|Wayne Shorter & Herbie
Hancock : To Fusion And Beyond
Fusion derailed hard bop in the late 1960s. Composers such as Andrew Hill, Jackie
McLean, and Grachan Moncur III among others were integrating the energy and techniques
of the avant-garde into the compositional structures of hard bop. During the
1950s, composers were consistently stretching forms. Mingus is the most noted
example, but Kenny Dorham and Benny Golson were as well, albeit in a less flamboyant
ways. This came to fruition on the Blue Note label, where composers and bandleaders
were afforded the rehearsal time before sessions to prepare more challenging
It was this creative vein that Miles Davis tapped when he in succession hired
Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, two of the premier composers and session leaders
of the time, as well as the star rhythm team of Ron Carter and Tony Williams.
That last great quintet became a landmark in this progressive style of hard bop.
Mixing edgy harmonies as hard to read as a hipster’s demeanor, rhythms
that could roll like the surf on a calm day or crash and roar like hurricane
driven whitecaps, and flashes of fire music, it was a volatile combination but
not a particularly lucrative one. When the first of the baby boomers matured,
they set off a cultural gold rush. Everyone wanted to cater to the youth movement—bell-bottoms
and sideburns were in, as was the backbeat. All else was passé, and it
seemed everything was swept away.
The new Columbia
Wayne Shorter anthology Footprints: The Life and Music of Wayne Shorter traces
one musician’s voyage through that period and beyond. It opens with “Lester
Left Town”, his tribute to Lester Young played by Art Blakey and the Jazz
Messengers, and concludes with a live version of “Masquelero” by
his own quartet recorded in 2001. In a time when self-promotion was deemed necessary
to be successful, Shorter proved an enigma, all too willing to step into the
shadow of others, a collaborator at heart even when his talents outshone those
he was working with. His greatest contributions came as musical director for
Blakey and as one of the catalysts in the Miles Davis Quintet, not to mention
his formative influence on Weather Report. His studio sessions, primarily on
Blue Note, under his own name seem to be workshops for developing ideas brought
to fruition by others.
Now inevitably with this kind of venture, fans will likely complain about the
selection—what’s included, and more so, what’s not. The Blakey
years get short shrift with only the 1960 “Lester” included. Of course,
this dearth is likely due to Columbia’s inability to license any more tracks.
His solo work on Blue Note gets little better treatment, two tracks: “Speak
No Evil” and “Infant Eyes”. These and a guest spot with Gil
Evans (“Time of the Barracudas”) show the Coltrane-emulator of the
Blakey band loosening up, his sound becoming more effervescent, his lines more
oblique. As such he proved an effective complement to Miles Davis: Unlike Coltrane,
who headed off from the trumpeter’s at right angles, Shorter blazed a path
and dared the leader to follow.
The music proved the logical next step for Davis. Having explored strict modal
compositions on Kind of Blue, tunes like “Nefertiti” and “E.S.P.” stretched
form and extended lyrical freedom, creating pan-modality. The tunes have a harmonic
ambiguity, embracing a complex, ironic worldview. Of course, this kind of emotional
distance was precisely the opposite of the naïve sincerity of youth culture,
and as beloved as these quintet sides are now, they didn’t sell particularly
Bitches Brew was Davis’ outreach to the youth market, blending the
open forms of free jazz with the electronics and groundbeat of rock. Shorter’s “Sanctuary” was
one of the most direct pieces on that record. The yearning melody is stretched
out over a wash of electronics and percussion. It’s a ballad with a strong
clarion call that served wonderfully to punctuate those long medleys Davis favored
in his shows of the time. Shorter’s limited role here—his soprano
glides under Davis’ trumpet on the theme statement—foreshadows his
work with Weather Report, where he more and more disappeared into the undergrowth
conjured by Joe Zawinul’s wizardry. Maybe it’s testament to Shorter’s
diminishing role in the group that the Columbia producers have opted to only
include four tracks from his 14-year tenure with the band, about three times
as long as his service with Davis that is also represented by four tracks.
I suspect I’m not the only listener for whom the break from disc one to
disc two marks a switch from very familiar material—“E.S.P.” was
on a Davis greatest hits collection I bought 35 years ago, probably the third
or fourth jazz album I ever owned—to less familiar material. That’s
not because middle period selections like “Lusitanos”, “Elegant
People”, or “Palladium” are in any way obscure, it’s
just that I checked out on Weather Report after Mysterious Traveler, represented
here by the title tune. Beyond that Zawinul refined the sound. Just how formulaic
it became is evident on “The Three Marias”, from Shorter’s
own Atlantis, recorded at the time Weather Report disbanded. It retains
the anthem-like melody, static rhythmic underpinnings, and portentous electronic
punctuations that defined the Weather Report sound.
