Review: Wayne Shorter Quartet / Phronesis

Wayne Shorter.  Manchester 1989
Photo credit: William Ellis. All Rights Reserved
Wayne Shorter Quartet/Phronesis
(Barbican, 8th October. Review by Chris Parker)

One of the unspoken rules of jazz promotion (concerts by Miles Davis alumni are surefire sellouts) was once again vindicated by the size and enthusiasm of the audience for this, a performance by Wayne Shorter‘s acoustic quartet, now into its second decade, having succeeded the saxophonist’s various fusion-based outfits in 2000.

Even the leader of Phronesis, bassist/composer Jasper Hoiby, seemed keen to get out into the audience to hear the quartet, although this did not prevent his band – completed by pianist Ivo Neame and drummer Anton Eger – from turning in a characteristically muscular, intensely rhythmic, democratically interactive performance in which ‘the groove’ was never sacrificed to the (often considerable) complexity of the material.

By way of contrast, this sacrifice was one made (apparently willingly) by Shorter’s band, who began their set with a 40-minute composition, the score for which was so copious that it refused to fit on bassist John Patitucci‘s music stand. Abstruse, brooding music that occasionally burst out into slashes and stabs of tenor emphasised by Brian Blade‘s crashing drum tumbles, the whole decorated by sporadic flurries and oddly truncated runs from pianist Danilo Pérez, the piece hovered on the edge of abstraction for much of its length, but was (just) made to cohere by Patitucci’s sinuous bass.

This tension between form and freedom characterised the rest of the band’s 90-minute set, probing restlessness, rhythmic ambiguity and textural variety the order of the day, rather than melodic accessibility, or straightforward propulsiveness. At times, indeed, it seemed the band were playing more for their own enjoyment and gratification than for the audience’s, but the spontaneous roar of approbation that greeted their first departure from the stage (they came back and performed two encores) demonstrated just how successfully Shorter’s apparently esoteric music delivers its enigmatic messages to sympathetic ears.

Performers with their legendary status assured, courtesy of the number (and sheer quality) of the classic albums under their belts, are often (understandably and arguably justifiably) indulged by jazz audiences – anyone who has witnessed a recent concert by Lee Konitz or Pharoah Sanders will be familiar with this syndrome – but, given the almost wilfully private nature of this set from a band whose individual reserves of fluency and eloquence were seldom drawn upon by the stop-start, rubato music they were called upon to play, the standing ovation they received at the concert’s end was nevertheless a tad mysterious.


Categories: miscellaneous

15 replies »

  1. I actually agree with your review…I left just before the encores…I'm not arguing on how great they are, all of them…it's just that my ears want to listen to some melodic element for more than two bars sometimes…not too often…sometimes…

  2. On the basis that CP has presented the hard facts to the jury who were absent from the “crime”, may I now, without detracting at all from CP's analysis, present another view of the very same event. I came to Shorter late; in the 70s through Weather Report (whom I heard live twice in London) I had to re-trace his astonishing career discovering, at a relatively late age the Miles stuff, Juju, Speak no Evil etc. My most recent exposure has been Alegria, now almost 10 years old! So I was at the gig with little if any pre-conceptions. If anything, I was expecting the much-missed “groove” and melodic patterns as mentioned by Chris. But having quickly realised that I was in “for something completely different”, I chose to allow Shorter to allow me to sit in on his creativity. My arithmetic makes Shorter 78; this man is now a veritable Grandee of the world of Art, and recalling the energy that he displayed on Saturday and the sheer volume of (good) sounds as heard, I now realise that WS is still on a creative trajectory that most of us can only dream of. He is an artist, not a performing bear at a circus. And yes, the sidemen were enjoying themselves; no bad thing. Shorter, like most composer/musicians paints a picture. His is impressionistic, rather than “chocolate box”. The sounds, to me, were challenging. I am pleased that I was there. btw did anyone else spot the recurring English/Irish folk tune as used in one of the numbers?

