Hancock and Shorter: Two Divided by One

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Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter
By Michael O'Neill
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Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter
By Michael O'Neill

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As the official story goes, 1 + 1, the first duet album from Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter had its origin last December, when they went to Washington. The Thelonious Monk Institute was having a gala presentation at the Kennedy Center, much of it winding up in the global village on an ABC prime time special. For the untelevised portion of the program, Hancock and Shorter were on hand to perform a winning tune in the composition competition, being Michiel Borstlap’s obliquely lyrical “Memory of Enchantment.”

Hancock recalls, “Wayne and I played it and it really came off well. When we came off the stage, Pat Metheny said to me, ‘man, you two should do an album together. It would be killer. People would love to hear that. I’d be first in line to buy it.’ I said ‘you know what? That’s a good idea.’ I mentioned it to Wayne and he loved the idea. My manager loved and the record company loved it—we’re with the same record company, Verve. So, now, here we are.” By the end of March, the recording was done. End of story.

But there’s a richer story—and history—beneath the seemingly casual surface. Hancock and Shorter enjoy a deep relationship, dating back to their influential roles, individually and in terms of poetic groupthink, in the classic Miles Davis quintet of the ’60s. They went separate ways, Shorter into Weather Report and a solo career for many years, and Hancock into his own career orbit. Both oscillate between electric and acoustic jazz settings, without apology, sometimes invoking the ire of purist jazz critics (i.e. Peter Watrous’ offensively myopic anti-Shorter tirade in The New York Times after the release of his album High Life). The pair are also two in a handful of world-renowned jazz artists who have chosen to live in Los Angeles, settling there in the early ’70s, and sharing the same Buddhist practice.

Commonalities aside, though, the musicians have traveled on parallel paths over the years, coming together fleetingly for special projects such as the post-Miles VSOP group in the ’70s. After Miles’ death, they embarked on the mighty “Tribute to Miles” group, with Wallace Roney as the surrogate man with the horn.

After all their shared experience, this first duet project is more than just a tossed-off jazz session. A reflective and diverse set of music, it suggests both jazz and classical vocabularies—an impression bolstered by Shorter’s use of strictly soprano saxophone, with no tenor. It also involves an unusually intimate cross-talk, and strikes a happy medium between the written and the improvised note.

It also comes in the sad aftermath of a difficult year, personally. Shorter’s wife, Anna Maria (for whom his song of the same name was written) was one of the victims of the ill-fated TWA 800 flight to Paris last July, along with Shorter’s niece. Then, in February, drummer Tony Williams—comrade-at-art since he joined the Miles quintet as a 17-year-old died—unexpectedly, at age 51.

Soon after finishing the album, they were off to their separate lives again. Hancock hit the road for a late-blooming tour supporting his album The New Standard, and Shorter repaired to his home studio to write music for his next solo album.

The pair crossed paths again briefly in May, at a press conference in the swank Los Angeles Impresario restaurant, on the fifth floor of L.A.’s Music Center. Again, the Thelonious Monk Institute was the reason, in an announcement of a pact linking the powerful Music Center and the Institute. The dress code was serious, but Shorter and Hancock donned suits of a hipper cut than the local politicos and corporate reps who served up bon mots at the podium. Hancock has been named the official artistic director of the newly-juiced-up Institute, and he was keen about the renewed potential of bolstering the presence of jazz in the entertainment capitol of the world.

Jazz may have a fragile presence in Los Angeles, but if there were a Map to the Jazz Star’s Homes, it would be incomplete without Hancock’s rambling home, off of Sunset, and Shorter’s posh suburban digs, just over the hill, off of Laurel Canyon. It was in Hancock’s living room, wired to the studio in the back of the house, that the pair settled in for a week in March to record the album, at their own pace.

“We were going to try to make it as painless as possible,” Hancock says. “We wanted the dealing with the music to be the challenge, not putting up other kinds of roadblocks in front of ourselves. One of the things we talked about was that we didn’t want to have to learn a whole new ‘album’ worth of music. Then, we’d have to deal with learning that stuff. We thought that maybe it would be better if we found some ideas, things that had been worked on before but were never completed, or that weren’t recorded before.”

