When it comes to innovative jazz visionaries, 81-year-young Wayne Shorter may well be the leader of the pack. So the opportunity to see and hear the man himself, as well as the musicians he has gathered around him, talk about what they do, is an opportunity not to be lost. Guido Lukoschek’s documentary The Language of the Unknown: a film about the Wayne Shorter Quartet, now available on DVD from ArtHaus Music, is just such an opportunity.
The DVD has two parts. There is the documentary itself where, against a background of the quartet’s live performance, Shorter and members of the band (with a few insights from Carolina Shorter and Herbie Hancock) discuss their music. Then there is a film of the concert itself, “Live in Paris” (November 3, 2012), the gig which provides most of the music featured in the documentary.
Shorter, a veteran who has worked with many of the great jazz innovators in a variety of styles from modal to fusion, post-bop to crossover, who even has a solo on Steely Dan’s Aja, is an eminence gris with a message about the nature of his art. It is a message he delivers right at the beginning of the film.
“The effort to be original,” he says “is like thank you.” It is important for the artist to have the freedom to develop and grow, to take what he has done in the past and re-work it, reimagine it in the moment. It is important that he be able to surprise his audience, in some sense by surprising himself. An artist’s reach can’t exceed his grasp if all he does is repeat himself. You can’t, as he puts it, rehearse potential; it has to be found.
His quartet, where the saxophonist works with pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blades, is the perfect vehicle for his ideas. These are three artists who buy into the Shorter aesthetic. It’s not free jazz; it’s jazz that frees. If there is noise, it is not self-indulgent noise. It is functional, never an end in itself, always simply another weapon in the musician’s vocabulary. Indeed listening to them play in the live concert there is lyricism, harmony and rich color aplenty.
When they speak about what they are doing they tend to talk in metaphor: a specific chord should be played with more water, their method is described as “zero gravity,” or look for the clear water beneath the lotus flower. It is a mystical approach to the creation of music that relies on artists who understand each other, who can wake up one day and understand what how to get more water in a chord.
The concert itself is a revelation. From the joyful expressions on the musician’s faces to the standing ovation from the audience, their feeling for the music is clear. This is a performance that resonates with intensity, building slowly to an emotional crescendo. They open with “Zero/Lotus,” which runs almost 24 minutes, and move right into “Prometheus Unbound.” “She Moves Through the Fair,” “Plaza Real” and “Starry Night,” all featured in parts in the documentary, follow. It ends with “Joy Ryder” as an encore.
The Language of the Unknown is a film with some real insights about playing modern jazz backed up by a quartet with the chops to make those insights work.