When his first album in about eight years was released earlier this month, those who love Wayne Shorter's acoustic recordings from the '60s--the ones with Art Blakey, Miles Davis and Shorter's own groups--hoped that mainstream jazz would win out over jazz fusion. They hoped that the first truly original saxophonist to emerge from the shadow of John Coltrane would seek the spirit, if not the form, of those landmark years.
They shouldn't be disappointed.
Though the electric orchestration and backbeat of his new group's premiere public performance at the Coach House on Thursday would have jarred purists, Shorter showed a rigorous determination to keep his music serious. There were challenging compositions and meaningful, animated improvisations.
The saxophonist's latest album, "High Life," is a thematic, multilayered document that features 30 members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and as many as six percussionists. With a total supporting cast of six on the Coach House stage, Shorter managed to replicate the depth, if not the percussive density, of the album.
While there were some rough ensemble moments, they served to give the performance a more natural feel than heard on the album. Listeners needed to follow closely; the musicians played while shuffling through sheaves of sheet music, and even the most simplistic themes took unpredictable turns to some unexpected places.
Dual keyboards played by Rachel Z (who roamed between electric and acoustic pianos) and Miles Davis veteran Adam Holzman gave the music its harmonic depth. Themes--short and simple or lengthy and complex--gained tonal character from a unison blend of sax, keys and electric guitar. Bassist Tracy Wormworth often played countermelodies in addition to predictable funk lines. Shorter flashed signals to his rhythm section, often smiling encouragement or counting down the changes.
The most successful numbers ("Pandora Awakened," "Maya") benefited from lush arrangements and mysterious intent. Groove became less important in such pieces, as Shorter took control and constructed solos that moved like a movie plot. Guitarist David Gilmore also soloed with purpose, often exchanging pregnant lines with the saxophonist.
Shorter took advantage of predictable backdrops to develop these inviting solos, filling them with lines that surged and lifted skyward. His soprano tones were round and supple and strung together in dynamic style. His tenor play was assertive and robust, without cheap appeals to emotion. Something magic happened every time he played.
Only the rhythms, despite fine percussion accents from Frank Colon, seemed to fall shy of their leader's intent. A crisper, more ambitious attack from drummer Will Calhoun would have driven the music in the way it demanded. Only the variations Shorter has written into the material kept the pace from tedium.
In a memorable twist, Shorter directed his ensemble through a barely recognizable version of "Sanctuary," the ambitious composition he wrote for Miles Davis' 1969 recording "Bitches Brew." While that album is frequently credited with launching the fusion movement, "Sanctuary" was its least predictable piece. Here it was his most aggressive. Though the form may have changed, Shorter has not lost the fire.
By contrast, trumpeter and film composer Mark Isham ("Nell," "A River Runs Through It") glowed rather than burned as the opening act.
The trumpeter displayed an intriguing way with his horn. But, playing in a more traditional combo format, his often moody numbers seemed coolly polished and conservative in comparison to the Shorter ensemble.
Also working from a new album, the Isham group played with tight intent and a feel that suggested Isham's movie work. In Isham originals, the band, with saxophonist Steve Tavaglione, bassist Doug Lunn and drummer Kurt Wortman, created soundtracks for the modern condition, managing moments of brief passion before returning to a state of cool. Their opening number, Keith Jarrett's "De Drum," had an enchanting African feel that Isham decorated with both muted and open trumpet.
Isham makes inviting, if not demanding, music, which should be popular with the self-consciously hip and those looking for a smooth jazz background to their busy lives.
* The Wayne Shorter Septet plays the House of Blues, 8430 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles on Wednesday at 8:30 p.m. The Mark Isham Band opens. $25. (213) 650-1451.