If jazz listeners ruled the world, saxophonist-composer Wayne Shorter's forthcoming 80th birthday – on Aug. 25 – would be deemed a national holiday.
That doesn't seem likely at this point, so Chicago will celebrate the occasion a bit early when Shorter makes a rare appearance at Symphony Center on Friday evening. It has been five years since Shorter played the famous venue, leading the same distinctive quartet he'll front this time, with pianist Danilo Perez, drummer Brian Blade and bassist John Patitucci.
That's the ensemble that appears on Shorter's most recent release, the aptly named "Without a Net" (Blue Note Records). The live sessions, recorded two years ago, document the daring nature of this band's music-making, with free-flowing interchange among musicians who ignore familiar song structures and other jazz orthodoxies.
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Shorter's appearance at Symphony Center stands among the most eagerly anticipated concerts of the season, for many reasons. Above all, his achievements as composer place him at the pinnacle of the art form, his tunes not only long regarded as fundamental to the jazz canon of the past half century but really resembling no one else's work. The melodically sinuous, harmonically ambiguous, rhythmically elusive nature of landmark Shorter works such as "Footprints," "E.S.P." and "Nefertiti" – all dating from Shorter's contributions to Miles Davis' quintet in the 1960s – extended the definition of jazz composition.
As saxophonist, Shorter has moved through stylistically far-flung idioms with inexplicable ease, venturing from the hard-bop of Horace Silver in the mid-1950s and of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers in the late 1950s and early '60s to experimental, electronic and rock-tinged music thereafter. Not all the ventures have been equally effective, but Shorter's mastery of them has been apparent.
Shorter made fans and adversaries alike in forming the band Weather Report with keyboardist Joe Zawinul and bassist Miroslav Vituos in 1970, with jazz devotees divided to this day on the value of the jazz fusion concept. Certainly its influence waned long ago.
But Shorter has endured and, really, flourished anew in the autumn of his career. Yet he also has expressed deep reservations on the nature of the music world in the 21st Century.
"A Miles Davis or Charlie Parker wouldn't be heard today, except by a few very sensitive people," Shorter told me in San Francisco in 2000. "You know why? Because in music, people want more and more instant gratification.
"Even when I was a kid of 15, and I'd go to a party and bring my Dizzy Gillespie records, everyone else would be listening to Ruth Brown and rhythm-and-blues kind of stuff. That's all right, but when I would put on Dizzy Gillespie's 'Manteca,' they would rip the needle off the record, because they wanted something easier."
Shorter never has given his listeners "easier" – and certainly not do so in "Without a Net" – preferring music that challenges expectations. To him, that's what jazz is all about and keeps it ever fresh. A sense of venturing into the unknown, he explained, prevents jazz of the past from being forgotten, even in the age of hip-hop and digital files.
"I'm pretty sure people will remember the jazz that used to be, at least the way that they remember Beethoven, who had a lot of the spirit of adventure – and the spirit of jazz – in his music. So did Mozart, who was getting into some really experimental things when he died. And check out Bach, who was doing some really dissonant stuff way back.
"You still hear those guys' music played all over the world, and that's how jazz is going to last, because the adventurous stuff always sounds new."
Certainly it does when it comes from Shorter's horn.
Also worth hearing
Steve Turre: Turre commands an outsized sound and larger-than-life presence on trombone, as well as a technique to match. And when he's not playing his horn, he turns to an array of conch shells – seaside baubles to most of us but an exquisitely expressive instrument in Turre's hands. Can works such as Joe Henderson's "Recordame" and Dizzy Gillespie's "Manteca" really be played on shells? Turre proves it. 8 and 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4, 8 and 10 p.m. Sunday; at the Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Ct.; $20-$35; 312-360-0234 or jazzshowcase.com
Cyrille Aimee: The dexterous singer owns a silvery instrument that is heard best in an intimate musical context, such as this evening's format. 9 p.m. Friday at the Green Mill Jazz Club, 4802 N. Broadway; $12; 773-878-5552 or greenmilljazz.com
Parker/Lonberg-Holm/Kotche/Reed: Four noteworthy improvisers converge here: guitarist Jeff Parker (a longtime Chicagoan who recently moved to Los Angeles), cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, percussionist Glenn Kotche and drummer Mike Reed. The event underscores the increasing importance of Constellation, drummer Reed's nexus for innovative music. 9:30 p.m. Friday at Constellation, 3111 N. Western Ave.; $10-$12; constellation-chicago.com
Christopher McBride: The young Chicago alto saxophonist has been appearing with increasing frequency on our stages, playing music from his recording "Quatuor de Force." He offers a big and blues-drenched sound, dispatching uptempo pieces with a fleet technique and ballads with a warm tone and yearning phrases. He'll lead a quintet. 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Andy's Jazz Club, 11 E. Hubbard St.; $15; 312-642-6805 or andysjazzclub.com
Joel Paterson: The Chicago guitarist – who revives historic repertoire and traditions – holds down the late Sunday night "Soul Jazz Party" slot at the Green Mill, but he steps into the forefront here, leading a trio with Alex Hall on drums and Chris Foreman on Hammond B-3 organ. 8 p.m. Saturday at the Green Mill Jazz Club, 4802 N. Broadway; $12; 773-878-5552 or greenmilljazz.com
Joshua Abrams: A remarkably prolific Chicago bassist who thrives in uncounted experimental bands, Abrams steps into the spotlight with this show, which celebrates the release of "Unknown Known" (RogueArt). The album documents Abrams' quartet, which is staffed by key figures in Chicago music: vibist Jason Adasiewicz, saxophonist David Boykin and drummer Frank Rosaly, all of whom will be appearing on this engagement. 9:30 p.m. Saturday at Constellation, 3111 N. Western Ave.; $8-$10; constellation-chicago.com
Jeannie Tanner: A fearless vocalist-trumpeter, Tanner will present "Visions from 'Over the Rainbow,'" a collection of songs by Harold Arlen, as well as Tanner's original material evoking that era. 8 p.m. Saturday at the Open Door Repertory Company, 902 S. Ridgeland Ave., Oak Park; $12-$15; 708-342-0810 or opendoorrep.org/tickets
Frieda Lee: If Lee reminds you of Sarah Vaughan, there are several good reasons, including the voluptuousness of her instrument and the aria-like quality of her vocal lines. She'll be joined by saxophonist Bernard Scavella, pianist Miguel de la Cerna, bassist Larry Gray and drummer Charles "Rick" Heath. Presented by the non-profit Hyde Park Jazz Society. 7:30 to 11:30 p.m. Sunday at Room 43, 1043 E. 43d St.; $10; hydeparkjazzsociety.com
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