Part of the conscious gameplan was to investigate the duet setting, on an essential level, taking nothing for granted. Hancock comments, “we said we didn’t want to try to substitute for the lack of drums or bass, although we’re both—as most jazz musicians are—accustomed to playing with a rhythm section. We thought if we’re making a duo record, let’s make a duo record, and not try to make a quintet record played by a duo.

“We figured, ‘ok, we know the things that we can’t do because we don’t have a bass player or drummer. What about the things that we can do just because we don’t have those things?’ It dawned on me that we’re not restricted with time. We don’t have to keep any tempo if we don’t want to, or we can have varying tempos. The tempos can change from section to section or from phrase to phrase, if we want to. That was one plus.

“That could also be one of the concepts that freed us up to have a kind of classical element in much of the music. A perfect example is the first piece (“Meridianne—A Wood Sylph”), which has a kind of Erik Satie flavor.”

Of the seeming classical and other extra-jazz sonorities, Shorter maintains, “I’m not letting conditioning fool me, like thinking that this is the only way to improvise and say something. We’re getting mixed up with something called formality here. Formality is like a habit, to identify something. You want to identify it by its familiarity, and familiarity becomes frozen in a book of rules and regulations. So that means that your feelings become fried,” he laughs, “fried, stewed, pickled and preserved, and everybody belongs in a living museum of people walking around.”

Hancock: “I think that’s just our own sense of musicality and freedom, to not restrict ourselves to idiomatic stylings of jazz. It can be jazz without having to be that. That’s what jazz is. It’s eclectic. It borrows and lends to all other kinds of genres and flavors.”

Both are film buffs—particularly Shorter, keeper of a massive laser disc collection—and they discussed the notion of creating a kind of cinematic music for unmade films, of sorts. As Hancock clarifies, “it’s not like a soundtrack that would accompany visuals: this is the whole thing. It is the visuals. Wayne mentioned that it’s almost as if the notes were the characters.”

The importance of being improvisational was never lost on them, either, but as Shorter clarifies, there was always method underlying their wanderings. “The whole thing about playing something together,” Shorter notes, “when it’s beyond the written page, seems like…you say, well, that’s free playing. That’s a hell of a playground for the avant-garde. You can cloud everything in mystery, so that they’re hitting notes at random and seemingly being profound about a new frontier,” he laughs, “which is bullshit. When it’s totally random like that, the responsibility is nil. I always say that with the greatest freedom comes the greatest responsibility.

“I would say that what we’re doing is more closely related to something that’s duty-free. Miles used to say,” he slips into the familiar gruff whisper, “‘I don’t like that duty playing.’ He would talk about doing an old tune and say ‘that’s duty.’ So I thought, well, let’s do some duty-free stuff.”

According to Shorter, “there was no preparation at all” before starting to record. “I did write some things down, and some of that stuff is going to be on my new album. I was just writing, and we saw what we could land on. Then we wrote something together. We landed in a three-point landing a couple of times.

“There are things that I wrote that I’m working on for my own continued album. I view all the albums as separate, but also as part of the same big album, a continuation of life. Whatever you do, that’s part of the whole.

On 1+1, older pieces, such as Shorter’s “Diana”—written in the ’70s for Flora Purim and Airto Moreira’s daughter—and Hancock’s “Joanna’s Theme” are revisited with a new approach and spartan feel. One of the more genuinely collaborative pieces on the album started out as a fragment of an idea that Hancock presented to Shorter early on. Hancock forgot about the fragment until Shorter brought it up in the middle of the recording process, having added concepts of his own. Hancock took the separate pieces, made xerox copies and literally cut ‘n’ pasted them to create a structure. They recorded two different versions of the piece and originally titled them “Cut ‘n’ Paste” and “Paste and Cut,” but ultimately settled for slightly less cheeky titles, “Visitor from Nowhere” and “Visitor from Somewhere.”

“They were actually two takes of the same piece, but each take had a different flavor, so that’s why we decided to put them both on. The approach that Wayne and I used was that we treated the written compositions in such an improvisational way, it kind of freed us from having to call both of those takes the same thing—take one and take two, you know. It was freed from having to be the same piece.”

