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Playing With Risk

Hancock, Shorter like being at 'mercy of the unknown.'


This Sunday, when Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter step onstage at the Alex Theatre to perform a series of unaccompanied duos, they will be walking a musical tightrope, and with no bass or drummer to provide a net.

Though the pianist and saxophonist, two of the most revered performers in jazz, are playing tunes that one, the other or both composed, they will be looking for interesting and spontaneous ways to interpret numbers in the hope that it will lead to uncharted areas.

Shorter calls this process being at the "mercy of the unknown," and both he and Hancock revel in it.

"Yeah, man, it feels great," said Shorter in a telephone interview from his home on the Studio City side of the Hollywood Hills. "It feels like home. This is the reason for living."

"Risk-taking is a very important thing to do," agreed Hancock, in a separate interview from his home above West Hollywood. "Encouraging risk-taking within an improvisation develops a sense of fearlessness."

Hancock and Shorter have long been followers of this philosophy, which was made manifest during the mid-'60s when they were members of trumpeter Miles Davis' grand quintet. That band fostered experimentation within a repertoire of songs and song forms.

"Playing with Miles involved a lot of trust, not only in each other but in ourselves as individuals," Hancock said. "We could stretch out there and come up with something that would work, and not be afraid that maybe it wouldn't 100% of the time, and that it's OK to be human. You take the good with the bad and it's worth the risk."

Hancock and Shorter have been touring since July, offering selections off their initial collaborative recording, "1+1." At the Alex, they will play some of these numbers. They will also investigate two of their own classics from the '60s: the saxophonist's "Footprint" and the pianist's "Maiden Voyage."

Shorter said he introduces the former by saying, "We're going to see where the footprints went," and then he laughed one of his quietly raucous laughs. The tune will definitely be reinvented: sometimes the players will heed the original chord changes; other times there will be no chord changes. The unexpected always seems to be expected.

"Herbie might reharmonize some chords and that will lead us to a completely different part of the song," said Shorter.

The pianist said this mode of performance requires concentrated listening from the pair, and also allows them to explore a wide range of musical genres, though ultimately the show is jazz-based.

Both players stressed that "1+1" is dedicated neither to Shorter's wife, Ana Maria, who died on TWA Flight 800 in July 1996, nor drummer Tony Williams, their Davis bandmate who died this year.

"We just wanted to play this music, and not that we were going to forget anyone, but the best way to serve them would be to play the best way we know how," said Hancock.

"I can feel Ana Maria supporting us, saying, 'What is music for? Follow your dream,' " said Shorter.

In other words: Explore the unknown.

* Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter appear Sunday, 7 p.m., at the Alex Theatre, 216 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale. Tickets, $25-$35, from Tele-Charge (800) 233-3123, or at the Alex box office (818) 243-2539.

Drum Whiz: Ralph Penland is one of Southern California's most inventive, and intuitive, drummers. He's also a dandy composer. The latter side emerges when he leads his vital quintet, the Penland Polygon.

The band makes one of its infrequent appearances Friday, 9 p.m. to 1 a.m., at Chadney's (3000 W. Olive St., Burbank; no cover, one-drink minimum per show; [818] 843-5333).

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