"When you get a certain age, you have nothing to prove," jazz giant Wayne Shorter told the audience midway through his 75th birthday celebration at Carnegie Hall. He explained that this piece of advice was offered to him from his longtime colleague Art Blakey, and it's a telling little nugget. A lot of jazz musicians from a certain era struggle to stay relevant, or at least continue to be as cutting edge as they once were.
So in some respects, Shorter's lucky. His work this decade has been fruitful in ways that his '60s "bop" persona and '70s fusion fixation never were, which only proves that he's not struggling to find new sources of inspiration.
Like his buddy Ornette Coleman, Shorter's content to drift more into free jazz territory these days, and the talent surrounding him (drummer extraordinaire Brian Blade, bassist John Patitucci and pianist Danilo Perez) was happy to oblige. From the first soft notes Perez touched down on, the quartet launched into a 30-minute onslaught of noise with at times no anchoring coherency.
Indeed, Shorter himself never once looked at his band mates, but not out of disrespect. Often, he'd take long pauses and lean up against the piano with his head faced downward. His concentration was directed towards the interplay between Blade and Perez. They both shifted their moods from dark to anxious, slowing down their notes at times while the other would pound away. Shorter would interject only when he felt it necessary, and when he did, it was often a counteraction to what Perez and Blade had just done.
For the second half of the evening, Shorter's quartet was joined by the Imani Winds, a five-piece wind quintet for which he's composed. The stage became a bit crowded, but the sound never felt big band-ish. They started out with "The Three Marias," from 1985's "Atlantis" album. On what was one of the more structured songs of the evening, Patitucci's bass groove continued to stake out the more dark territories they'd traversed earlier in the evening, but this time in a much more rhythmic method. Shorter sat beside the Imani Winds, who looked on at their mentor with a rather awed disbelief during his most raucous-sounding solos.
They closed with "Pegasus," which escalated over the course of seven minutes. Blade, Patitiucci and Perez were relegated to the background for much of the moment, as the Imanis and Shorter were free to bounce sounds off each other in ways that were probably more familiar to him.
The audience reactions were predictable, as much as they were warranted, in the standing ovations they gave. For Shorter was right, in that he had nothing to prove, yet he proved that his spontaneity is still sharp, alive and not remotely in need of any dress rehearsals.