Shorter’s occasional studio albums over the next decade, represented here
by “Mahogany Bird”, “Joy Ryder”, and the orchestral “Children
of the Night”, continue along the same lines. I guess I was hoping I would
discover something I had missed here, but it only confirmed my indifference. Footprints also
includes two songs with Shorter as featured sessionman. Certainly Steely Dan’s “Aja” and
Joni Mitchell’s “The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines” are the most
expendable of the tracks included here. Still they do serve to demonstrate how
the Weather Report sound influenced pop artists of the time.
The set concludes with Shorter’s return both to an acoustic format and
to live performance. J.J. Johnson’s “In Walked Wayne” echoes
the hard bop of the opening Blakey track, albeit with a more elaborate arrangement. The
final two tracks find him evoking his years with Davis, first in the duet with
Hancock “Aung San Suu Kyi” and finally a live version of “Masquelero”,
first recorded with Davis, and one of the few songs that made it into the quintet’s
live repertoire—like “Sanctuary” it features a dramatic fanfare
Shorter’s return has been nothing short of spectacular, earning Grammy
nominations and being named Jazz Man of the Year in 2004 by the Jazz Journalists
Association. I look forward to hearing him continue with kind of work he has
delivered of late. It is heartening that the most satisfying track here is the
Not included in Footprints is any work from the VSOP quintet. Started
as a tribute to Miles Davis at the Newport Jazz Festival, the ensemble took on
a life of its own. The group was the Davis Quintet with Freddie Hubbard in the
trumpet spot (or Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage band with Shorter
on tenor instead of George Coleman). By the mid-1970s Hancock and others realized
there was still a market for acoustic music. The VSOP quintet kicked off the
new acoustic phase—although Keith Jarrett was more responsible for its
long-term resurgence, certainly VSOP was a prime driver in the Columbia studios.
The label would in a few years sign on Wynton Marsalis, who would tour with a
later edition of VSOP, and launch the Young Lions craze.
has recently released Live Under the Sky, a two-disc set of the band recorded
in 1979 in Tokyo. Most of the material on the first disc was released only in
Japan, and the rest appears for the first time here. Hancock was the leader,
but this was clearly a band of all-stars. Yet the band never gels like
the Davis quintet; it lacks a guiding force other than to showboat for the adoring
crowd. Carter has fun with them, playing a stop and go figure at the end of his “Fragile” with
the crowd roaring in between phrases.
In particular, playing fusion in high-volume situations had started to take its
toll on Hubbard, who lost all the subtlety in his play and a good deal of suppleness.
He blasts away solos that are merely a series of disconnected phrases. Williams’ polyrhythmic
rampage only serves to encourage him; together they give the band a frenetic
tone. Bassist Ron Carter is high in the mix—I suspect he was plugged directly
into the board—so anyone wanting to study the way he constructs lines would
do well to pick this up; he’s steady as always. Shorter’s playing
is workmanlike, and he contributes no compositions; Hancock is the most consistent
The band was no longer a Miles tribute band. Little of the repertoire here was
drawn from the Davis book; instead Carter contributed two pieces: “Fragile” and
the classical “Tear Drop”, a song that just doesn’t fit the
group’s hard swinging demeanor. Hubbard brought in a “One of Another
Kind” and Williams brought in “Para Oriente” and “Pee
Wee”, from his days with Davis. Hancock contributed “Domo” and,
from Maiden Voyage, “Eye of the Hurricane”. Also worth
mentioning is that Live Under the Sky features two shows with the exact
same program. Disc two, however ends with a refreshing piano and saxophone duet
that reiterates two Davis favorites: “Stella by Starlight” and “On
Green Dolphin Street”.
“On Green Dolphin
Street” makes its appearance as well on the contemporaneous solo Hancock
session, The Piano. Like the VSOP recording, it was made for the Japanese
market, recorded with the then-fashionable high-tech system of “direct-to-disc”.
By 1979 this was not groundbreaking, and had pretty much run its course. Touted
for its high fidelity, direct-to-disc revived the old practice of using a disc
for the master. Doing an album this way meant the performer had to deliver 17-minute
long chunks of music without breaks. The LPs did sound pretty good, though truth
be told, I didn’t have the kind of stereo equipment at the time to fully
appreciate them nor the cash to pay the hefty price tag. Now converted to digital,
I can appreciate the clarity of the sound.
Hancock responds to the challenge with a fine recital that emphasizes lyricism.
One side of the original record was devoted to standards associated with Miles
Davis—“On Green Dolphin Street”, “My Funny Valentine”,
and “Someday My Prince Will Come”. The second half was devoted to
Hancock originals—“Harvest Time”, “Sonrisa”, “Manhattan
Island”, and “Blue Otani”. Aside from the closer, Hancock mines
an impressionistic vein that’s quite effective in showing off his sound.
But however pretty the music, it’s also shallow, giving just the slightest
hint of what Hancock could have accomplished had he decided to devote himself
to acoustic, adventurous jazz rather than treating it as a sideline to his more
lucrative electronic pop endeavors.