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Sons of Miles
HERBIE AND WAYNE: Addressing Dressing And Dessert
by Mike Zwerin
18 March 1999

On a trip through Western Europe promoting their duo album "1+1" (Verve), Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter looked comfortable with the designer-clad luncheon crowd in the Ritz Hotel. The same room in which Princesse Diana and Marcel Proust once gossiped, a century apart..

Hancock and Shorter were laughing more and louder than the other people doing lunch in there. Uncomprehending, the Fashion Editor of the International Herald Tribune looked their way. Shorter was really proud of his Versace shirt.

Shorter's considerable power is behind the scenes and based on articulation and aspect more than impulse or quantity. Hancock led the dance. Not that Hancock is necessarily the reverse, but amplitude counts a lot with him. It is doubtful that their duo-casting had required a verbal or even a conscious decision. It is down-home yin and yang. They are both practicing Buddhists.

Asked to explain the album, Shorter replied: "We just went in and did it." Sounds simple.

"Wayne writes with simplicity," Hancock was expansive. "But there's always that spice of his in the voicings he chooses. And he writes them in. . ." He stopped for emphasis: ". . . in pen. Not pencil. Pen."

On the piano part, Shorter writes the exact notes he wants played rather than the habitual permissive shorthand chord symbols. "Most piano players reduce the written chords to symbols," Hancock explained. "They think this gives them more freedom. And most of the time it does. But I learned back in 1967 when we were doing 'Nefertiti' with Miles."

He turned to Shorter. "Remember?" Hancock continued: "I learned that I'd better pay attention to Wayne's exact notes. There's more to Wayne than meets the eye."

Hancock was enigmatic, like a private eye weighing elusive clues: "I learned that there's always something in there I have to learn. Then little by little I move away from what he's written. But rather than change a whole lot of notes, I use my touch on the instrument as my entry. Because there's really enough freedom in there already.

Shorter picked it up seamlessly: "I'll shift the weight of the notes sometimes. The way the ninth chords move, for example. I call it my 'nightclub' sound."His voice resembled the soft, finely woven texture of his tenor saxophone tone. The tinkle of glasses and cutlery in the room was growing louder, the voices more alcoholic. Shorter was fading off-mike as he began to address the dressing of his salad.

Had he said "nightclub" or "ninth-club?"

"Ninth-club!?" Hancock laughed and took another sip of wine. "That sounds like something Wayne would say. That was a Waynism." They laughed in tandem. He turned to Shorter: "You mean that Satie kind of thing?" Shorter nodded. Words were not necessary. There is great complicity between them.

Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock

You should know that Shorter had recently lost his wife - they had been extremely close - on TWA Flight 800 from New York to Paris. Bereavement still weighed on him. It was almost literally squashing him down into his chair.

Hancock and Shorter were at the creative center of the 1970s Miles Davis Quintet in which - with Ron Carter, bass, and the late drummer Tony Williams - they definitively expanded the harmonic and rhythmic vocabulary of jazz. Modern jazz harmony today sounds like their younger brother.

They must feel as though they are running into themselves, catching up with themselves as it were, around every corner. You wonder if that bothers them and if so what do they do about it.

"Pay attention to the moment," Hancock replied. "We try to set up external things to do, so that we can get an honest connection between the two of us and the music in the present tense."

The album was recorded six hours a day seven days in a row in Hancock's home studio, so he could play his own beloved Hamburg Steinway piano.

"Actually, one day we didn't play anything at all," Shorter said. "We were still figuring things out. And one day we were tired. So I said, 'Let's go and get some rest.''' Shorter is a stickler.

Hancock suddenly remembered that he "should be promoting" his recent appointment as artistic director of a new jazz program "under the umbrella of the Thelonious Monk Institute in Los Angeles," where he and Shorter both live. "We're not trying to copy Lincoln Center," he emphasized. "I'm not the focus. It's not going to be a platform for me in any way. I'm into a lot of projects right now."

Next month, Hancock's all-star band with Michael Brecker, John Scofield, Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette and Don Alias would play nine festivals in a row; take a day off and then do another nine. Generally he avoids touring that hard, but the group is "kind of expensive and that's the only way to make the bottom line work."

In that sort of situation, he prefers to play the same set of tunes in the same order every night because it "eliminates one of the variables."

"There are more constants," added Shorter, helpfully.

"We can concentrate on . . ." Hancock did not have the space to finish.

Shorter wore a mischievous grin: "Concentrate on Constance." Whatever that meant.

". . . on the music." Hancock appeared to be abashed to find himself sounding so serious.

After an interruption by a waiter pouring wine, Hancock went on to explain that concentrating on the music involves first and foremost being democratic: "This is one value of jazz beyond the music itself."

"People share ideas and listen to each other." Shorter followed up, being sure to explain: "You have to be democratic or you can't play the music. Otherwise it will end up like what has been going on in Lincoln Center."

Did he mean to be controversial about the controversial politics of Wynton Marsalis, who was directing the Lincoln Center jazz program, or what? Remember, Hancock had already disassociated himself from that program while describing his own in LA. What was being implied here?

Asked to explain, Shorter said: "I only mean that otherwise it's a dead-end street. Cul-de-sac." Now he addressed his dessert.

Photo: Wayne Shorter (left) and Herbie Hancock
Credit: Christian Rose

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