  3. “some melodic element for more than two bars sometimes”

    A pity you didn't stay for the encores, you would have liked them much more than the main set.

  4. Just to clarify in case of confusion, the last remark is taking issue with Steve and not with Chris Parker who stayed right through.

    There are to my knowledge two other reviews so far: from Mike Hobart in the FT who gives 5 stars, and from Peter Culshaw on the Arts Desk.

  5. I don't quite agree with the review (I enjoyed the concert, a lot, including the very long opening piece), but I find refreshingly honest for CP to say so.

    Ditto re: encores. On the second Shorter played a great soprano solo.

    However, as Steve Plumb says, Shorter, if anything, renounces to play on past achievements. That doesn't make the music good by itself, but I don't think it's a fair criticism.


  6. *…playing more for their own enjoyment and gratification than for the audience's…*

    My eyeballs have just dizzily crossed at the deep dumbness of this above statement.

    Listen up, Chris. It takes time.

  7. I have to say that JJ Wheeler's Jazz Breakfast review nails it for me. Having seen this group a couple of times before I knew what to expect I suppose, but I was still enthralled from start to finish by the group's constant invention, sense of tension and release, and use of space.

    I'm not sure that melodic accessibility or straightforward propulsiveness should be the yardsticks by which this should be assessed. The fact that there was such an apparently genuine and enthusiastic reception for the music must indicate that a substantial proportion of those present were able to respond to the music on its (for me) considerable strengths.

    Having said that, the group of people I attended with were also divided in their opinions of the music, roughly along musician/non-musician lines, prompting more than one observation that this was 'music for musicians'.

    My own reaction however was I think quite a straightforward and emotional one, in response to the considerable rhythmic and harmonic tension present throughout, and the dramatic climactic sections of the music, and also the obvious and refreshing enjoyment and energy that these incredible musicians bring to the stage.

  8. It was the best gig I've ever seen! Completely on another level, beyond what I expected and where most people's imagination reaches. I am happy that, as the review mentioned, they didn't play for the audience's enjoyment as then maybe we would have heared overplayed renditions of old jazz standards. I was happy to see that they are not afraid to take on new challenges, to push themselves, the audience and the music into another direction. Wayne Shorter is on the level of greatest classical composers and definitely someone who is as important for music in general as Miles Davis was and still is. If only there were more musicians like them…

  9. Interesting to read the review and comments.
    I was very disappointed that I couldn't go myself so heard about the concert secondhand from a trusted/respected musical friend who said it was all (Phronesis included) pretty dire!
    He's a massive Shorter fan (the last concert he herd of this band was, in his words, “the best gig I've ever been to..”) and with all the hype they've been receiving, was very much looking forward to Phronesis too.

    I felt moved to write this because I find it very heartening that people are so passionate about music (on both sides).
    It's also refreshing to read a review that's honest and not too sycophantic (as all too many are)….no matter whether you agree with Chris or not.

    (I'm a musician myself, for the record)

  10. I wasn't at Shorter's gig. Last time I saw him play – with this band – I walked out, something I rarely do. It was soulless and self indulgent. I was in a minority if one, though: everyone else in a sold out concert hall loved it. Ten years on, I still can't work out what they were applauding (and I have tried: that particular gig was recorded by Radio 3, and I have heard it several times).

  11. Phronesis were fabulous. I watched for the first time and will definitely be attending the November performance.
    The joy of watching Wayne Shorter Quartet is in the technique of their play. A Wayne Shorter Quartet fan can predict what to expect at their performances. There is a versatility to their music but the sound is distinguishable.

  12. I was pleasantly surprised by Phronesis, though after three or four tunes, I found myself wanting a change in pace, or tone.

    I found myself dropping off during the Wayne Shorter Quartet's set. What I heard was beautiful and technically brilliant, but it lacked warmth.

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