Wayne Shorter Quartet whip up a storm at Barbican

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The much-quoted legend of Miles Davis responding to John Coltrane's perplexing problem of not being able to play a short solo, simply saying "try taking the saxophone out of your mouth", sprang to mind this evening. Not because Wayne Shorter plays excessive quantities of notes, on the contrary, at 83, he places the force of his 50-something years' experience behind each phrase he plays, often jerking the saxophone away from his lips with a quizzical look on his still-youthful features, as if saying 'what was that?!'.

Closing this year's EFG London Jazz Festival, which has emphatically proved the music is in rude health, Shorter is among an ever decreasing number of jazz giants, not only alive but playing gigs, so by this virtue alone the sense of expectation could not be higher. Yet Shorter is well versed in not resting on his laurels, especially in the company of his superlative quartet of pianist Danilo Pérez, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade. Ensconced within the semi-circle of piano, bass and drums Shorter's mischievous grin constantly played across his lips, whistling an abstract three-note phrase as diaphanous as the smog of dry ice that bathed the stage.

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With no announcements, the band played an extended episodic piece that slowly built momentum, Shorter very much part of a collective conversation that he passed to Pérez and then Patitucci, with Blade the first to draw blood – a surge of rolling tom-toms, and a trademark smack from his snare announcing the band's shift into the higher gears. Patitucci too soon joined the rhythmic riot, his bass given a volume boost in the mix for a slyly funky solo intro that set up a deceptively simple groove. Shorter, now on soprano, produced some of his most telling solos of the night – the slim cylindrical silver sax cutting sharply through the melee to both head and heart. With two subsequent pieces mining more of this groove-orientated material Blade was relishing every chance to slap and cajole things with several depth-charge snare hits – Pérez and Patitucci bobbing and weaving every which way while Shorter lit the melodic path ahead. It was stirring stuff, with the saxophonist seeming to shed at least four of his eight decades to play with a vigour and precision I've not heard since they first played the London Jazz Festival 10 years ago.

If the first 90 minutes showed Shorter's improvisational powers are still strong, then the appearance of the 10-piece wind LutosAir Quintet + ensemble (comprised of musicians from the National Forum of Music Wrocław Philharmonic) revealed his compositional ideas are equally fertile. Entitiled "The Unfolding" it premiered at the Monterey Jazz Festival in September, and was then performed earlier this month at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, before having its European premiere in Wroclaw – the work revealed Shorter's attention to detail and distinct harmonic palette are also in fine fettle. So too were Pérez, Patitucci and Blade at dealing with the score, all hugely experienced at working within larger ensembles, bass and piano added finesse to the written notes, with Blade creating a hybrid of symphonic timpani and spiked improvisational daring. Shorter has often said of late, 'how do you rehearse the unknown?', and, if nothing else tonight was a lesson in being in the moment, embracing it and making it as bright as possible.

– Mike Flynn

– Photos by Tim Dickeson