Within two weeks, Chapel Hill was favored by the presence of more than half a dozen of the most talented and well-known jazz musicians in the country. All have won many prestigious awards – the most recent is a subject of this review, Wayne Shorter, who won the 2014 Grammy for Best Solo on a Jazz Recording (“Orbits” on the album Without a Net). He also received the Best Player award from Jazz Times for 2014. The Quartet consists of the leader on tenor and soprano saxophones, the pianist Danilo Pérez, who has fashioned a career emphasizing pan-American influences on jazz as well as being the current Artistic Director of the Berklee Global Jazz Institute and UNESCO Artist For Peace; the bassist John Patitucci, whose innovative playing and association with Chick Corea brought him worldwide acclaim; and master drummer/composer Brian Blade, who brings his unique creative influence to the quartet via his experiences with the likes of Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, and the iconic Brazilian percussionist Milton Nascimento as well as seven years spent in New Orleans exploring the roots of jazz.

The Quartet’s performance was preceded by a 45-minute introduction to Wayne Shorter’s music by UNC music professor Stephen Anderson in Gerrard Hall, adjacent to Memorial Hall on the UNC campus. Unfortunately he concentrated solely on Shorter’s early work with Miles Davis, beginning with a description of basic chord structures used in jazz and how playing around with those led to the so-called “avant garde” in the 1960s. He barely alluded to parallel changes in meter and rhythm that played an equally integral part of this – and particularly how these concepts are expressed in the current music of Wayne Shorter. He concluded with the example of Shorter’s most famous composition of that era, “Footprints,” that ironically is quite rhythmically complex in that it is in 12/8 time; this was not mentioned.

Quite different from the group’s show at Duke last year – that was basically about 80 minutes without any obvious breaks – each of the six pieces in the quartet’s performance at UNC lasted between 10 and 20 minutes. This was very helpful in digesting the complexity of the material. Their music is not “straight-ahead” jazz that relies mainly on soloists improvising on a chord and rhythmic structure to the accompaniment of the other musicians. Avant-garde jazz in this context involves all of the musicians participating in the piece all the time, whether or not one of them is dominating with his or her solo expression (more on this below). Let it be said at the outset that the Quartet is a highly integrated group where every instrument has pretty much the same acoustic level. The first piece began in a contemplative arrhythmic fashion which then evolved into an up-tempo feel – there is no “tempo” as such (see below); this engendered a feeling of growth or development. None of the pieces was introduced or titled before or after performance. In fact the audience was barely acknowledged at all except for bows at the end and two enthusiastic encores! To this reviewer it gave the impression of a certain amount of narcissism on the part of the performers; it didn’t seem to matter whether there was an audience present or not. In a recorded interview some time ago, Shorter opined that people don’t question the abstract art of painter Jackson Pollock, for example – “it’s only how he did it that’s important.” The collectivist band-driven idea derives somewhat from bassist Patitucci’s notion that “when we go out on stage we always start from nothing, so anybody can spin the wheels in a certain direction, and then we develop those themes.” How much of this should be taken literally is open to question, since on one piece involving some arco bass playing, sheet music was obviously involved. Pérez exhibited his total mastery of the piano throughout; Brian Blade played with finesse and dynamics not seen frequently enough in jazz drummers that showed his sensitivity to the melody, harmonics and, of course, the rhythm that was often implied in the pieces.

On all counts this was an amazing concert that, in this reviewer’s opinion, took jazz to the next level, much in the same way the concert with the Spring Quartet of a couple of weeks ago did as part of this annual Carolina Jazz Festival. In so-called “Mainstream” jazz the usual combination of rhythm, melody, harmony, and improvisation are focused on a structure where the time signature (e.g. 3/4, 4/4, 5/4 etc.) is based on knowing where the “one” is (cf Wynton Marsalis’ “Think of One“); in more Avant Garde jazz, improvisation is based frequently on the rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic pattern established at the outset of the piece. Of course the “one” plays a role, but adopting this kind of structure allows the players much more freedom to explore “outside’ the conventional structure. And freedom of expression is precisely what jazz is – and has been about – since its inception more than a century ago. The Wayne Shorter Quartet epitomizes this concept very creatively. In a sense the “pattern” becomes the new “one”. It needs to be felt as well as listened to. Some would say it doesn’t “swing”; I beg to differ. Of course in the sense that there isn’t a repetitive beat like a syncopated march rhythm, it is true that it doesn’t swing. But the expression of life – not a bad definition of jazz (and many other musics) by the way! – is not restricted to even, repetitive sounds. (Shorter said in a recent New York Times interview that “…the word ‘jazz’ to me only means ‘I dare you….'”)

During the latter half of the performance, the “feel” of the music tended towards expressing the artists’ roots a little by the use of the backbeat, as in R&B or Rock & Roll, but in a very free way. And it did sound most refreshing to hear it played totally on acoustic rather than electronic instruments! There were even sections in “straight-ahead” 4/4 time – possibly in part to demonstrate that the group could play that way if they so wished!