It’s a little over a mile, walking distance, from 106 South Street, where Wayne Shorter grew up in Newark’s Ironbound district, to the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, the city’s premier arts venue. But the musical distance the revered saxophonist-composer has traveled would perhaps be more accurately measured in light years, given his six-decade career, which has included stints with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, Miles Davis, Weather Report, Steely Dan, Milton Nascimento and Joni Mitchell.
Indeed, Shorter has come a long way—from playing bebop with his brother Alan for $1.25 at the local YMCA to the magnificent four-day, Wayne Shorter Weekend at NJPAC, a homecoming that concluded April 23 with the granting of keys to the city and a stunning concert that will be talked about for some time.
The homecoming tribute began on April 20 with trumpeter Wallace Roney’s performance of Universe, Shorter’s large ensemble opus written for Miles Davis in the 1960s but never recorded. The composition featured a teenage saxophone-colossus-in-the-making in Emilio Modeste. The next day featured the multilingual chanteuse Cécile McLorin Salvant with New Orleans pianist Sullivan Fortner, as well as Emmet Cohen’s ebullient trio. The night of April 22 offered Weather Report And Beyond Reimagined, a project led by saxophonist Joe Lovano featuring Christian McBride on bass, Steve Wilson on saxophones, Rachel Z on keyboards and Weather Report alumnus Manolo Badrena on percussion. And on April 23, McBride and bassist Esperanza Spalding (herself a frequent Shorter collaborator) held forth in an engaging interview session and performance.
McBride also served as the emcee for the final concert, which took place a few hours later. First up was vocalist Gretchen Parlato, whose connection to Shorter and Herbie Hancock goes back to her days studying at the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz. Backed by her quicksilver quartet—keyboardist Taylor Eigisti, bassist Alan Hampton and drummer Mark Guiliana—Parlato’s purring vocals were quietly counterpointed by her soft and subtle hand percussion. Parlato and crew imbued her set with an understated yet powerful Afro-bossa vibe, which included her evocative rendition of Hancock’s “Butterfly,” Shorter’s Blue Note classic “Juju” and the Dorival Caymmi gem “Doralice.”
Alan Hampton (left), Gretchen Parlato and Mark Guiliana perform during Wayne Shorter Weekend at NJPAC on April 23. (Photo: Anthony Alvarez)
After an intermission, McBride and Spalding brought Hancock and Shorter to the stage for their duet, prompting a fervent standing ovation. It is obvious that, because their artistry was forged in the artistic fires of Miles Davis’ Second Classic Quintet, their musical telepathy would be practically guaranteed.
Clad in his signature dark-blue performing outfit, Shorter’s tenor sound, which earned him the nickname “The Newark Flash,” rang with a Brick City edge that’s found in all of Newark’s finest musicians, though with a distinctly Coltranian tinge. And Shorter’s voice on the soprano saxophone, with its bird-like swoops and cries, is among the most distinct in the history of the music.
For more than 20 minutes, Hancock and Shorter engaged in a conversation disguised as a composition (or maybe the other way around). Hancock’s rhythmically aggressive arpeggios and melodic elements were buttressed by synth sounds evoking everything from electronica and techno to Afro-Asian percussive motifs. Though the piece had some small dead spots, the audience largely appreciated it.
Herbie Hancock (left) and Wayne Shorter perform as a duet. (Photo: Anthony Alvarez)
After the conclusion of Shorter and Hancock’s duet, McBride and Spalding announced that the preceding performance was the world premiere of Scout, a new work from Shorter inspired by the child narrator Jean Louise Finch from the 1960 Harper Lee novel To Kill a Mockingbird. The piece was commissioned by Chamber Music America.
The following set featured Shorter’s longstanding quartet, with bassist John Patitucci, pianist Danilo Pérez and drummer Brian Blade. If Shorter and Hancock’s set was telepathy, the quartet’s performance was beyond telepathy: It was the musical equivalent of quantum mechanics, all four men creating musical ideas, motifs and melodies at the speed of thought.
Shorter’s quartet first took shape in 2000, at the dawn of the 21st century. Back then, the ensemble was just forming, and it was Shorter who served as the leader of these Young Turks. But tonight, on this stage, the disciples had become the leaders. And it was Shorter who had to improvise off the musical ideas coming back to him from three vantage points. DB