Halfway through his fifth decade in the public eye, Wayne Shorter sounds like as much of a jazz giant as ever: a superb composer and the architect of an elliptical improvisational sax style that has grown more and more influential. It's the latter facet that is emphasized on this album of concert recordings from the past three years.. The formation of a new quartet has seemingly invigorated him, and Shorter clearly inspires his younger sidemen to take risks -- Danilo Perez, John Patitucci, and Brian Blade never seemed all that progressive before, and this is their most interesting playing.
Unlike the group's first in-concert album, Footprints Live! (recorded in 2001, shortly after the quartet formed), which reworked many classic Shorter tunes (including favorites from his Blue Note period and his time with Miles Davis) in largely recognizable forms, Beyond the Sound Barrier reaches back only as far as two 1988 tunes -- and most pieces here sound like they've been exploded and then reassembled with the proportions drastically altered.
Even the opening 1941 movie, theme, Arthur Penn's "Smilin' Through," sounds like a free improvisation, with a pensive 6-1/2 minute intro leading directly to an explosive 5-minute coda. The arrangement of Mendelssohn's "On Wings of Song" is similarly surprising; ol' Felix would barely recognize this treatment in which small aspects of his composition are set amid a foreign context and then poked and juggled, ultimately leading to a two-minute improvisation, "Tinker Bell," jointly credited to all the members of the quartet, that's a bridge to the first previously recorded Shorter composition here, "Joy Ryder."
The latter is one of only three tracks that seem to have straightforward thematic statements at the beginning ("heads," as jazzers call them): "Over Shadow Hill Way," the other retread, is fairly staid and really only gets interesting when the main motif is abandoned for a lengthy coda; "Joy Ryder" is primal in its melodic simplicity; and "Adventures Aboard the Golden Mean" has just a two-bar head and really boils down to a seesawing two-chord progression. These latter two offer some of the disc's most exciting moments.
One can never become comfortable with the highly abstract, highly spontaneous music on Beyond the Sound Barrier, but it's consistently stimulating, proof that Shorter's back at the top of his game as an improvisor. - Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based former editor of Creem Magazine and CDNow.com, editor of the acclaimed MusicHound Jazz: The Essential Album Guide, and contributor to The Big Takeover, Early Music America, and many other hip periodicals. He is a buyer at Sound Fix, a hot new record store in Williamsburg.