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Review: Even at 80, jazz legend Wayne Shorter pushes his music forward without looking back

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“Wayne Shorter at 80,” the title for the saxophonist’s quartet performance Saturday night at the Rialto Center for the Arts, set up the expectation of an artist in the winter of his career.

Shorter, who became an octogenarian in August, has been a major force in jazz since the late 1950s — first with drummer Art Blakey, then as a part of Miles Davis’ celebrated second quintet, and finally as a leader starting with a number of now legendary ’60s Blue Note recordings. His multifaceted career carried him through Davis’ early experiments with fusion and the celebrated group Weather Report.

So the title could easily invite nostalgia, a look back on an exemplary career, rather than forward progression. From the first note on Saturday, however, it was apparent that Shorter is still exploring and developing new ideas in jazz. The saxophonist’s current aesthetic is very different from his early, composition fueled work.

Concertgoers ready to hear classic tunes from throughout his wide-ranging career Saturday were instead confronted with marathon expressions of dense, thoughtful improvisation atop shifting ostinatos. Throughout the entire evening, Shorter and his band played chord changes sparingly and recognizable melodies even less often, but created a thoroughly captivating musical experience.

German philosopher and musicologist Theodor Adorno described this twilight shift in musical outlook as “late style.” In a 2004 essay titled “Thoughts on Late Style,” Edward Said expanded on this idea and came to see late art as going against the grain of an artist’s career, finding that a late body of work usually encompasses an intransigence against past creations.

For Shorter, though, his aesthetic — while wholly different from the standards created early in his career — has been created of building blocks toward a more complete outlook on music. Instead of rejecting his past, Shorter has embraced all phases of his career, forming them into one complete outlook on jazz.

During the 90-minute concert, Shorter and his band — the effervescent, serene Danilo Perez on piano; the playful John Patitucci on bass; and the thrilling Brian Blade on drums — skillfully navigated through four sprawling, dense pieces of music. Shorter led the way, unleashing brilliant torrents of sixteenth notes and acrobatically bounding up and down on his soprano, or breathily pushing out beautifully quiet, brief anecdotes on tenor. He played in fits and starts, rarely stringing together long musical passages; Shorter left a large amount of playing to his backing musicians, all of whom were equal partners in the proceedings.

For the most part, these pieces showcased collective improvisation tied to little else but shifting piano and bass ostinatos. Discernable themes — some noticeable phrases from Shorter’s recent work, including 2013’s live album Without a Net — floated in and out of the lengthy explorations. But these were simply hints at tunefulness and were never fully developed.

The pieces instead worked as a showcase of how this superlative rhythm section, which has performed with Shorter since 2001, and the saxophonist now see music. Instead of a melody-solo structure, the band allowed the music to ferment and move in multiple directions, building to a triumphant fortissimo one moment and winnowing down to a whisper the next. With the inventive Blade on drums, quiet passages were usually ended with a startling, fortissimo whack on his drums.

In the end, the concert title, and even Shorter’s stooped, slow movements, were misleading. Shorter sat hunched in a chair playing tenor and soprano for most of the concert, but his playing was strong and powerful. And in more fiery passages, he even jumped to his feet, determination and intensity in his sound, a look of total concentration on his face.

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