The Wayne Shorter Quartet’s “Without a Net” (Blue Note) begins with a rumble — four notes repeated deep in the piano’s bass register. Jazz fans will recognize the phrase as from Shorter’s iconic composition “Orbits,” from the 1967 Miles Davis release “Miles Smiles.” On that record, the song is bright, fast, and fleet. But here Danilo Pérez’s piano introduction is dark, ominous. Bassist John Patitucci joins Pérez, then Shorter enters on soprano sax, offering the tune’s second phrase. Before long, the band (with drummer Brian Blade) is off on a lyrical improvisation, the darkness having cleared, that first phrase a recurring reference point in a collective dream.
Shorter has led the band for 12 years now, and some would argue that — in a legendary career of pathbreaking writing and playing — it represents the height of his achievements. Next Saturday the quartet will be one of the headliners at the Newport Jazz Festival, with Shorter’s longtime friend and colleague Herbie Hancock as a special guest. Shorter turns 80 on Aug. 25, and his touring this year — from New York to Montreal to Europe and back, including a Celebrity Series show at Symphony Hall on Nov. 24 — has become a birthday celebration.
With his nubby tone on tenor, his pure-voiced soprano, his unpredictable solo flights, and that deathless book of modern jazz standards, Shorter has changed the shape of jazz at least a couple of times. He did it with the mid-late ’60s Miles Davis Quintet and such pieces as “Orbits,” “Footprints,” “Limbo,” and “Nefertiti,” with their alluring melodies, odd phrase lengths, and exploratory harmonies. And then with Joe Zawinul in the seminal “jazz-rock” ’70s-’80s fusion band Weather Report. For most of his post-Weather Report career, when he wasn’t playing with the Miles Davis tribute band, he stuck with electronic instrumentation. But in 2001 he began working with Pérez, Patitucci, and Blade. It seemed like a reassertion of his acoustic-jazz roots.
“What’s taken over,” Shorter tells me from his home in Los Angeles, “is not the decision to go from one medium to another; it’s the decision to go forward with what you’ve got. Don’t get fooled into thinking you’re going forward because you have something electronic.” He tells me about a class he teaches at UCLA with people such as Hancock and composer-saxophonist Jimmy Heath. “One of the things I talk to the kids about is, no matter what your instrument is, try playing or writing what you wish for.”
That kind of philosophical attitude runs through much of Shorter’s conversation. And it’s clearly a big part of the band’s modus operandi. Though Shorter continues to write prolifically for the band and for classical ensembles like the Imani Winds (who join the band for the extended piece “Pegasus” on “Without a Net”), his emphasis with the band continues to be on spontaneity.
Quartet rehearsals, he tells me, are limited to run-throughs at soundcheck and the testing of ideas. “Everyone takes on their own responsibility to contribute to another adventure. We always refer to the phrase ‘How do you rehearse the unknown?’ ” He chuckles. “Like Miles would say, ‘Once upon a time . . . so what?’ What do you say after ‘Once upon a time?’ That’s our diving-off place.”
He illustrates with an anecdote: “I had a cousin who used to come by the house on Saturdays to visit. His name was Bert. Cousin Bert. He’d hit the door hard: Bam! Bam, bam, bam! We’d open it. We knew it was him. And the first thing he’d say was, ‘Tell me something new!’ That was ‘hello’ and everything. ‘Tell me something new!’ I miss that guy.
“So that’s storytelling right there. That’s what we do on stage during soundcheck. We just talk like I’m talking right now. And then when it comes time to play, we don’t say anything. And everybody’s like, ‘Here we go — undressed again!’ Naked on the stage.”
Shorter talks about art and life as a continual process of “peeling back layers,” the ongoing adventure of self-revelation. “Throw away all your credentials, awards, all that kind of stuff. If there’s a struggle, let’s get out there and struggle! You’re showing what struggle is! So we have trust. No matter what John Patitucci does — he might come out going ‘eeearrgggh!’ And we say, “Oooh, that’s not an interruption, that’s an opportunity!’ Something’s coming out of this guy. He’s saying something after ‘Once upon a time.’ He’s saying, ‘There was a . . .’ There was a what?”
Occasionally there’s no clear answer. The quartet’s in-the-moment investigations can become a muddle, a series of tried and abandoned strategies that don’t get much beyond “Once upon a time.” But when they’re cooking, when they all seem to be discovering the next step in the adventure simultaneously, the result is transcendent.
“Sometimes when we’re onstage playing at an outdoor concert, we look up at the sky. And that means, ‘Let’s fly! Go!’ Not go away from Earth, but ‘Take it further!’ ”
Besides the big deals at the Newport Casino International Tennis Hall of Fame (Aug. 2) and on the mainstage at Fort Adams State Park (Aug. 3-4), the Newport Jazz Festival offers plenty of acts on its secondary stages that don’t get to Boston nearly enough. So aside from the likes of Wayne Shorter, Esperanza Spalding, Joshua Redman, and Chick Corea, you’ll want to make a point of checking out the phenomenal young guitarist Mary Halvorson with her quintet and the Robert Glasper Experiment (both Saturday). In Halvorson you can see someone who’s inventing her own language for jazz guitar; keyboardist Glasper, meanwhile, has adapted the hip-hop rhythms of the late J Dilla for jazz improvisation. On Sunday, the vastly influential saxophonist, composer, and conceptualist Steve Coleman brings his Five Elements band and collaborates with Boston keyboardist (and Ornette Coleman sideman) David Bryant. Just as crucial on Sunday, is the great guitarist Jim Hall, now 82, with 25-year-old Julian Lage.
All the way from Joan Baez to Antje Duvekot, Deer Tick, and David Wax Museum, the Newport Folk Festival has a long history of championing artists with roots in New England. This year’s event, which has expanded to a full day of performances on Friday and wraps up Sunday evening at Fort Adams State Park, is no exception. The lineup includes roots-rockers Kingsley Flood and hometown provocateur Amanda Palmer, both making their folk-fest debuts on Friday. Kingsley Flood is on the Fort Stage at 2:30 p.m.; Palmer will take over the Harbor Tent at 6:05 p.m. Other local musicians appearing throughout the weekend include John McCauley of the Providence-bred Deer Tick; New England Conservatory-educated Sarah Jarosz; Rhode Island hell-raisers Joe Fletcher & the Wrong Reasons; the Low Anthem’s “Newport Homegrown” showcase; and the Berklee Gospel & Roots Choir. Tickets for Saturday and Sunday are sold out, but as of press time, they remained for Friday — at a bargain price of $49 — through Ticketmaster (800-745-3000, www.ticketmaster.com). Full schedule is at www.newportfolkfest.net.
JAMES REEDJon Garelick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.