A similar compositional give-and-take occurred on the wistful ballad “Manhattan Lorelei,” which started out as a Hancock tune called “Folklore.” Shorter lent some of his own harmonic twists and a new name was in order.

Hancock comments that “this particular piece, in listening to it, we both agreed that it had a New York flavor to it. It reminded us of when we were young, in the ’60s. We were both in love. He had his girlfriend and I had my girlfriend, who later on became our wives. Unfortunately, his wife was killed this year, but during those happy times, we were young and New York was very much alive, and jazz was such a hot ticket. And, in particular, Miles’ band was a hot band that was constantly evolving and growing.

“There are various influences that people go through in New York—some of it is sinister, with things in the shadows. Things can really pull you into a whole negative, destructive lifestyle, if you let it. It had a built-in drama to it.”

By the early ’60s, Hancock and Williams, who had joined Miles’ band on the same day, were lobbying to get Shorter into the fold. “Musically, we were already geared up for Wayne being in the band,” Hancock says. “As soon as he started playing with us, he just slid right in there. A band of that nature really is like a family, anyway. So I suppose, without really focusing on it, we probably sensed this soul mate idea inside of ourselves. Over time, it, in fact, turned out to be like that. We were all soul mates together, including Miles, although Miles’ soul stretches further than ours, because he had that same thing with ‘Trane and Bill Evans and Philly Jo-definitely Philly Jo, and definitely Gil Evans.”

Did the sudden passing of Tony Williams this year, shortly before the sessions, have an impact on the conceptual development of the album?
“Wayne and I did talk about doing one of Tony’s pieces,” Hancock says, “but it never happened for some reason. We didn’t consciously discuss Tony Williams or his death in terms of the music or the spirit of the record. We didn’t discuss that. Oddly enough, it doesn’t sound like the drums are missing on this record. One could even say that the drummer is gone. So, maybe it’s appropriate that the drums are not missing, because the one who would have played it is not here anymore.”

“What I was more aware of, if anything, was the loss of Anna Maria, Wayne’s wife, which we’ve been living with since it happened July 17th. Wayne didn’t want to do a piece for Anna Maria. He didn’t want to go in that direction at all. That made a lot of sense to me. Everybody was expecting that. That’s another expectation, like the expectation that we’d do something for Tony. We didn’t want to do anybody’s expectations. That wasn’t what this project was about.

“But my feeling is that the spirit of our relationship with both those people is inherent in the music on this record.”

It is an especially trying time for Shorter, who nonetheless takes refuge in what he views as the active, ongoing inspiration of his wife. “A lot of people who I’m talking to who have gone through something like this, the first thing they say is ‘have you seen the signs?’ They talk about the signs that they get from a person who they’ve lost, especially when it was someone with a great relationship and a great life. This communication and signs and omens, directions, something guides you away from something detrimental. No matter how weird something is, and you’re going to face something alone…you might have stuff like lawsuits or whatever, and this entity of your partner, your wife, your soul mate, is right in there.”

He pauses. “Matter cannot be created or destroyed.”

In effect, 1+1 is an uncommon musical dialogue between friends and playmates of 35 years standing—not to mention two of jazz’ living icons. It is being touted as a kind of milestone recording, but it really comes down to the fruits of two musicians hanging out in the living room, doing what they do.

“We did our best to try to set it up so that the record would be really Wayne’s and my album, that it would truly reflect us and what our lives are about. From a musical standpoint, it was about the combination of the two of us and our relationship. But, of course, that includes our life philosophies and all the people who influenced us, individually and collectively. That’s what happens when two people who are that close get together.

“That’s all we wanted it to be, just he and I. We even verbalized those other trappings and aired them out, so we could avoid getting trapped by some of those other expectations. It would have detracted from the music, I think.”

Shorter, who can be as deceptively cryptic as Hancock can be deceptively rational in conversation, offers this succinct appraisal: “we finally realized that this one is from the bottom of the make-up kit. There’s no make-up left in the kit. We go straight without the bass and drums. What have you got? Bippity boppity boom.” Need more be said?

Gearbox

On this album, Herbie performed on a 9 foot Model D Steinway piano, and Wayne performed on a Yamaha Soprano saxophone.

Originally published in September 1997

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