Wayne Shorter, Royal Festival Hall, London

Jazz's first postmodernist soloist
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The Independent Culture

When Wayne Shorter last played the RFH some years ago, he proved so diffident a leader that his young band didn't really seem to know what to do with themselves. This time Shorter came prepared, bringing a quartet of stars in their own right. The result was a semi-triumph, with often inspired, unusually full-blooded playing interspersed with indeterminate noodling. At its best, the music more than lived up to Shorter's illustrious past, recalling the fractured rhythms and invention of the great Miles Davis quintets of the Sixties in which he played. Even the noodling was of a high order.

But Shorter remains, at 67, an enigmatic presence. A shy man who has suffered more than his fair share of tragedy, he neither talked to the audience nor – in true Davis fashion – to his band. Leadership, such as it is, was left to oblique nods and glances; sometimes, just deciding which horn to put in his mouth looked almost more than he could bear. The first number didn't so much end as stutter to a halt, with everyone looking to see if Shorter really was finished. He wasn't, and came in with one final toot just as they stopped.

Shorter's playing on tenor and soprano saxes reminds you that he was perhaps the first postmodern soloist in jazz. Instead of one authoritative tone, he has a broad range of voices; instead of spinning out a long melodic line, he favours jagged fragments that never quite coalesce into a whole.

There's also no sense of inevitability to the progression of notes that he plays; everything remains curiously unresolved, as if Shorter really hasn't got a clue where it might lead, other than to more fragments. Perhaps because of this, he generally prefers spiky duos with piano, bass or drums.

The band more than lived up to its promise, with Danilo Perez on piano proving a particularly fine foil. If Perez recalled Herbie Hancock's role with Miles, the drummer Brian Blade was the new Tony Williams, a human rhythm machine whose snapping rim-shots could suddenly raise the level of intensity to a (much-needed) fever pitch. Best of all was the bassist John Patitucci, who turned out to be the most soulful of the lot.

If Shorter hadn't tried so hard, the show would have been stolen by the opening act, the Serbian pianist Bojan Zulfikarpasic, whose astonishing solo performance sounded like Keith Jarrett improvising on themes by Nina Rota. Zulfikarpasic has – as someone once wrote of a boogie-woogie pianist – a left hand like God. The right's not bad either.

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