Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Relaxed Vibes

Catching up with jazz legends Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter.

By Ron Wynn

NOVEMBER 24, 1997:  After working for several decades, many jazz musicians inevitably hit a creative slump; their records begin to show signs of stagnation and predictability. But such is not the case with pianist Herbie Hancock and saxophonist Wayne Shorter, who have consistently managed to avoid these pitfalls; not only have they achieved excellence as instrumentalists, composers, and bandleaders--they've sustained it. From their earliest encounters in Miles Davis' mid-'60s quintet through other collaborations down the years, this duo has always enjoyed remarkable musical empathy. They're currently nearing the end of a 29-city tour that stops in Nashville Friday night at the Ryman Auditorium.

The two pros are touring in support of a fine new release on Verve Records. Unlike so many duo recordings--which are either action/reaction affairs or slashing confrontations--1+1 has a pastoral, at times serene sound, showcasing two masters who are comfortable in their abilities and thus uninterested in showing off their personal virtuosity. The 10 compositions are evenly divided, with three each by Hancock and Shorter, three collaborations, and one cover tune, composer Michiel Borstlap's "Memory of Enchantment."

The set contains no show tunes or 4/4 set pieces, and a relaxed vibe flows throughout; only the final selection, "Hale-Bopp, Hip Hop," delves into up-tempo, almost funky rhythms. Meanwhile, "Meridianne--A Wood Sylph" and "Manhattan Lorelei" contrast Hancock's somber piano chords and languid phrasing with Shorter's flowing, beautifully voiced soprano sax statements. On other numbers, Hancock and Shorter trade off moments in the spotlight, with each player instinctively knowing exactly when to lead and when to complement. This is intelligent, demanding, engaging, and hypnotic music, with charming melodies and intriguing harmonies. Those who define jazz only in terms of kinetic thrust and rhythmic interplay will be disappointed, however, at the lack of percussive fire and context.

Some numbers represent elegant reworkings of past pieces: "Diana" was originally penned by Shorter in 1970 for the daughter of Airto Moreira and Flora Purim; the new rendition has a much longer, more thoughtful sax section than its predecessor. Hancock initially wrote "Joanna's Theme" for Charles Bronson's macho epic Death Wish; his playing here is less slicing and more delightful. Hancock and Shorter first performed "Memory of Enchantment" together during the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz's "Celebrating America's Music" concert last November at the Kennedy Center. The televised affair was hosted by Bill Cosby, who was so awestruck by the duo's rendition that he suggested they do an album together--hence the current LP and tour.

Looking ahead
Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter
Photo by Michael O'Neill

It shouldn't come as a surprise that 1+1 isn't a conventional jazz LP, since little has been conventional about either Hancock's or Shorter's career. Hancock started as a classical pianist, playing Mozart with symphony orchestras during his teen years before shifting to jazz; his earliest gigs included working with trumpeter Donald Byrd and the immortal saxophonist Coleman Hawkins in the early '60s. When he joined Miles Davis' quintet, Davis was in the midst of a progression from hard bop to modal jazz that would ultimately lead the trumpeter to embrace electronics and funk in the '70s; through his work with Davis, Hancock's solos became looser, more supple and elastic, and not as entrenched in rigid harmonic progressions.

It was during this period that Hancock started to build a solo career, releasing the seminal Blue Note albums Maiden Voyage, Speak Like a Child, and Takin' Off, on which he demonstrated his versatility by incorporating gospel, blues, Latin, and even occasional folk elements into his compositions. Once he left the Davis band, his diverse musical influences became even more evident. Throughout the last 25 years, he has led both large and small groups and has performed film scores; a little over a decade ago, he even enjoyed platinum success with the LP Headhunters, an instrumental funk/R&B collection that featured the hit single "Rockit."

Throughout his career, Hancock has never deserted acoustic jazz. In 1976 and 1983, he performed on V.S.O.P. tours with Shorter and with trumpeters Freddie Hubbard and Wynton Marsalis. He was also a participant in the '92 "Tribute to Miles" tour with trumpeter Wallace Roney.

Shorter entered the jazz scene a little earlier than Hancock; his first important gig was in 1958, when he joined Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers. By the time he departed that group in 1963, he had ascended to the coveted position of the group's musical director. Indeed, he had become such a powerful, explosive tenor saxophonist that he became John Coltrane's replacement in the Miles Davis quintet. While Shorter didn't have his predecessor's striking tone, he possessed a fluidity and imagination that came to the fore on such Davis masterpieces as Nefertiti. He also recorded some superb Blue Note LPs of his own, Speak No Evil, Schizophrenia, and The Soothsayer. Shorter switched to soprano sax in the late '60s, creating a lilting, shimmering tone and delivering long, sweeping lines and often dazzling phrases; it didn't take long for other improvisers to begin copying his style.

As with Hancock, Shorter's post-Davis history has been varied and impressive. In 1970, he teamed with keyboardist Joe Zawinul (another Davis alumnus) to form Weather Report, arguably the finest fusion ensemble ever. Until the band disintegrated in the '80s, they were a first-rate studio combo and a sensational live act. While a member of Weather Report, Shorter never stopped producing as a solo artist: He explored Brazilian music on Native Dancer in 1974, then continued through the '80s alternating between rock-influenced material and more traditional acoustic jazz. After a seven-year recording hiatus, he re-signed with Verve in the mid-'90s; his last release, High Life, earned a Grammy.


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