Since convening a new quartet for the 2001 tour that resulted in Footprints Live! (Verve, 2002), soon-to-be-octogenarian saxophonist Wayne Shorter has found himself in the company of a group that's not just turned out to be, hands-down, his most exciting and exploratory acoustic ensemble in a career well into its sixth decade, but now, a dozen years later, his longest-running one as well. Weather Report, the fusion supergroup that Shorter co-founded with keyboardistJoe Zawinul, did, indeed, last longer, from the early 1970s through the mid-'80s, but with almost constant changes in personnel from album to album. Shorter's stable lineup may not release albums on a regular basis—it's been eight long years since the superb, also-live Beyond the Sound Barrier (Verve, 2005)—but the quartet continues to tour, almost every year. Without a Net captures performances from the quartet's 2011 European tour, as well as an extended piece from a live show in collaboration with the renowned Imani Winds.
Beyond being special because of the lengthy recording absence since Beyond, Shorter's return to Blue Note—on which he released a string of eleven exceptional, often groundbreaking albums beginning with Night Dreamer (1964) and ending with Odyssey of Iska (1970)—is another milestone, though it shouldn't be misconstrued as anything remotely nostalgic. If anything, Without a Net—a succinctly accurate description of this group's modus operandi—is even more uncompromising and unpredictable, reflecting the quartet's ever-growing empathic interrelationship on a set that, with the exception of one tune dating back to his days with trumpeter Miles Davis in the 1960s, one completely re-imagined Weather Report tune from 1983 and one rarely recorded song from the 1933 film Flying Down to Rio (actors/dancers/singers Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers' first film together), is comprised of half a dozen new Shorter compositions.
Without a Net kicks off with "Orbits," also the opener to Miles Davis' Miles Smiles(Columbia, 1966), but completely revised, its theme becoming a foundational ostinato first introduced with pianist Danilo Perez's left hand, then joined by bassist John Patitucci. It's a method of compositional reduction that Shorter has employed on previous albums with this quartet, turning the tune into an even freer opportunity for Shorter and Pérez to indeed orbit around each other's extemporizations, occasionally conjoining in marvelous synchronicity, all driven by drummer Brian Blade's explosive approach. Shorter's "S.S. Golden Mean," too, is revised from the version on Beyond the Sound Barrier, its repetitive chord pattern a foundation for Shorter's soaring, searing soprano and Blade, who moves from full kit to hand percussion in the blink of an eye, completely altering the song's complexion.
But it's the 23-minute "Pegasus," from Shorter's Los Angeles performance where the quartet was expanded to a nonet with the five-piece Imani Winds, that is the album's centerpiece—and highlight. Not since Alegria (Verve, 2003), his most recent studio recording, has Shorter worked with a larger ensemble, and while that album was plenty ambitious, "Pegasus" trumps it in concept and execution, its powerful blend of form and freedom inspiring such powerful extrapolations from Shorter (again on soprano) that Blade can be heard, in the background, saying "Oh my god!"
Shorter also demonstrates a hitherto unknown talent, whistling at the start of Vincent Youmans' title song to the film Flying to Rio before switching back to soprano and, as Pérez and Patitucci slowly coalesce around another repetitive but continually expanding pattern, stepping back to let the pianist and bassist enter into an exchange as demonstrative of their growing chemistry as any on record. This is no by-rote arrangement of a classic song; instead, while ensuring its core melody is honored, this is another example of the kind of unfettered, uncompromising and freewheeling approach this quartet has taken since inception, but which has only strengthened and become more profound in the ensuing twelve years. Shorter also whistles at the beginning of his own "Zero Gravity," a tune that renders clear the saxophonist's multifaceted interests, with hints of Pérez's impossible to deny Latin leanings blending into harmonic and, at times, contrapuntal sophistication while nevertheless leaving huge, gaping holes for the quartet to spontaneously fill.
Shorter may be turning 80 in August, 2013, but rather than resting on his considerable laurels and resorting to replicating past successes, the saxophonist is as imaginative and conceptually forward-thinking as he's ever been—perhaps even more so. He's also playing at the absolute top of his game, his combination of head and heart never stronger. With this now-longstanding quartet he's truly capable of going anywhere he chooses—and, thanks to the individual and collective improvisational élan of Pérez, Patitucci and Blade, plenty of unexpected places he doesn't—whether it's in the context of detailed structure, absolute, composite freedom...or both. With each record only getting better, Without a Net is not just a new high watermark for Shorter and his stellar quartet, it's a truly masterful masterpiece to add to a discography already brimming with classic recordings that will further cement Shorter's inscription—and, as it evolves, his quartet's as well—in the rarefied upper echelon of jazz history.
Track Listing: Orbits; Starry Night; S.S. Golden Mean; Plaza Real; Myrrh; Pegasus; Flying Down to Rio; Zero Gravity; UFO.
Personnel: Wayne Shorter: soprano and tenor saxophones, whistling (7, 8); Danilo Pérez: piano; John Patitucci: bass; Brian Blade: drums; Valerie Coleman: flute (6); Toyin Spellman-Diaz: oboe (6); Mariam Adam: clarinet (6); Jeff Scott: French horn (6); Monica Ellis: bassoon (6).