As the last cymbal crash and thundered chord of ACS’s reading of ‘Infant Eyes’ still hung in the air, the capacity crowd in the hall exhaled and let out a roar of appreciation. It was Wayne Shorter day at the Barbican. The octogenarian icon himself and his quartet had the evening slot, a film was showing in the afternoon, Ruben Fox and Mark Kavuma were on the freestage playing some of his early music and ACS, the trio of Geri Allen, Terri Lyn Carrington and Esperanza Spalding who have been touring with him were in the main hall late afternoon. This had been no tribute set however. Over an intense, nearly two hours, they celebrated the man by applying his fearless approach to playing compositions and improvising. Nothing less than deconstruction and re-invention would do.
Shorter’s compositions have become jazz standards and the beautiful ballad ‘Infant Eyes’ is a treasure. Terri Lynn Carrington introduced it as a favourite before whipping up a storm with beaters and cymbals and a rolling, splashy rubato statement of the first part of the familiar theme emerged. A seething, regular pulse settled and Geri Allen spun off, all percussive dissonant chords, darting runs and rippling arpeggios. A loose funky groove with a strong reggae like back beat underpinned an emerging fragment of the middle section of the theme paving the way for a fluid and rythmically driving bass solo. An insistent pulse built into a melee of rocky crashing chords that etched out the final section of the melody to reach that thunderous climax. No genuflecting at the altar of classic recordings here.
Every piece was worked through with familiar sections of melody appearing and dissolving into an intense, often abstract exploration before reappearing momentarily. Each had its own character. ‘Virgo’s’ theme was whistled jauntily by Spalding; Nefertiti appeared as a dense abstract funky shuffle; ‘Beautiful friendship’, a standard Allen has been playing and recording for over twenty years kept threatening to burst into swing but Terri Lynn Carrington and Esperanza Spalding kept fractured, anticipatory rhythmic figures churning so it never quite resolved. Only Allen’s own composition ‘Unconditional Love’ provided a slightly more relaxed reading with vocal acrobatics from Spalding embellishing and entrancing by turns.
In an interview with Jazzwise Magazine shortly before the festival, the trio talked about seeking to emulate Shorter in an approach to performing that meant being prepared to follow ideas and inspirations live without knowing where it will lead. There’s a risk of it going wrong of course – playing ‘Without a Net’ to borrow the title of Shorter’s album. To do that and for the results for the trio to be powerful requires, in Spalding’s words ‘a very deep level of playing’. The concentration on stage was palpable. Eyes were locked fiercely, grins and smiles exchanged. They were listening hard, stretching and having fun. This demanded a lot of the audience too. There were times where the breath was held “Will they fall off the high wire?” But in embracing the spirit of Shorter’s music making, this trio are creating some quite extraordinary moments. It was a privilege to go along for the ride.