Chick Corea/Stefano Bollani: Orvieto (ECM 2222)

Chick Corea
Stefano Bollani
Orvieto

Chick Corea piano
Stefano Bollani piano
Recorded live at Umbria Jazz, December 2010-January 2011
Recording engineer: Bernie Kirsh
Assistant engineer: Roberto Lioli
Album produced by Manfred Eicher

It’s impressive enough that untouchables like Keith Jarrett have taken the art of solo piano improvisation to the depths they have. To maintain comparable wonder and cohesion with the addition of another 88 keys is another feat entirely. For Chick Corea the prospect has flung open the windows of creativity out onto exciting new landscapes. Having already realized this vision with greats old and new (Herbie Hancock an Gonzalo Rubalcaba among them), Corea takes an instrument already so full at his fingers and uses it as an invitation to Italian virtuoso Stefano Bollani. Of their eponymous performances, Corea remarks, “Orvieto was winter-cold. The experience was summer-warm.” The analogy of temperature proves salient, for throughout these spontaneous gigs audiences surely felt tingly all over from the crystalline precision of these two powerful talents: one a legend, the other perhaps someday to be.

Were it not for Corea’s unmistakable pointillism and the softness of Bollani’s release, the two might be nearly impossible to distinguish. Which is not to say these qualities don’t switch places at any given moment, telling us that such parsing is arbitrary. An “Orvieto Improvisation” begins Parts I and II, clearing the air of any pollutants and diving into the thick of things with a synergy of purpose that betrays far more than the two years Corea and Bollani spent playing together before the present recording. The second of these dovetails into the Miles Davis classic, “Nardis,” in which the closeness of contact is wondrous. It is a twisted music box come to life, a look back through forward means. The duo continues to lay the nostalgia on thick along a select handful of standards. Of these, “Doralice” feels most like childhood, sprinkled with life and love and everything in between. Its freshness breathes like wind through autumn leaves and imbues these timeless tunes with clear and present animation. The interweaving of “If I Should Lose You” and bygone ambiance of “Darn That Dream” show humility to the music at hands. And the piano’s percussion instrument status is nowhere more obvious than in “Tirititran,” for which Corea and Bollani take their syncopation to its greatest heights. Similarly astonishing exchanges abound in their rendering of Fats Waller’s “Jitterbug Waltz.”

The soundtrack quality of Jobim’s “Retrato Em Branco E Preto” sparks all of these feelings and more, as does the rounded edge of “Este Seu Olhar,” the latter unwinding with the precision of a player piano yet with the abandon of a frolic. These are of a piece with the pianists’ own compositions. Bollani gives us a breath of the city streets in his “A Valsa Da Paula,” turning philosophies into rattled change in the pocket, a new spring in the step, and the force of opportunity on the horizon. Corea counters with “Armando’s Rhumba,” wherein he clothes the program’s most transcendent moments with “La Fiesta”-like exuberance. It is the pinnacle of what these two can achieve, and a whimsical lead-in to the resolute “Blues In F.”

The music of Orvieto is about nothing if not detail. Had Corea and Bollani become visual artists (and who’s to say they are not), they would be engravers, drawing out from cold metal canvases a fully rendered world of ideas. Their art is their stylus, their touch the acid that turns contact to shading and dimension, our ears the paper on which the final images are printed.

(To hear samples of Orvieto, click here.)

Chick Corea: Septet (ECM 1297)

 

Chick Corea
Septet

Chick Corea piano
Ida Kavafian violin
Theodore Arm violin
Steven Tenenbom viola
Fred Sherry cello
Steve Kujala flute
Peter Gordon French horn
Recorded October 1984 at Mad Hatter Studios, Los Angeles
Engineer: Bernie Kirsh
Produced by Chick Corea

Chick Corea is a musician who plays with X-ray vision, which is to say he’s highly adept at animating skeletons through his improvisatory prowess. And yet, whenever those bones are fleshed out into full-grown compositional organisms, one tends to lose sight of their anatomy. With the exception of Children’s Songs, Corea excels where there is at least a combination of the prescribed and the free. On Septet he is joined by a string quartet, flutist Steve Kujala, and Peter Gordon on French horn. Already in the First Movement, we are confronted with the quartet’s somewhat pedantic role, which is at pains to blend with the otherwise lovely sound forged by Corea and Kujala (not suprising, given that they’d just cut the effervescent Voyage not three months before). That being said, there is a wistful vitality to be had in those occasional moments that said forces do sync, as in the Second Movement. Some gorgeous, abstract pianism distinguishes the opening waves of the Third, which, despite exploring the album’s more fascinating ideas, are quickly curtained by the horn. Things fare far better in the Fourth, with its Bartókian sense of rhythmic acuity, and in the richly varied Fifth. At 10 minutes in length, the latter is also the most fully formed. Tacked on to this picturesque finale is portrait of “The Temple of Isfahan” that could easily soundtrack a documentary about the temple in question, a sacred site to the Zoroastrians who saw its attributive fire as a purifying agent. Like a well-edited film, this piece builds itself through vignettes, which despite never quite connecting as organically as they might have had they been left to speak among themselves, form a larger chain of ideas that must be taken in deep breaths before they can be exhaled as one.

