There are a number of revelations on this remastered reissue of pianist Herbie Hancock and the V.S.O.P. quintet's Live Under the Sky , but two are essential. The first comes about eight bars into the first track on the first disc. The thought? How much drummer Tony Williams is truly missed. Sure, there are drummers out there today who have the energy and unbridled passion that Williams had. Ralph Peterson is one. But few drummers in the history of jazz ever combined reckless abandon with such a big set of ears.
All too often the punctuations that a drummer provides seem like arbitrary markers, non sequiturs that are interesting but somehow all too random; on the other hand, every shot, every crash, every effortless display of frightening technique that Williams demonstrates is filled with meaning and purpose. There are many fine drummers on the scene today, but few who will ultimately have the same level of significance, consequence and sheer trend-setting that Williams had in his all-too-short life.
The second revelation comes after listening to the entire two discs: with the exception of two short addendums on disc two, both performances consist of exactly the same set list in exactly the same order. What is striking, after spending over two-and-a-half hours with Hancock, Williams, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, saxophonist Wayne Shorter and bassist Ron Carter, is how open their approach to the material is. There are no such things as prearranged solo order, length or treatment. On the eleven-minute "Eye of the Hurricane" on disc two, Shorter's tenor solo breaks down into a lone voice as everyone else halts; Carter re-enters gracefully, soon followed by Williams as the piece shifts into a half-time blues that then, with total empathy and telepathy, returns to the double-time modal vamp that signals the start of Hancock's solo.
Nothing resembling this structure occurs on the seven-minute "Eye of the Hurricane" on disc one. No, this group treats every piece as nothing more than a roadmap, something with a predefined beginning and end, where what happens in the middle is completely up to the dynamics of the night, the audience, the performers, all the various things that contribute to making players play the way they do.
What becomes most apparent when listening to these two sets, recorded on two consecutive nights in July '79 for a Japanese audience, is how, in the all-too-often cookie-cutter approach that passes for jazz these days, the players need to know not only where they are starting and where they are ending up, but how they will get there as well. Clearly, for Hancock and the V.S.O.P. Quintet, the trip itself is the exciting part, the unpredictable aspect that makes music worth making, and life worth living. Live Under the Sky represents jazz at its finest: five players who are so in each others' pockets that they can take the same trip night after night, yet find a completely different route each and every time.
Personnel: Herbie Hancock (piano), Freddie Hubbard (trumpet), Wayne Shorter (tenor and soprano saxophones), Ron Carter (double-bass), Tony Williams (drums)