Repetition and nostalgia are among the dominating principles of commercial culture. Hard-of-hearing rockers gather together after many years to tour, reprising their early hits, and many jazz musicians who find some modicum of commercial success are likewise happy to stay within the groove that audiences expect of them. Others, most notably John Coltrane and Miles Davis, were never content with any particular direction, and always sought new ground.

Saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter belongs to the latter category. He made his first major impression on the jazz world in 1959, when he joined Art Blakey's famous Jazz Messengers and also recorded the first album under his own name. Five years later he joined the Miles Davis Quintet, perhaps the most adventurous and regular working jazz group of its day. The quintet explored the limits of modern jazz expression without abandoning traditional melody and harmony; it stretched time and timbre in novel ways, and reinvigorated the world of postbop. When Davis felt he had exhausted the possibilities of this manner of playing, he began to move in a different direction, incorporating rock elements, and Shorter moved along with him, embracing the new sounds. In 1971 he teamed up with pianist Joe Zawinul, another Davis alumnus, to form Weather Report, an amazingly successful group that lasted almost fifteen years, recording prolifically and touring all over the world. Although it clearly took its cue from the jazz-rock experiments of Davis, Weather Report was unique, developing its own amalgam of jazz, rock, Latin, and what would later be called world music, driven by the instrumental virtuosity and composing skills of the two leaders, as well as by a series of equally accomplished sidemen, including percussionist Airto Moreira and electric-bassist Jaco Pastorius.

In the years following the end of Weather Report, Shorter continued to work as a soloist with guest groups, to record albums with various combinations of musicians, and to tour with his own aggregations. By this time his many idiosyncratic compositions, which make the unusual and unpredictable seem right, had become classics and were recorded by others and studied in the emerging jazz teaching movement. Sometimes he performed in Miles Davis tribute bands, but he also appeared in unlikely company, as with Joni Mitchell.

Then, eight years ago, he hooked up with the virtuoso young trio of pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Patitucci, and drummer Brian Blade, and began a new chapter in his life, seemingly reinvigorated. These four musicians find endless ways of exploring music in tandem, bending time and harmony, and each performance brings new discoveries. As Shorter once put it, "We don't rehearse, so we're looking at something called zero gravity — the music we play is different every night." For their current tour, which comes to Hill Auditorium on Saturday, September 27, they have teamed up with the adventurous Imani Winds, a quintet of classical musicians who have expanded their repertoire to play other kinds of music, and recently commissioned a new composition by Shorter.

[Review published September 2008]