Saturday, October 24, 2009

Wayne Shorter Quartet + New England Conservatory Philharmonia, Jordan Hall 10/24

New England Conservatory chose to close the celebration of the 40th year of its jazz program with a tremendously ambitious program, pairing Wayne Shorter's groundbreaking quartet with symphony orchestra, for five of Wayne's pieces. The quartet played a long opening set, then after intermission the stage filled with a huge orchestra (studio orchestra personnel, which for the uninitiated means huge everything- almost twenty brass, an equal number of winds including saxohpones, harp, and seemingly double sections for all the strings). Warning: serious music geekdom ahead. I'm assuming the Globe's writer was there, and hopefully he'll give us a great layman's review on Monday, which I'll link to.

I've written at some length about Wayne's quartet before. This performance never quite achieved the electricity of the Newport performance, but was remarkable nonetheless. I started to get a sense of the set construction for the first time- the band is working from music, long long charts, which seem to hit certain themes and vamps at certain places. My best guess is that the chart sets the arc of the set, and the band fills in the details liberally. I also noticed Danielo Perez doubling Wayne more on melodies. Any remaining sense of "soloist" was completely gone in this music, almost as if the band was coming at Ornette's idea of "Harmelodic" equality from a radically different direction.

The orchestral set opened with "Orbits", originally recorded on Miles Smiles in 1963(?). I realized after the show that there is a large ensemble version of this on Alegria, but I don't know how closely this hewed to the album. I do know that it makes Wayne's reworking of "Children of the Night" on High Life (a masterpiece in my mind) look conservative by comparison. The four bar hook from the original "Orbits" opens the piece, and really isn't heard again, and the rest of the tune is seemingly gone. The set also included "Prometheus Unbound", "Midnight in Carlotta's Hair", and "Forbidden Plan-It".

Hearing Wayne's ideas spread out across such a huge canvas as an orchestra is remarkable- Wayne's reputation (deserved in my opinion) is of a curious genius, a mystery inside an enigma, who's genius is ill served by all the transcriptions and Real Book versions of his tunes. So to hear his lines and harmonies so explicitly is a treat. Several of the pieces used some really interesting voicing tactics- my favorite was when the tuba would double the basses for one statement of a theme, then when the theme repeated would jump up into the middle of the voicings, like Gil Evans would do, to great effect. I really hope that a publisher releases a book of his orchestral pieces- I think it will be a treasure trove of goodies for the many players and composers who puzzle over Wayne's music. And having Wayne floating his own playing over these orchestrations, clearly relishing the opportunity, and Blade lighting fires under the orchestra made it that more exciting.

That said, the composer/arranger in me couldn't help feeling a little dissatisfied with the charts. I was talking to an orchestra member before the concert, and he said he liked the charts, but they were "dense". And they were- Wayne and/or whoever helped orchestrate the music leaned heavily on a dense, "studio" sound. Almost every major theme was played by the french horns, usually doubled by some combination of trumpet, saxophone and/or flute. The strings primarily played the role that a piano would in a jazz quartet, "comping" riffs, occasionally breaking out (really complex and sixteenth-notey) counterpoint. There was a lot of counterpoint between the horn/high string melodies and the cellos and basses, who had tremendously difficult answer statements to many of Wayne's themes. In other words, as fascinating and varied as the themes were, the orchestration was fairly monochromatic, blunting some of the impact. The impact was further blunted by Blade's playing- not his fault, the sonic realities of a drum set is that it will obliterate anything strings are doing, which was the case here. It was clear the orchestra worked very hard to get this complicated music happening, and then we couldn't hear it.

(One saxophone-geek side note: music schools, when you do studio orchestra-ish music, PLEASE don't put your classical saxophone students in the group, use jazz players instead. I can't begin to describe how silly the classical alto player, sounded doubling Wayne at spots, swinging like a brick. Perfectly good for Ravel, but not for this music. But I digress...) NOTE: This was an incorrect assumption on my part, and the saxophonists were all jazz majors- see comments below. My apologies- I didn't love how it sounded clearly, but I jumped to a poor conclusion.

The closing piece, "Forbidden Plan-It", originally on Phantom Navigator, brought the orchestra and Wayne to the fore, with Blade and Danielo playing very little. It was my favorite piece of the set- while there were more exciting moments in some of the other tunes, there was beautiful interplay between Wayne and the orchestra, and his remarkable lines and harmonies shined throughout the piece.

Nitpicking aside, this concert was a remarkable experience, and NEC deserves all the plaudits it can get for putting together not just this concert, but a remarkable week of events to celebrate it's seminal and still vital jazz department.

(More thought on the few other NEC events I made this week, including today's Blade/Perez/Pattatucci masterclass, soon)


Randy Pingrey said...

Great post! Wasn't it a great concert?

Quick correction: all the saxophone players actually were jazz majors.

Anonymous said...

Interesting and well written article, BUT all three of the Saxophone section were comprised of the Jazz program's top saxophone players - likewise with some of the brass. The alto player that you mentioned was none other the Mike Thomas - an incredibly gifted and virtuosic jazz player, perfectionist in a section and wrecking ball of a soloist - believe me I know. If Mike played something a particular way its because that's exactly how Wayne wanted it, and indicated it on the chart. Plus I don't remember any "swing" music in last night's concert, for anyone to "swing like a brick" on. Please do your research before jumping to conclusions.

pat said...

Again, my apologies- I decided to leave my opinion up, but amend it to reflect this information. As you can tell, I didn't love how it sounded, but it could've been the doublings or something else.