March 3, 2024

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CD review: Chick Corea Band – Live In Tokyo 1980 – 2022: Video, CD cover

The music of Chick Corea And + Sadao Watanabe is electric jazz with elements of Latin American music and funk, not conceptual fusion.

Bunny Brunel on lead bass guitar and Tom Brechtlein on drums were regulars at Corea at the time, and the addition of legendary percussionist Don Alias? makes this performance something special. Performed at Denen Coliseum, Tokyo, Japan, July 27, 1980.The recording was originally broadcast on NHK Radio.

The first time I saw Chick Corea in performance was in the late ’60s. As I remember, he was called in as a substitute for pianist Hank Jones for a quartet concert in Rochester, New York.  He was in heavy company: the band was led by trumpeter Thad Jones and drummer Mel Lewis, and the group was rounded out by bassist Richard Davis.

Corea was only in his twenties at the time, and I had just barely heard of him, but I was impressed then with his technique, and especially with his command of block chords á la Red Garland. I also remember that his sound on the instrument was remarkable. I didn’t know at that time that he had been a student of Madame Margaret Chaloff, the Boston piano teacher who was a mentor to so many brilliant musicians – including Dick Twardzik, Keith Jarrett, Herbie Hancock, George Shearing, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Ken Werner, and Steve Kuhn – but I think Madame Chaloff’s influence must have been one of the factors that gave him a leg up in the competitive world of jazz in the ’60s.

(By the way, I wasn’t taking notes on concerts when I was in my teens. It is simply that Corea was already such a distinctive player then that I could not fail to remember him.)

More than fifty years have passed between that date and his residency at Scullers last week. Corea’s odyssey has taken him through many musical ports of call – his first sessions on LP as a leader in 1968 (Tones for Joan’s Bones, Vortex), his experiments with free music and Anthony Braxton in the cooperative band Circle, a career-milestone stint with Miles Davis’s electric band, the Brazilian-flavored Return to Forever group that got him his first big commercial success, his partnerships with A-list players including Gary Burton, his own Elektrik Band, and the increasingly frequent acoustic performances of recent years.

I love hearing him play the acoustic grand, and so I had to be there for two of his sets at Scullers. I’m pleased to report that his beautiful sound is undimmed by time, and his sensitivity to nuance is intact. There were even some moments when those Red Garland-style block chords made brief appearances. The repertoire was limited in the sets I heard, so I wish I could have heard a wider variety of tunes, but I was delighted in his choice of virtuoso partners and even happier to hear from the door personnel that the house was full for almost every one of his ten sets, from Wednesday at 8 to Sunday at 9.

May Scullers take that success as an invitation to invite more of the world’s greatest jazz players to give us residencies. We have too long been without the spiritual nourishment that comes from being in the company of Greatness.

About that piano sound, and the guidance of Madame Chaloff: one of the most articulate explanations of the Chaloff method and why it is especially useful to jazz pianists comes from Steve Kuhn (I draw this quote from “Steve Kuhn – Back in Focus,” by Steven A. Cerra, published on March 18, 2015): “You breathe as if you were playing a horn, from the diaphragm. You think of your fingertips as a reed and the keys as a mouthpiece. The sound comes out of you; it travels to the soundboard and out of the piano. It’s a complete flow that should not be broken . . . the sound travels up through the feet, the knees, the hips, the torso, through your shoulder and elbow, and out through the fingertips.”

Another benefit of the Chaloff method is that it promotes equal strength in each digit, so that all the player’s notes ring out cleanly and with even volume, even in the fastest passages. On Friday night, I was seated close to the stage, almost over Corea’s shoulder, and I could see how well he has absorbed that technique and how effective it is in his hands.

During the course of the week, he chose tunes from nearly the entire range of his career. In a pre-gig interview by Ed Symkus in the Globe, he indicated that the repertoire would include his own compositions, standards, and jazz classics. And so it went at Scullers.

For me, the only real repertoire disappointment was his selection of “In a Sentimental Mood” as representative of Duke Ellington’s contributions. It’s a great tune, I know, but there are so many less-well-known Ellington pieces that deserve more exposure – I imagine hearing Corea play “Warm Valley,” or “There Shall be No Night,” or “The Star-Crossed Lovers,” or “Isfahan.” Even “Mood Indigo” is becoming a neglected mastepiece these days.

By contrast, the 10 p.m. show on Thursday offered a very welcome wrinkle that I’m sorry I missed: Corea’s arrangement of a Domenico Scarlatti keyboard sonata that segued into Bud Powell’s “Tempus Fugit.”  Leave it to pianist Donal Fox, who was there, to witness a classical-jazz fusion in the spirit of his own work.

I also would have loved to hear one of Corea’s very early originals, like “Litha,” written for his children Liana and Thad, or “Straight Up and Down,” a hard-blowing tune, but perhaps they go too far back.  Fox reports that the trio revived a couple of familiar Corea classics on Thursday, “Armando’s Rhumba” and “500 Miles High,” which must have pleased the folks attending that show. On the other hand, he did not just offer his hits. By now he must be tired of playing his best-known tune, “Spain,” and so, in the sets I heard, he substituted a much more interesting composition with a similar Iberian flavor, Paco de Lucia’s “Zyryab.”

The ghosts of Thelonious Monk and Bill Evans also loomed large. Fox noted that “Monk’s Mood” and “Well You Needn’t” were part of Thursday’s late show, and I heard two performances of Sammy Fain’s “Alice in Wonderland,” which was core material for Evans.

But the Evans influence wasn’t limited to that one tune. Evans’s trio, captured for all time in landmark 1961 live performances that included “Alice,” made all previous combinations of piano, bass, and drums sound old fashioned. His group, completed by bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian, pioneered the conversational, intuitive interplay that was adopted by nearly every piano trio that followed. It’s still a vital tradition, typified by many recordings by Keith Jarrett and Brad Melhdau, and now by Corea’s Vigilette Trio.

1. Nice Shot (Live) (12:26)
2. Someday My Prince Will Come (Live) (11:53)
3. 500 Miles High (Live) (16:18)
4. Piano Solo (Live) (5:57)

Chick Corea piano
Bunny Brunel fretless bass
Tom Brechtlein drums
Don Alias drums, percussia
Sadao Watanabe saxophone

‎Live Under the Sky, 1980 (Live) by Chick Corea Band & Sado Watanabe on  Apple Music

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