I’m coming a bit late to this expansive post on Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, sacred cows and polemical critics at the Bad Plus blog, Do the Math. (Did I leave anything out? You bet I did. Read the damn thing for yourself.) I feel as though I’ve done this a lot already, but congratulations to Ethan Iverson for a piece that feels both passionate (in its feeling) and dispassionate (in its fairness). It’s good criticism, made all the better by the open-forum commentariat.
One undercurrent in the post -- about the deference shown to Hancock and Shorter by critics, perhaps partly for fear of mass indignation -- rang familiar, amusingly and scarily so. There isn’t a jazz critic working who hasn’t marveled at the vitriol generated by Peter Watrous’s notorious takedown of Shorter’s High Life. To adapt a phrase from Iverson’s assessment, it was a drowning-kittens moment. (I agree, by the way, that we need this kind of criticism even, or especially, when it runs contrary to our own baseline judgments.)
I will say, having seen the Wayne Shorter Quartet six or seven times, that there’s no question about the depth and seriousness of that band. Not remotely, even in the case of the one or two concerts that felt centerless or faltering. And while I respect Iverson’s point about legends playing with their peers, it strikes me as no kind of consolation prize to have Danilo Perez, John Patitucci and Brian Blade on that stage. I like a good generational tension about as much as I appreciate a stout comradely stand.
But back to sacred cows for a moment. At the risk of being too self-referential here, I can’t resist pulling up some dregs from an early edition of The Gig, in the Philadelphia City Paper. “What to do about Herbie Hancock?” I asked then, hitting upon some of the same stuff we’re discussing now, though a good deal less incisively.
As for the softly bleating calf that is Hancock’s River: The Joni Letters, I will admit to some preliminary enthusiasm. But it almost felt like a political statement when the NY Times best-album lists of 2008 were published, with nary a Herbie in sight. By that point, the jazz establishment, such as it is, had already rallied around River, buzzing about the mere fact of its nomination for album of the year.
I like River, but agree with Iverson that it’s the singing that makes it work. (Tina Turner, my friends.) To that end, I would have been happy to hear a fully realized translation of the album when Hancock rolled into Carnegie Hall that summer -- instead of whatever this was.
There was, at least, one such moment that year, during the concert finale of the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition, in the appropriate setting of the Kodak Theater. Joni Mitchell sat in with the entire personnel from River, singing “Tea Leaf Prophecy” and a newer song, “Hana,” and the rarity of the performance was lost on no one. I haven’t come across any footage of that evening, but listen below to what sounds like the same group of musicians playing “River.”
If I expected this music to be in any way emblematic of what jazz should be, or can do, or whatever, I would get worked up, sure. As it stands, I’ll take it. Now where’s my wine key?