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Concert Review by Nick Morgan
The Barbican, London, November 11th 2006
As you know Serge, I don’t usually have too much trouble getting these reviews down on paper for you – in fact you’ll remember the only time I’ve really struggled was when it came to trying to describe what I judged to be the execrable performance by Steve Harley at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire last year. The review was never written, and by nominating it ‘The Gig that was So Bad that I Couldn’t Be Arsed to Review It Award’ for the Whiskyfun Music Awards I received brickbats and recriminations from Steve Harley fans all over the world (well, one to be honest, and if you really want to judge which one of us was right you can always go to the Bush to see Steve next month, but don’t expect to meet me there). But my philosophy has always been to say it how you see it – and that’s why on this occasion I’m stumped. Quite simply lost for words – I was when we walked out of the Barbican into the stinging cold rain, and I still am.
My familiarity with Wayne Shorter comes, of course, from the band he co-founded with keyboard player Joe Zawinul, Weather Report. In 1970 they picked up the baton of jazz-rock (or probably more accurately jazz-soul) from Joe Sample’s Crusaders and simply redefined the genre with a series of outstanding albums, of which my personal favourite remains the wonderful Heavy Weather. Of course it was some time before I learned about Shorter’s jazz pedigree, both as a performer and composer, with legends Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, and then (for seven years) Miles Davis. During this period he also produced a number of solo albums, of which Speak No Evil, or so I’m told, is the best. His tenure in Weather Report lasted ‘till the mid 1980s, after which he continued to collaborate with artistes such as Herbie Hancock, and also Joni Mitchell, having been an almost permanent fixture on her recordings since the late 1970s. About six years ago he formed his current band – featuring Danilo Perez on piano, John Patitucci on bass and Brian Blade, on drums (Shorter, as I might have said already, plays tenor and soprano saxophones), and they’re here tonight at a heaving Barbican as part of the London Jazz Festival, sponsored by BBC Radio 3.
We arrive too late for British jazz veteran Stan Tracey so hung out in the foyer star-spotting (well, we saw saxophonist Andy Sheppard). Shorter and his band are promptly on stage at 8.45. Shorter is 73 – somewhat lacking in mobility – and he almost wedges himself into the curved rim of the piano, using it as a support. That, believe me, is the only sign of frailty he gives. From start to finish the vigour, freshness and fluidity of his playing is quite astonishing, but it is equally matched by the playing of the other four musicians – of whom (though they were all so good it seems unfair) Blade stood out particularly, switching from deft percussive delicacy to driving drum rhythms with none of the awkwardness that his ‘arms and elbows’ style of playing might have suggested. I’m sure the individual pieces were compositions, (indeed I believe we got a version of Shorter’s ‘Footprints’) and they were clearly well-structured, but the evening was characterised by the performers effortlessly swapping improvisations. And that is where I stop because I simply don’t have the language to describe how complex and engrossing this exhilarating performance was – and I’m not prepared to cut and paste it from the work of others.
So let me tell you instead what I was thinking about whilst I floated in this music (I should add that the Barbican sound was perfect, none of the irritating hiss that sometimes bedevils gigs there). I thought of whirlpools, the sort that you often see in the sometimes troubled waters adjacent to the Great Gulf of Corryvreckan at the north of the Sound of Jura of the West Coast of Scotland. Small whirlpools circling each other and then gradually merging to from a larger pool, circling larger pools. It’s a bit like viscimetry really, and the movement of the whorls of flavour bearing compounds that a drop of water will release in a glass of whisky. A hypnotic, thought-consuming, irregular and shifting pattern, repeated with greater or lesser intensity as the evening progressed. I was simply entranced, and it was a very nice place to be.
Needless to say I was rudely pulled back to reality by the standing ovation that justifiably greeted the end of the set. It was really something that you simply didn’t want to end - so I’ve made a mental note to add Shorter’s Footprints Live and Beyond the Sound Barrier albums from 2002 and 2005 to my Christmas gift list, both are well reviewed, and if they are only half as good as this concert then they must be worth adding to the CD library. Treat yourself – you can buy both for around the price of a bottle of decent single malt and they’ll last a lot longer. - Nick Morgan (photographs by Kate)

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