The John Harms Center for the Arts (Englewood, NJ)
These two giants began their duo conclave with some topical humor. Sauntering relaxedly onto the stage, Hancock and Shorter took up positions near their respective microphones. Hancock welcomed the audience and said, "We’re going to begin this evening with...." Shorter interjected: "A debate." Caught off guard, Hancock laughed and then replied, "But who’s the fish and who’s da bait?" Groaning its response to the pun, the audience settled in for heady music-making by two of jazz’s most important living masters.
Quite unlike most of what you hear in presidential debates, the exchanges between Hancock and Shorter were unpredictable, engaging, and complex. Much of the music was drawn from the duo’s 1997 Verve release 1+1. They began with the ECM-like etherealism of "Meridianne: A Wood Sylph" and then eased into tempo with "Aung San Suu Kyi," Shorter’s blues-inflected tribute to the Nobel Prize-winning Burmese dissident. During a brief pause, Hancock explained that the next selection, "Memory of Enchantment," was written by Dutch pianist/composer Michiel Borstlap, who won the Thelonious Monk/BMI Composers Award several years ago. "How many years ago was that, exactly?" Hancock asked Shorter. The saxophonist, with the presidential debate apparently still on his mind, replied, "Three, four years, I don’t know... fuzzy numbers." Playing off of Shorter’s reference to George W. Bush’s "fuzzy math" comment, Hancock responded, "You better stay out of the bushes."
Throughout the set, Shorter and Hancock exhibited an improvisational freedom that was forged during their years in the second great Miles Davis quintet. But far from being a restatement of old glories, their duo concept was something quite different than anything traditionally found in jazz. In these open-ended, classically influenced conversations, "solos" didn’t exactly happen. Each did play solo passages, the beginnings and endings of which seemed to unfold telepathically. Shorter, playing soprano exclusively, would frequently reach a climactic moment and then walk slowly away, into the wings. His return to the mic seemed as mysterious as his departure.
Unfortunately, once their wildly recasted version of "Footprints" was finished, Hancock and Shorter took their bows and walked offstage, less than an hour after the show had started. They did come back for an encore — as far as this writer could tell, it was Hancock’s "Maiden Voyage," approached from many an oblique angle. The crowd showed no outward signs of discontent, but many were probably expecting a longer show.