SAN FRANCISCO -- Thursday at the SFJazz Center, the Wayne Shorter Quartet opened its sold-out run with six tunes, lasting about 90 minutes. It was a hills-and-valley affair, which is pretty much how this band works. As a listener, you sit, focus and observe the journey, tuning in to the private conversation among the four musicians. You wait; it can be like sitting through a very long yoga class: "I know this is good for me, and it sure is interesting, but ..."
Then comes the surprise: Shorter with some piping-hot, staccato exclamations on soprano saxophone, which have the effect of oil thrown into a hot pan.
Suddenly, all the waiting pays off: The band -- with pianist Danilo Pérez, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade -- tightens its vise, building pressure. The circling form of the tune gets dangerously compressed; the group has become a pressure cooker waiting to blow its lid as Blade drops startling detonations across his kit.
That's what happened toward the end of the show, during a 20-minute probing of "Flying Down to Rio." And yes, that's the Vincent Youmans tune from the 1933 film with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
Shorter is famous for being a film buff. Movies stoke his imagination, and this version of "Rio" (which didn't remotely resemble the original) began with tinkling wind chime effects from bass and piano and hand drumming by Blade. Taking his time, Pérez found his way to a bluesy riff -- something like Shorter's "Adam's Apple," from 1966 -- which became something like a samba, as the music grew languorous. And then -- bam! -- the red hot stove top.
Shorter, who turned 80 last August, has been working these tricks for a long time. Think of his "Sanctuary" -- with Miles Davis on "Bitches Brew," recorded in 1969 -- where there seems to be no tune, just a long expanse of mood and shadow. And then, out of nowhere, you realize that you are in the midst of a mesmerizing tune that's building intensity -- like a pressure cooker.
Shorter formed his quartet in 2000. Its duration is far longer than was Shorter's tenure with Davis, and the process has grown more radical. There's some paradox: One of the best composers in jazz ever, Shorter routinely masks his compositions with this group as it ruminates, playing with textures, rhythm and bits of thematic material.
Thursday, during the long lead-up to Shorter's "Orbits" (which he first recorded with Davis in 1967), the performance was about space and stillness, separation and connection. A tossed-off piano riff instantly translated into a skittering rhythm pattern on the drums and a muscular ostinato on the bass. A pulse emerged, and Shorter, on tenor saxophone, blew through the landscape with his squiggly action-painting lines, a blur of 32nd notes that felt tactile, like feathers brushing against your eardrums. Then, after many minutes, came the melody.
This is how it went all night: the gradual filling and emptying of canvases. And there was much implicit history; in Pérez's improvisations, alone, you heard Debussy and Scriabin or a quote from Mussorgsky; you heard McCoy Tyner and Herbie Hancock, along with the sorts of stenciled bass-register riffs that Cecil Taylor has used to incite his rumbling flights.
There was a lot to observe: form arising from wisps of ideas; odd-meter grooves taking hold -- like that, out of the blue -- amid stretches of free and elastic rhythm. It was impressive, often very serious, sometimes too serious. But then there would be humor, too: one of Shorter's evasive, peekaboo solos on tenor; now you see me, now you don't, like a rabbit popping its head out of a hole in a cartoon. Or, even better, the sound of his soprano: fragile, open, full of wonder; like the voice of a child, from a man of 80.
Through: March 30
Where: SFJazz Center, 201 Franklin St., San Francisco
Tickets: Sold out; call box office to check for returns; 866-920-5299