More than any other jazz musician since Sun Ra, saxophonist Wayne Shorter embodies mystery. He conjured spacious siren compositions for Weather Report in the 1970s, and for Miles Davis’s quintet before that. Even as a member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in the early 60s, when he wrote lapidary hard-bop tunes like “Ping Pong” and “Lester Left Town”–many of which remained in the band’s repertoire for a quarter century and now constitute a sort of lingua franca among jazz musicians under 50–he imbued his music with a sense of the unknowable. To be honest, though, these days Shorter owes his mysteriousness mostly to the fact that he’s so rarely surfaced since the breakup of Weather Report in the mid-80s. He’s recorded only one solo album in the past 13 years, and his sole previous touring band featured younger musicians in a stale-sounding electric format; when he finally did hook up with a proven equal, pianist Herbie Hancock, in 1997, the resulting duo concerts were incredibly somnolent. But despite all this, Shorter’s gig tonight ranks among the most eagerly anticipated performances of the new decade. Much of the credit goes to his spectacular all-acoustic rhythm section, a dream lineup of younger virtuosos whose talents complement Shorter’s own wide-ranging interests: Danilo Perez, a Panamanian pianist well-known for the bridge he’s built between jazz and Latin music, can juggle even the implicit polyrhythms in Shorter’s compositions, and bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade have both shown an appreciation for polished rock textures and world-music rhythms in their own projects–a combination also found in Weather Report, as well as on such Shorter-led albums as Odyssey of Iska (1970), Native Dancer (1975), and High Life (1995). I haven’t heard this quartet, but reliable reports–from friends, from other critics, and from Perez–suggest that this will be one of the year’s great concerts. The influential saxophonist apparently remains a somewhat shadowy figure even in his own band–issuing cryptic, diffident solos laced with steely outbursts–but his fervid imagination and fiery intellect inspire everything happening around him. Friday, March 22, 8 PM, Orchestra Hall, Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan; 312-294-3000 or 800-223-7114.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Jackson.