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Among the 36 recordings that trumpeter Louis Armstrong and pianist Earl “Fatha” Hines made together in 1927 and 1928 are “West End Blues,” perhaps Armstrong’s single greatest documented performance, and “Weather Bird,” which is not the first jazz duet ever recorded but is the best one I’ve ever heard.
Gunther Schuller explained the musicological and historical appeal of “Weather Bird” in his book, Early Jazz: “As the two players challenge each other, try to outflank each other, they alternate between complete unanimity rhythmically and melodically, and complete independence. In extreme cases of the latter — with both players involved in syncopated lines and cross-accents — the explicit beat is momentarily suspended. Here the two masters are years ahead of all other jazz musicians.”
Schuller is right. In less than four minutes, Armstrong and Hines manage to both stop time and lean into the future. The piece was first recorded in 1923 as “Weather Bird Rag” by King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, with Armstrong on second cornet. As Hines told it, he first heard the tune when Armstrong played the melody in the studio that day. “He played it down for me and I put the harmony to it. And so we just went for each other.” In so doing, the two not only suggested paths forward for a then-young form of jazz but also displayed stunning balances of form and freedom, as well as of competition and camaraderie. “Louis was wild and I was wild, and we were inseparable,” Hines once recalled of their days together after meeting in Chicago in the mid-1920s. Beyond the technical brilliance and innovation revealed by their duet recording — and maybe fueling it — is the animating force of friendship.
Such bonds between musicians are the glue for much of jazz’s most towering or nuanced achievements, in any ensemble. These connections are yet more essential and transcendent in the duo format.
Back in 1997, I witnessed a riveting duo performance by pianist Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, playing soprano sax, at Washington D.C.’s Kennedy Center. It arrived in the middle of the taping of a network TV special celebrating jazz and was pegged to an annual jazz competition. Playing “Memory of Enchantment,” a moody composition by Dutch keyboardist Michiel Borstlap, which had been awarded a prize at the event, Hancock and Shorter made the manufactured hoopla and gaudy excess of the night fade away for a few minutes. Here, two jazz heroes who’d met decades earlier as young upstarts in Miles Davis’ band suggested a truer way to celebrate jazz’s inherent charms and its promise — by building upon memories of their own mutual enchantment.
Later, Hancock told me that when he got off stage, “Wayne looked at me and said, ‘Are you thinking what I’m thinking?’” At the time, I was editor of this magazine. I soon got a phone call from a publicist telling me that Hancock and Shorter were heading into the studio to make a duo recording. I knew it would be the next cover story (July 1997), and I kept it for myself. The album the two released—1+1 (Verve) — was my new soundtrack. I needed to get the story first-hand. Shorter told me about unfinished compositions he’d stashed in a closet, and the computer file Hancock kept called simply “Ideas.” He described the two of them cutting up Xerox copies of this material and pasting the shards together into the co-authored compositions, such as the companion tracks “Visitor From Nowhere” and “Visitor From Somewhere.”
I came to understand the album as two dear friends, both already iconic figures, coming together in midlife — Hancock was 57 and Shorter 63 — to rekindle the closeness of the past and to lean into whatever were their next chapters. One Shorter composition on that album, “Aung San Suu Kyi,” the serenity of which masks some complicated harmonic movement, became a centerpiece of performances with the quartet Shorter later assembled and maintained for 20 years. But more so than any specific music, the album seemed to announce common values — of jazz meaning “I dare you,” as Shorter would soon begin saying, and of music as a force for positive communion, which is an idea that Hancock has promoted with increasing vigor as he and Shorter have grown into elder statesmen of their art.
The duo recording that hit me hardest, and which I return to often, is the one Charles Lloyd and Billy Higgins recorded in 2001, Which Way Is East, released on ECM in 2004. The two musicians met as teenagers in Los Angeles in the mid-1950s. Higgins had grown up in L.A.; Lloyd had come from Memphis. Until they recorded together in the early 1990s, Lloyd and Higgins hadn’t seen each other for 20 years. They performed together whenever possible and talked regularly after that. Sometimes Lloyd would play something on one of his instruments (the tenor saxophone for which he is best known, or the flutes and double-reed instruments he often uses in concert) over the phone for Higgins, who would answer — not on the drum kit with which he achieved indelible fame, but on one of the many stringed instruments he often picked up in private.
Then Higgins grew gravely ill. In 1997, after two successive liver transplants, he returned to playing and seemed strong for a while. But by May 2001, he was gone. Four months before his death, Higgins spent a week at Lloyd’s Northern California home, high on a mountain overlooking the ocean. He brought along all his instruments: trap set, hand drums, guitar, Moroccan guimbri and more. Lloyd pulled out his alto horn, which he hadn’t played in decades. Dorothy Darr, Lloyd’s wife, set up two stationary video cameras and two microphones, which were plugged into an old analog two-track recorder. Which Way Is East, the last recording Higgins made, is a two-hour duet with Lloyd, arranged into eight suites over two CDs. The music plays like a deftly edited montage of scenes from the twilight of a man’s life, and of a final communion between the closest of friends. “The whole thing was organic,” Lloyd told me. “We weren’t in the modality of the rational mind. We were surrendered. We didn’t want to impede any of it. Billy would come down from the guesthouse very late morning or noon. I’d start playing the piano or the saxophone or the flute. And I would encourage him to sing or play something. The pieces, they just revealed themselves, just like we had revealed ourselves to each other.” - Larry Blumenfeld
Featured photo courtesy of the Louis Armstrong House Museum.