Wayne Shorter, Barbican, London

The great philosopher

Wayne Shorter is the kind of man who's incapable of giving a straight answer. So thoughtful and laconic is he, that if you asked him whether he wanted one sugar or two in his tea it would probably provoke a "well...". So many questions to consider: should it be brown sugar, luxuriantly crumbling off the spoon, or the harsher, refined white variety, compacted into a cube? What is the philosophical status of sugar? And do we have the right to subject it to immersion in scalding hot water? By the time he answers the tea's long gone cold.

So it was no surprise that Shorter's concert at the Barbican consisted of long, multi-sectioned numbers – the first lasted 40 minutes before the quartet came up for air. They were never rambling, though. Shorter's group – Danilo Perez on piano, John Patitucci on double bass and Brian Blade on drums – are some of the most focused and accomplished players of their generations, all several decades younger than Shorter, who's nearly 70, but like Herbie Hancock, his fellow member of Miles's second quintet, seemingly preserved in his forties by some magical elixir.

They're a very finely balanced ensemble, Patitucci's firm, energetic playing the motor of the band, freeing Perez to sprinkle notes here and there, sometimes building up into such a frenzy it was as if his grand piano was teetering on the edge of a cliff and gravity's pull could only be defied by an ever more urgent stream of notes from the Panamanian.

In parts of the opening number the quartet travelled through a cinematic landscape, an urban riff from Patitucci signalling decaying, built-up areas, past burnt out wrecks, and then out, further, a folky passage taking us into broad valleys where cool waters met a summer haze. Blade's cymbal work – particularly on a loose-rivetted ride cymbal – filtered through like pollen-laden air above near-still brooks.

And then it was back to the city with the return of the urban riff, Blade by now driven and angry, the scatter-gun hits to his kit so hard that at one point he knocked over one of his floor toms. Above the rhythm section, Shorter, leaning back into the curve of the piano, ventured forth, alternating tenor and soprano saxophones. He concentrates, placing the horn in his mouth and waiting, waiting, to contribute just one note. He considers adding more, his horn poised; and then puts it down.

When he is ready, he launches into longer sentences, perhaps wielding the full power he has on the tenor, or producing a tone so gorgeous on the soprano that one imagines the metal to have been dipped in butter. However much freedom this quartet appears to have, the structure keeps emerging out of the mist. Sometimes you can only see a bit of it, while the rest is hidden in vaporous swirls. At others, the whole is on display, only to retreat again after a brief, glorious statement.

Shorter is like a lone stranger who has a tale to tell many will not understand – how could we, we who have not journeyed where he has, have not seen what he has? That does not detract from the power of his message, even if we only gain glimpses of it. And as for the sugar question: who says he drinks tea anyway?

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