Seven months away from his 80th birthday, the greatest living composer in jazz has released his first record in eight years. Wayne Shorter’s Without A Net features eight live songs from a 2011 European tour with his longstanding quartet, along with a more recent 23-minute, chamber-styled tone poem, also live, with the five-piece Imani Winds abetting the regular ensemble.
It is an event of a record, Shorter’s first for the Blue Note label in 43 years. But Without A Net is distant from such Blue Note classics as Juju and Speak No Evil in more ways than one. His preferred saxophone is now the soprano instead of the tenor, and nearly a half-century after his Blue Note albums stunned listeners with their buffed, lean, hard-bop ingenuity, Without A Net is open-ended but purposeful, alert yet accepting. It reflects the tranquil whir animating Shorter today,an elderly master of musical composition and a longtime follower of the Buddhist faith.
Without A Net contains all the Shorter verities — the harmonic sophistication, the patient song construction, the innovative probing of melodic nooks and crannies, the geometric integrity of his solos. Perhaps because Shorter isn’t fully absorbed in a few listens, I’m most favorably inclined toward his reworking of two older tunes. Without losing its circular motif, “Orbits” is more allusive than the snappy bop version opening Miles Davis’s Miles Smiles in 1967 and the string-laden remake on Shorter’s Alegria in 2003. And “Plaza Real” sheds the overtly Spanish tinge from its original with Weather Report in 1983, transforming into a series of refractions between Shorter’s soprano and his three cohorts that reveals quite a bit about his modern-day conceptions on the straight horn.
Of the originals, “Starry Night” is indebted to the Latin, classical and beautifully elliptical jazz phrasings of pianist Danilo Perez. “S.S. Golden Mean” is a relatively playful number that finds Shorter’s quoting “Night In Tunesia,” and “Zero Gravity” begins as a toe-tapper with Shorter whistling over John Pattituci’s sturdy bass riff before slides into the sort of levitating interplay implied by the album’s title. There is also a 13-minute rendition of the theme song to the movie “Flying Down To Rio,” the first pairing of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers, released in 1933 — the year of Shorter’s birth. It seems this wizened old dog always has a few tricks left in his arsenal, and can operate “without a net” because, at this late stage, he will almost assuredly land gracefully.