Wayne Shorter Quartet
"Without a Net"
(Blue Note Records)
Three and a half stars
There's a moment during Wayne Shorter's much-anticipated new album where someone, said to be a member of the string ensemble Imani Winds, lets out maybe the most natural response to Shorter's darting soprano saxophone. "Oh my God," she says with a touch of disbelief, and the band twists further into the hypnotic 23-minute composition "Pegasus."
It's an understandable reaction. "Without a Net" is Shorter's first album for Blue Note Records in 43 years, and it's the sort of release that seemed preordained for superlatives. Primarily taken from a European tour in late 2011 (the lone exception being the aforementioned "Pegasus," which was recorded live with Imani Winds at Disney Hall in 2010), the album is a sprawling, relentlessly inventive listen that nods toward Shorter's rich legacy as a true musical giant, even while pointing toward an undeniable truth that, even at 80 years old, he isn't finished exploring yet.
The album opens with a nod toward Shorter's fertile period backing Miles Davis in a deconstructed, darker take on "Orbits," which features a rumbling, shadowy piano from Danilo Perez. Shorter's horn weaves and flutters, and keeping his restless drive -- and indeed the whole record -- from twisting off the rails is the group's longtime drummer Brian Blade, who forms the elastic backbone for each track with an incomparable mix of grace and drive.
"Plaza Real" from Shorter's Weather Report days is bent into new, cascading angles, and the group gets another sideways acknowledgment in a few flourishes in "Pegasus" that recall "Black Market." But as much as the record is a showcase for Shorter and his knotty compositional voice, the star remains the band and its near-telepathic interplay, leaving the music feeling spacious and oddly ephemeral, as if it keeps changing with every listen. While the album is daunting to absorb at a sprawling 77 minutes, the results are well worth it.
The Wayne Shorter Quartet plays Disney Hall on Saturday at 8 p.m. along with Esperanza Spalding, who will be performing a piece -- written for her by Shorter -- with the backing of the L.A. Philharmonic. And yes, you should probably find a way to see it.