Music: Great jazz, with fusion of sorts
Wednesday 15 October 1997
In the "been there, done that" stakes, it's hard for anyone in jazz to beat Hancock and Shorter. Together - most famously in the great, small groups of Miles Davis from the mid to late Sixties - they helped to define the sound of an era, when their increasingly Afro-centric modes began to ruffle the surface of cool, dispassionate, music with ripples of finger- snapping funk. Separately, both before and after Miles, they have been leaders of classic bands and historic recording sessions, some of which date back 35 years or more. Both started precociously early. Hancock, the younger by seven years, is 57, and he played piano with the Chicago Symphony when he was 11. Ten years later he had written "Watermelon Man". Shorter's series of solo albums for Blue Note in the Sixties represents a truly amazing sequential run of solid-gold masterworks, each recorded in two or three days. As well as being superb instrumentalists, both Hancock and Shorter are also celebrated composers (and one doesn't follow automatically from the other), whose tunes have become the basic building blocks for modern jazz groups all over the world. All in all, they have pretty much covered the waterfront. So what is there left to do?
Recently, this has been a question well worth asking, as performances by either of them have not always lived up to expectations, which, inevitably, are great. While the extrovert Hancock can be relied upon to put on a show, Shorter is unpredictable. Quiet, inward-looking, and not, perhaps, a natural leader any more, his performances can be diffident affairs, and his playing apt to sound, however perfectly formed the phrases, a little under-powered. On Monday night, though, he was awesome.
In a difficult, testing duo format (for the audience as much as anyone else) it was Shorter on soprano sax - his tenor never even made it to the stage, never mind to his mouth - that provided all of the fireworks, with Hancock content to vamp behind him most of the time, although this was vamping raised to a high art.
Standing with the long tube of the sax at his mouth, Shorter pauses for what seems an age before he deigns to produce a note. When it comes, it is instantly recognisable as his own, inimitable, voice. Though the soprano sax is an awkward instrument, less amenable to a personal sound than the tenor or alto, a few notes by Shorter are enough to make whole albums by the Miles Davis Quintet come to mind. At the end of a solo he occasionally jumps back from the mike as if suddenly released from an electrical charge, before wandering back into the shadows from whence he came. Again and again, he produced brilliant solos of remarkable subtlety and control, and his flights of improvisational fancy were as structured as if he was playing from a score. He even played one of his most famous compositions, the bop standard "Footprints", though it was hardly recognisable.
Hancock, meanwhile - who was dapper as always in a sleek black suit - seemingly refused to take the ball and run with it when a solo was passed to him, and continued at his own spare, measured pace. Until, at least, the encore of his great theme "Maiden Voyage", when he made the pace slower still but tinkered with the innards of the piano to produce a chiming, percussive, pulse.
By now - after a full hour and a half or more - the energy level had reached a low point of extreme passivity, and it was a relief when they called it a day. Without a rhythm section, even great jazz can sound a bit too impressionistic and, good as it was, one left for home aching for the tick of a hi-hat, dying for even the rumour of a walking bass-line.
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