Review by J Hunter
Photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk
Everything you expected from Chick Corea was on display in the literally packed-to-the-walls Massry Center. Technical and creative brilliance? Check. Musical knowledge grown from decades of experience? Check. A sense of humor that had people rolling in the aisles? Ch… Wait, what?
That’s right, humor – natural, unforced humor and lots of it, from a musical icon who was decidedly comfortable in his own skin. Corea dazzled us and dumbfounded us over the course of two magical solo-piano sets that touched on everything from Stevie Wonder to Bela Bartok. Mind you, he could have done that if he hadn’t said a word. The quality and invention of the music was of that caliber. But Corea made the effort not only to to engage us, but to involve us in his past and present.
“I don’t usually play solo piano, but I enjoy it,” Corea told us at the outset, dressed down for the occasion in a black hood and matching jeans. Then, mischief creeping into his voice, he added, “Because I can do anything I want. I don’t have to worry about my partners.” He pronounced the last word “pahht-nuhhs”, showing the accent that came from his Chelsea, MA upbringing. “I don’t have a plan tonight,” he added. “Except me, the piano and you.” Turns out that was all he needed.
Corea began by “trying out” the grand piano sitting in the middle of Massry’s beautiful, unshrouded stage. This involved running through a series of scales and figures with no real structure at the outset. Eventually, though, he seemed to find a theme for this section, most of it built around jazz standards you barely heard long enough to recognize before it flew off into the night, replaced by yet another effortless flood of notes. By the time I realized Corea had touched on “How Deep is The Ocean,” it was three minutes later. When it was all over, he said, “That was kind of a conglomeration of a bunch of stuff, wasn’t it?” As we laughed uproariously, he smiled and said, “Whatever!”
Conglomerations were what Corea was primarily about on this evening – or, if not conglomerations, then “themes” where Corea addressed music by some of his favorite composers, from the romantic Russian composer Alexander Scriabin to another jazz icon, Thelonius Monk. Corea said he liked Scriabin’s preludes because “They’re like jazz to me.” He then ran through two Scriabin pieces that showed Corea’s own deep classical base, and it was impossible to tell where Scriabin ended and Corea began. For Monk, it was another instance where you saw flashes of things like “Monk’s Mood” and “Sweet and Lovely,” but trying to identify most of the music was like trying to read the advertising on a Formula 1 race car as it blasts by you at Mach Whatever. Eventually you just had to throw up your hands, close your eyes and surrender to the sublime experience.
Some tunes were easy to spot, like “Blue Monk,” which Corea kept separate from the conglomeration and absolutely nailed. We knew he was playing Bill Evans’ “Waltz for Debbie” because Corea told us he was going to “wander into a theme” of the piece, and that was the case: Again, flashes of the original fought their way through Corea’s explorations before they were overcome by another blast of genius. What struck me was how differently Corea approached these two players he has so much respect for. Even on his deepest explorations of Monk, Corea expertly tackled the “anti-chords” that were so much of Monk’s mode; contrariwise, Corea eschewed the sometimes-cloying romanticism Evans tended to fall into in favor of an approach laden with a glowing sense of joy. Corea’s take on Wonder’s “Pastime Paradise” went the opposite way, filled with a brooding darkness that reminded you this was the tune Coolio borrowed for the chorus to “Gangsta’s Paradise.” (Props to The Saint’s Darrin Scott and his kinda-smartphone for that tidbit.)
But back to the humor, which had no set-ups – it just happened. Seeing newly-arriving audience members who were held back until the end of his opening number, Corea said, “Come on in! These are good seats. You can see my fingers from there!” While asking some invisible staffer if they could turn off the air-conditioning because “I’m freezing up here”, he walked to the edge of the stage and said to a woman in the front row, “Feel my hand!” (The woman took his hand, exchanged words with Corea, and then took her seat with a gesture that clearly said, “My life is complete now!”) Corea had just introduced his own suite “Children’s Songs” when he said, “But first, something by John Coltrane!” I was finishing some screed in my notebook, so I had my head down. As such, I was surprised to hear the sound of a full band playing over a tinny speaker; Corea was holding his iPod up to the microphone, grinning and nodding to “Chasing the Trane” from “Live at the Village Vanguard.” My colleagues and I had been wondering who were were seeing: Chick Corea or Victor Borge. The fact is, though, Borge was never this hip.
Corea came back for the encore, even though he admitted he was “pretty played out.” Rather than give in, he taught the audience a five-voice chord that he worked into his classic composition “Spain.” After working us into the piece three times, Corea engaged us in an energetic call-and-answer that had us clapping the beat as he lit into the chorus with extreme relish. His second standing ovation was long and loud, and a wonderful end to the second solo-piano jazz show at Massry in two years. Maybe one player and one piano can become a Massry tradition. If it does, though, Chick Corea set the bar of excellence awfully high.
More of Andrzej Pilarczyk’s photographs at Albany Jazz
Rudy Lu’s photographs at Albany Jazz
Michael Eck’s review at The Times Union
Excerpt from David Singer’s review at The Daily Gazette: “He moved through a number of Monk’s lighter, poppy riffs, and even a sad, bluesy one. There was very little foot-tapping — even Corea’s feet barely moved — little swing and little fusion rock, another legacy of his. It was more about the composition. He’s a piano player’s piano player; not necessarily a master technician — though he is that — but it was more about his approach to the arrangement. He’s a master of taste and sensibility, and that’s the richness he provided Wednesday night. He followed with a medley of Bud Powell, calling him ‘a big influence on me’ and playing songs ‘that I have twisted around.’ Here he accompanied his key playing by using the strings of the piano, lightly slapping chords with his palm and plucking strings to ring out their vibrations.”