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Reuniting jazz masters joined at a spiritual hip

December 22, 2007|Don Heckman | Special to The Times

Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter are the Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid of jazz. Since they first joined forces in Miles Davis' classic quintet of the mid-'60s, their careers and their personal lives have, like the words of a song, "intertwined like the branches of a vine." Occasionally coming together over the years in different creative stages -- the V.S.O.P. band of the '70s, the 1+1 duo of the late '90s -- the veteran jazz stars have also continually consulted with each other musically and share a common spiritual belief.

But when saxophonist Shorter moved to Florida six years ago, the partnership became, for the first time in decades, a long-distance one.

"All the time he was in Florida," keyboardist Hancock said earlier this week, "I was hoping one day he'd come back."

And now he has, to a house in the West Hollywood hills, no more than 10 minutes away from Hancock.

"We missed Herbie, and we missed the variety that's here," said Shorter. "California has hills and valleys and lots of color. We finally just said, 'Hey, let's go back home.' It's nice and everything in Florida, but it's really happening here."

And happening big-time for Hancock, whose CD "River: The Joni Letters" received an album-of-the-year Grammy nomination (as well as selections in four other categories) recently. The announcement of the nominations may have had no direct connection with Shorter's return, but Hancock didn't resist the notion that the reunion with his old friend had been a powerful talisman of good luck.

"Was I surprised!?" Hancock said with a hearty laugh. "Are you kidding? I was actually one of the people announcing the nominees. There were about 10 of us. The very last category that was mentioned was album of the year. Jimmy Jam announced it. He said, 'Graduation, Kanye West'; then he said, 'Back to Black, Amy Winehouse'; and then he said 'Herbie Hancock for "River: The Joni Letters," ' and it was like, 'What? Did I hear correctly?' "

Butch and Sundance joined forces once again last weekend at UCLA's Royce Hall, this time for the First Annual Founder's concert of the International Committee of Artists for Peace (ICAP), a performance they dedicated to the group's founder, Buddhist philosopher Daisaku Ikeda. The program was unique on several counts. Hancock and Shorter are co-presidents of ICAP, an organization founded to promote peace. They undoubtedly could have produced an effective fundraiser with a quartet or duo performance.

"But we thought that a regular nightclub thing wouldn't be celebrative of what we were trying to do," said Shorter.

"We wanted to make it special in some kind of way, and since we were at UCLA we thought we could have students play," Hancock added. "Which fits in with Dr. Ikeda's view that the elements that are necessary to move society forward are young people."

The music department at UCLA responded enthusiastically to the idea of a concert featuring Hancock, Shorter, bassist Nathan East and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta with an ensemble of UCLA music students.

"The only problem," said Hancock with a laugh, "was that when UCLA said we could have whatever we wanted, Wayne said, 'Great. Let's have more trumpets.' Then he said, 'How about three trombones? A tuba? Some bassoons?' "

"And I'm thinking, 'Wait a minute. We're not adding rehearsal days to this. We're adding more stuff to do.' But I figured if he was brave enough to do it, I'm brave enough to do it too," Hancock said. "I always want to be right at Wayne's side. If the spirit moves him, that's cool. We were right down to the wire, but we did it."

They did it with a minimum of rehearsal -- only one before the performance, and a talk-through with the 28-member ensemble just before the audience arrived. But the program turned out to be a compelling display of the adventurous, envelope-stretching music that has always been their stock in trade.

Opening with a few quartet selections, the players stretched out lithely -- Hancock exploring a blues-drenched harmonica sound on his synthesizer before turning to characteristically rich-chorded acoustic piano textures, Shorter electing to take an epigrammatic approach, opening his lines with airy combinations of sound and silence.

"I didn't see any necessity," he said, "to blurt out a tenor saxophone sound all over the place. I was just trying to blend in with the moment -- a will-o'-the-wisp kind of something, leave more room for overall participation and the thought 'What is this whole thing about?' "

The selections for the quartet and UCLA ensemble included three Hancock adaptations of works from his "Speak Like a Child" album, with Shorter's "Prometheus Unbound" (a recomposed version of a larger orchestral work) and his "Dai-Nanko." Shorter described the latter as a characterization of "somebody determined to march and face their nemesis. Stand up for justice but not in a militaristic way -- just to try to develop your wisdom for the right thing."

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