Miriam Adam, the clarinetist for Grammy-winning quintet Imani Winds, sounded almost apologetic as she back-introduced the ensemble’s first song in its opening set for Wayne Shorter, an evocative, dramatic piece from Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos.
Clad in a candy-colored gown, she said something along the lines of how Wednesday night’s Disney Hall audience wasn’t expecting classical woodwind music to lead the way for one of the most famed saxophonists and composers jazz has ever known.
Adam needn’t have worried. Any hint of a genre-biased mentality from this crowd would’ve betrayed what Shorter has accomplished in a nearly 50-year career, one that’s certainly shown a predilection for exploring stylistic intersections.
Closing a brief tour belatedly celebrating his 75th birthday, Shorter billed the evening as one heavy on improvisation, and what followed certainly tested anyone who had not remained in contact with Shorter’s long recording arc.
Perhaps best known among casual fans as an integral part of Miles Davis’ classic mid-'60s quintet or one of the co-leaders of ‘70s fusion standard-bearers Weather Report, this was not an evening dedicated to faithful readings of hits or any other perfunctory legacy-mining. This was a show built to showcase Shorter as a still-active, still-engaging artist, one who can still lead his charges -- and an audience -- on a musical search.
Backing him was his regular combo since 2000, one possessed of a near-telepathic sense of interplay that circled Shorter’s complex, shape-shifting compositions with a deft sense of exploring the unknown, even amid piles of sheet music that formed a loose anchor to their efforts.
Pianist Danilo Perez was literally in Shorter’s hip pocket most of the evening, with the black-clad horn player tucked into the curve of his grand piano.
Bassist John Patitucci and Earth-splitting drummer Brian Blade worked the fringes of the fluid rhythm and beyond, advancing and receding as each song bled into the next with only occasional nods to a consistent melody or familiar structures, yet the results remained captivating.
As has become Shorter’s style of late, his playing generally held to a more reserved, almost minimalist approach, glossing the edges of the compositions on tenor or soprano saxophone before staking a claim at the center. Only occasionally did he reach for his horn’s limits -- he preferred to lean back on Perez’s piano and interject only a note or two, whatever was necessary to further the pursuit.
At the show’s close, Imani Winds returned to the stage for three, slightly less free-flow- ing compositions, and Shorter took a seat with them as the evening’s dual worlds of classical and jazz met and merged. As the songs grew and roiled around him, Shorter smiled and leaned to share a laugh with the musician seated next to him, perhaps just happy to take in all he had set in motion.
Barton is a Times staff writer.