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Herbie Hancock and VSOP: Live Under the Sky

Herbie Hancock and Vsop
Live Under the Sky

Jimmy Witherspoon sang of “when it’s falling down rain” as one of the ideal circumstances in which to “make love” (the very phrase in the very song). One gathers that rain was falling all over Tokyo on the night of July 27, 1979, when the quintet of H.Hancock, F. Hubbard, T. Williams, R. Carter and W. Shorter took the stage of the Denon auditorium as V.S.O.P. — which was Hubbard plus four-fifths of the then-most recent Miles Davis quintet (Mr. Davis having temporarily retired into seclusion).

Most of the band had been doing other things, and some of them were held in low esteem with westerners who would have liked to be at a concert of this order. These westerners disapproved of fusion and the other sorts of music that some members of this ensemble had been making somewhat publicly during the pre-July 1979 period. There was even a legend of betrayal.

The result of these musicians playing other things than the acoustic music presented on this 2 CD set was that they did not have the ability to play this same music outside Japan. People who wanted to hear it could not hear it, but not so much because these musicians weren’t playing it. If they had been playing it most fans wouldn’t have been able to hear it, because the financial support or following to sustain tours or induce the big recording companies who’d signed these men to record this sort of music and issue the recordings just wasn’t there.

Complex economics were, however, an irrelevance in the relationship between a large number of Japanese and these musicians, since a lot of Japanese wanted to see and hear them and buy their recordings. This fact, presumably, was at least as encouraging as getting paid for doing something you used to love to do.

So there were two concerts, and there was a recording by the Japanese branch of the musicians’ record company, and a vinyl issue available in Japan — and also at steep import prices which might have tempted some people to wonder whether they should have just booked a flight and attended the concerts themselves (if there had been really cheap airfares 25 years ago).

At that time Freddie Hubbard was an astonishing trumpeter, and in view of his trials in recent years with lip problems, I winced reading a reference to how on those nights Tony Williams put drumming pressure on him to “burst his chops”. Ouch! But the chops produce immense thrills on an opening “Eye of the Hurricane”, which Columbia / Legacy tell us was unavailable even to the Japanese and the obscenely wealthy western jazzfan — ’til now!

Each of these CDs seems to represent one concert: the June 26th one having been mostly issued on the previous LP, and one CD for the following night. The notes don’t say how wet the 27th was. Maybe less rainy, since the second night’s “Eye of the Hurricane” lasts another four minutes and Hubbard is even more fiery. Shorter’s saxophone was in smoother voice on the 27th, playing a long section of his solo unaccompanied, until Carter enters with a lowdown loping bass. Hancock positively gallops in his solo, Carter bounding, and the thrill of the night before was very definitely there as the performance attained a frenzy more like a tornado’s rim. Carter seemed to be thinking of his own wonderful band at the time, in which he had played bass or cello with piano and a second bassist and drums. He sort-of duets or trades between different voices on his bass.

The crowd (30,000?) go even wilder than the musicians, since all they needed to do was yell. The musicians on that second night knocked 90 seconds off the playing time of “Tear Drop”, relaxing rather than sagging, but needing to relax after the blazing beginning to the second concert. Carter sounds even more lyrical, and there’s more restraint when the horns re-enter.

“Domo” is terrific, and convinces me that if you acquire this set you ought to play CD2 first, since the preceding night’s “Domo” will still be too strong a memory to enable you to take this one in. The first night’s “Domo” has Shorter perhaps unsettled, on edge or impatient, and not making much of his sound, which is pretty rough. Williams is a sea of lather, Hubbard works with a huge near-enough Harry Edison sound, producing tension and allowing Hancock to purr in a multi-noted and refreshing manner. Harmonically rich and continually shifting the pace, Carter makes an astonishing contribution.

Lord, such uplift! Ugly beauty Hancock’s prettiest sound offsets Shorter’s agricultural tone on his “Pee Wee”, playing long phrases which Carter echoes, and then being enabled by Carter’s sustaining work to spin out phrases that vary in respect to the pace. On “One of Another Kind” the implication of Carter’s playing is unhealthy for the electric bass, because on the double bass he could do anything he would want to do on electric.

Considering the depth and size of Hubbard’s contribution, Williams’s eruptions, the bassist’s fluency and tonal command . . . I’m getting fixated on the first night.

“Fragile” was the closer and I liked that least, tending in the free direction, Carter’s solo taunting the audience.

Enough! The first night’s music was as good as the audience yell. On the second night Hancock and Shorter emerged for encores, everybody else was too exhausted. The audience, being too invigorated, made too many noises. This is roaring stuff and gets the heart going.