Wayne Shorter is the most unassuming of musical geniuses. To watch him onstage, patiently hanging back to find the right opening for his pithy, lyrical phrases, you would never guess the tremendous impact he has had on whatever band stands around him. In groups where he was ostensibly a sideman (the early-'60s Jazz Messengers and two of Miles Davis' greatest quintets) or in ensembles where he has been the humblest of leaders (Weather Report and the current Wayne Shorter Quartet), the saxophonist doesn't take over the band so much as seduce everyone around him into his musical worldview.
Part of Shorter's influence stems from distinctive compositions; almost every album he's ever been on has featured multiple Shorter compositions, such as "Free for All" for Art Blakey, "E.S.P." for Davis and "Palladium" for Weather Report. Like Thelonious Monk, Shorter has the ability to write themes that are immediately accessible and yet strikingly original in their succinct melodies, somehow still opening the door to endless hallways of improvisation. More of his influence stems from his own tenor and soprano sax solos, which have the same qualities as his writing, and which inevitably spur everyone around him to play similarly.
Shorter's recent quartet, featuring pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade (brother of Americana drummer Brady Blade), comes to the Schermerhorn Symphony Center this weekend with a new album, Without a Net (issued via Blue Note), so titled because it was recorded live without overdubs at 2010-11 concerts. This is the fourth and strongest album yet from this all-acoustic combo since 2002. Listening to the record in a blindfold test, you might guess it was the pianist's album, for Perez more aggressively seizes the foreground. But it's Shorter's nine compositions and his astonishingly economical variations on his own themes that create the emotional weather for every piece.
Taking advantage of his quartet's growing rapport and virtuosity, Shorter reworks a standard as well as tunes he wrote for Davis, Weather Report and his 2005 album Beyond the Sound Barrier, but also unveils four new compositions. His remarkable reticence is especially obvious on "Myrrh," a melancholy hymn as notable for its pregnant pauses as for its elegant phrases. "(The Notes) Unidentified Flying Objects" is a more abstract piece, full of rhythmic tension that only gradually coheres as the scattered melodic fragments finally align. Best of all is the 23-minute version of "Pegasus," whose majestic melody and grand architecture are bolstered by a woodwind quintet and by Shorter's belated, typically self-effacing entrance on soprano sax.
This isn't the first time Shorter has set the tone for a band of more forceful personalities. The lineup of Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams and Ron Carter came to be known as Miles Davis' "second great quintet" during its 1964-68 existence. Like its 1955-58, John Coltrane-featured predecessor, the mid-'60s combo was an all-acoustic band that stretched jazz orthodoxy beyond recognition — and many of its highlights were Shorter compositions, such as "Dolores," "Prince of Darkness" and "Fall."
By 1969, however, Davis was no longer satisfied with acoustic arrangements and moved boldly into the electronic arena. Hancock, Williams and Carter all left for various reasons, but Shorter joined Chick Corea, Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette for the 1969 band. It became known as Davis' "lost quintet," for the trumpeter never took them into the studio as a combo; instead he surrounded them with an expanded band for the landmark creation of Bitches Brew. But the "lost quintet" did play much of the material for that album on a tour of North America and Europe in 1969, refining a set list that included five Shorter compositions ("Footprints," "Nefertiti," "Paraphernalia," "Masqualero" and "Sanctuary") and seven Davis compositions in tight, sparkling versions very different from the orchestral effect of Bitches.
Bootlegs of varying quality have leaked out from that tour over the years, but only this year have hi-fi recordings of those shows been released. The four-disc box set, Live in Europe 1969: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 2, includes three audio CDs from shows in Antibes and Stockholm and a DVD of a Berlin show. This newly uncovered evidence is revelatory, for it explains how Davis got from In a Silent Way to Bitches Brew: He was being pushed by the younger musicians he had just hired. "When Miles stopped playing," DeJohnette says in the liner notes, "the groove would stop and then we'd go into a more abstract place, and Wayne would go with us. Miles enjoyed some of that, but he would come to me and say, 'Can't you make them play some time?' " Davis eventually opted for a heavier funk beat in his mid-'70s recordings, and it was left to the younger players to pick up the jazz-innovation mantle dropped by the trumpeter.
You can hear what might have been on the second disc, taken from the second night at Antibes. An unbroken, hourlong medley segues through nine tunes by Shorter, Davis, Joe Zawinul and Sammy Cahn; three of them ("Spanish Key," "Miles Runs the Voodoo Down" and "Sanctuary") would show up on Bitches Brew but in very different versions. In these live quintet versions, Shorter's influence is more pervasive, for the music gains and loses weight in a delightful series of contrasts, bursting with jangling voltage and group improvisation at times but also adopting the lean lyricism that was the saxophonist's greatest gift.