To call Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock ‘living jazz legends’ is hardly hyperbolic; with a combined 24 Grammy awards and illustrious solo careers, the saxophonist and pianist, respectively, are the heirs of the Miles Davis legacy and chief innovators of the post-bop style. On April 20, the Dr. Phillips Center presents Herbie Hancock & Wayne Shorter, one of the most artistically alluring acts the new performing arts center has offered since its 2014 opening.
Since his emergence in 1950s New Jersey, Shorter has forged a solid path as a composer-performer. His agility on the tenor sax earned him the moniker “The Newark Flash,” before catching the attention of bandleader Art Blakey. He joined Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in 1959, becoming the band’s musical director and displaying his charisma as a composer.
It wasn’t until 1964 when Shorter first joined Hancock in Miles Davis’ Second Great Quintet, an influential jazz combo that presaged the age of fusion, to which both jazzmen contributed as session players on Davis’ later landmark album In a Silent Way.
“I’m always looking for a way to continue evolving, reconstructing, deconstructing, and not doing the same thing over and over again,” Hancock told NPR in 2014. “I’m naturally very curious and I’ve been ever since I was a little kid.” Curious and precocious, the Chicago-born pianist showed an early affinity for classical music, playing the first movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 26 with the Chicago Symphony at age 11.
“What we have in common are our differences,” Shorter told me over the phone from California, discussing his peculiar musical rapport with Hancock. “When Herbie plays something and I don’t know what he’s gonna do – whatever he does I have to interact with the mindset that there’s no such thing as a coincidence or an accident. Whatever happens, we’re forging our own destiny, sound by sound. The music that comes out tells you what to play, without old strategies.”
Several Shorter compositions from his Miles Davis years – including ‘Nefertiti,’ ‘E.S.P.,’ and ‘Footprints’ – went on to become standards. As the trailblazing Great Quintet disbanded in the late 1960s, though, Shorter and Hancock founded their own fusion ensembles – Weather Report, and The Headhunters, respectively – which shaped the sound of popular music of the era through ingenious blends of R&B, funk, ethnic music, and rock.
Following the tragic death of Shorter’s wife in 1996 – she was aboard the ill-fated TWA flight 800 – the Shorter/Hancok duo reunited in 1997 for the comeback album 1+1. The record features intimate piano and soprano sax duets, mostly improvised, earning the acclaimed duo a Grammy for the track ‘Aung San Suu Kyi.’ They followed up the album’s release with a 1998 tour.
Shorter, 82, continues to stand his ground as a creative power with his more recent Quartet. “We come onstage to negotiate the unexpected and the unknown, as musicians and artists,” he says. “What does ‘being in the moment’ mean? Breaking new ground through improvisation, taking the path less traveled.”
We come onstage to negotiate the unexpected and the unknown, as musicians and artists.”
His performance with Hancock in Orlando will be a rare occasion – there are only a handful of dates – and will highlight the artistry of two jazz greats, exploring unrivaled late-period productivity. “Music is a drop in the ocean of life,” Shorter concludes. “I’m wondering what it’s like to raise one’s life condition to the place where you become more human eternally, taking a quest for wisdom, still having your feet on the ground, yet questioning everything and having an unlimited view of what life can be like.”
For more details and to purchase tickets, visit drphillipscenter.org or call 844.513.2014.
NOTE: a version of this article originally appeared in the March/April issue of Orlando Arts Magazine