With Los Angeles steadily filling with music royalty for this weekend’s Grammy Awards and the many parties and performances in its orbit, Wayne Shorter led a show that served as a celebration of its own at Disney Hall on Saturday night.
Featuring the same quartet behind Shorter’s justly lauded new live album “Without a Net” (his first recording for Blue Note Records in 43 years), the show partly felt like a curtain call for a man who’s become the biggest story in jazz this year. Similar to a recent show at Carnegie Hall that featured Shorter taking on Beethoven and Charles Ives, the concert acted as a survey of the saxophonist-composer’s abilities in the context of an orchestra, in this case the L.A. Philharmonic.
But like the Grammys broadcast, the part of the show that held the most curiosity was a new pairing Shorter had written with the night’s key collaborator in mind — 2011 best new artist winner Esperanza Spalding.
First, however, Shorter turned the focus to his durable quartet. Opening the show with a deconstructed take on “Orbits” from Shorter’s days with Miles Davis’ quintet, there was a sense that the band was still tearing new holes into the composition. Shorter directed traffic from the curve of the piano, smiling at pianist Danilo Perez’s advances on the latest version of the track, or urging drummer Brian Blade further ahead as the saxophonist layered his own twists into the song’s shifting spaces.
Looking radiant in a golden, floor-length gown with a blazing swirl of red at its hem, Spalding entered with the orchestra for the premiere of “Gaia.” A sprawling work full of oceanic swells of strings and horns, the piece was long on ambition with Spalding carrying an acrobatic vocal melody heavy with environmental imagery. But even as Blade’s cracking rolls effectively became a rocky shore for the orchestra to crash against, the piece often lacked an anchor, even as Spalding’s voice soared atop the strings and into the rafters.
Knowing the quartet’s full-throttle capabilities, watching Shorter’s band stay within its lanes in the context of the full orchestra didn’t always play to the ensembles’ strengths. But the second set offered more moments of cohesion, including a graceful turn by Shorter on a reworking of “Forbidden, Plan-It!” from his electronic-leaning ‘80s album “Phantom Navigator.”
A later piece spiked by a percolating drive from bassist John Patitucci was another highlight, and a set-closing return by Spalding on “Midnight in Carlotta’s Hair” better fulfilled the promise of the night’s collaborators with a freewheeling sweep that reached for the outer limits.
With Blade introducing new shifts in the song’s pulse with thunderous fills that could sound as if he was trying to push his kit through the floor, Spalding’s wordless vocals chased Shorter through the melody. She didn’t always follow the master’s footsteps perfectly, but she certainly doesn’t need to, either.