist Shorter encourages the players to devise a new road map for each performance, cutting and pasting sections from the 15 minutes of written music.

Saturday's concert offers a chance to take stock of Shorter's development as a writer for orchestra. His 2000 appearance with the DSO pulsated with possibilities, but his orchestrations were often opaque and stiff. On the other hand, the marriage of the Imani Winds and Shorter's quartet, including the 23-minute "Pegasus," on Shorter's outstanding recent CD "Without a Net" (Blue Note), have been revelatory in the flexibility of the wind writing, the integration of the ensembles and the seamless web of composition and improvisation. Can Shorter work similar magic with the full weight of an orchestra? That's what Saturday will be about.

8 p.m. Saturday, Orchestra Hall, Max M. Fisher Music Center, 3711 Woodward Ave., Detroit. 313-576-5111. $36-$100.


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