A mutually rewarding relationship between performer and audience depends on the delicate balance between art and entertainment. Artists must have the freedom to innovate, to challenge themselves and their audience in order to create fresh, vital work. But with that freedom comes the responsibility to bring audiences along with them, to make their new discoveries accessible, to delight as well as challenge.
Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter did not maintain that balance in their sold-out duo performance at the Elsinore Theatre in Salem on Saturday night.
From the lofty eminence of their historic roles in jazz over the past 35 years, Hancock, 60, and Shorter, 67, may not see the art-entertainment equation the same way their Salem audience did — more than one-quarter of the house had left before the conclusion of the 90-minute concert of highly abstract, improvisational music. Those listeners missed some moments of great beauty, though, reminding us that audiences must also be prepared to extend themselves to appreciate the unfamiliar.
Young stars before they came together in the classic Miles Davis Quintet of the 1960s, pianist Hancock and saxophonist Shorter helped Davis pioneer jazz-rock fusion in albums such as In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew. Both went on alone to break new ground in fusion and contemporary jazz with an impressionistic and intuitive approach to improvisation they learned from Davis. That style opened up new possibilities for creative interplay and informs their duet performances today.
But Davis had earlier pioneered another development in jazz when he turned his back on the audience, announcing that jazz musicians were artists, not entertainers, that their role was not to please listeners but to create art of the highest order; fans could take it or leave it.
From Hancock’s off-the-cuff and unenlightening opening remarks, the duo’s Saturday show followed the Davis model. Though they didn’t literally turn their backs, the first piece a somber, spontaneously improvised 25-minute meditation with no discernable rhythm or repeating motifs set the bar pretty high for their audience. They neither spoke about the music nor announced any of the tunes.
The concert might have had a different effect had they begun with the second piece, Hancock’s Aung San Suu Kyi, whose repeating melody lines and percussive rhythm created a joyous dancing dialogue between piano and soprano sax. That conversational interplay produced great moments in each of the subsequent pieces, including Shorter’s Footprints and Hancock’s Maiden Voyage, both of which offered a familiar base from which the audience could more easily follow the duo’s excursions.