It’s hard to know what to make of this album. What it lacks at the start, it certainly makes up for by the end, but it doesn’t necessarily beg for repeated listening. The musicianship is also top flight, especially the lovely playing of Gordon, who wrenches a gutsy and artful sound from his horn, and in the peerless virtuosity of Kujala. A lovely jewel for the completest, to be sure, but its absence would make Corea’s crown no less bright.


The Temple of Isfahan

Chick Corea: Voyage (ECM 1282)

 

Chick Corea
Voyage

Chick Corea piano
Steve Kujala flute
Recorded July 1984 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Steve Kujala is a flutist of exceptional ability known for his “bending” and other extended techniques, which immediately distinguish his sound from anyone else’s. After touring with Chick Corea in the early eighties, the two of them stepped into the studio to record Voyage, a shuffled yet modest deck of three Corea originals and two freely improvised interludes. Though a suitable companion to Red Lanta, this duo session could hardly be more different. As musicians both well versed in the avant-garde, Kujala and Corea forge an undeniably cerebral brand of magic. The lushness of “Mallorca,” for example might easily blind us to the microscopic approach of “Star Island,” for where the former dances like some ethereal Flamenco reflection, threaded by birdsong and fast-forwarded tongue fluttering, the latter is a piano solo that indeed takes form like a dollop of land in an oceanic expanse. It is also the deeply beating heart of the album, a stunning piece of wizardry that could easily run its entire course without ever growing fatigued. Corea continues this subdued brilliance in his intro to “Free Fall” before Kujala makes his theatrical entrance, singing to us of days and years gone by. This is much in contrast to “Diversions,” a far more abstract intertwining of airy improvisations which, even after their rousing finish, leave us scrambling for narrative traction. “Hong Kong” is also very abstract, but by way of its title at least gives us a place to hold on to. Like that city’s bustling streets, connections come and go as they please, sometimes utterly unaware of one another in the constant blur of lights, faces, and smells.

This is a highlight in the Corea discography on any label and an ideal opportunity to discover, as I did, a flutist of outstanding innovation along the way.

Chick Corea/Gary Burton: Lyric Suite For Sextet (ECM 1260)

 

 

Chick Corea
Gary Burton
Lyric Suite For Sextet

Chick Corea piano
Gary Burton vibraharp
Ikwhan Bae violin
Carol Shive violin
Karen Dreyfus viola
Fred Sherry cello
Recorded September 1982 at Mad Hatter Studios, Los Angeles
Engineer: Bernie Kirsh
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The Lyric Suite for Sextet joins the unparalleled duo of Chick Corea and Gary Burton with string quartet for a combination soon to be repeated with the release of Hot House. Through an erratic and sometimes disjointed hall of mirrors, it explores a series of never quite fully formed ideas. The opening notes of this then unique collaboration create a thriving and exuberant sound that permeates every moment that follows. Burton’s liquid runs, especially in “Waltz” and in “Dreams,” bring forth all the music’s chambered revelry as Corea weaves nimbly through every sprung carnation left in his footfall. From the brief yet enthralling “Rollercoaster” to the ebullient “Finale,” feelings sweep us away, and are swept away by, their own intensity. But the album’s true colors come out in “Brasilia,” which opens with the gorgeous unfolding of Corea’s piano, slowly introducing water droplets of vibes and the firmer grounding of strings, which at last become a vital presence, interacting with the piano lines in a deeply internal conversation for the album’s tenderest moments. Corea’s delicacy is a wonder here.

As a concept album, the Lyric Suite is a classic to be sure, albeit one that’s difficult to put a finger on. Then again, perhaps that’s the point. And while the strings may seem a superfluous stroke alongside musicians already so lush (seeming to unify only in the album’s latter half), it is the expansiveness of vision and the infectious exuberance of the playing that may keep you returning on occasion to this curious little experiment.

Chick Corea: Trio Music (ECM 1232/33)

 

Chick Corea
Trio Music

Chick Corea piano
Miroslav Vitous bass
Roy Haynes drums
Recorded November 1981 at Mad Hatter Studios, Los Angeles
Engineer: Bernie Kirsh
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Trio Music boasts the same formidable lineup—pianist Chick Corea, bassist Miroslav Vitous, and drummer Roy Haynes—as on the seminal Now He Sings, Now He Sobs. Yet formidable is not a word I would use to describe this curious double album, for as many peaks as there are, it is in the valleys where the most potent combinations occur. Half of this diptych is painted by improvisations: five for trio and two for duo. The trios are intense and from the first chart themselves through engaging, if wayward, territory via Haynes’s astute “cymbalism” and Vitous’s determined phonics, all the while enlivened by Corea’s full-on sound. From the thick to the thin of things, the second trio sounds like an infirmed train dreaming in spats of its onetime locomotive glory, while even more fractured affairs await us on the horizon of the third. Some of the more effective comings together can be found on the fourth, as when pointillist pianism sews itself into snare with lightning-fast kinship. The final trio, on the other hand, features a looser, perhaps prepared, piano and amplified arco bass and drums, which after a bit of running around are mixed together in a staccato brew. The two duets between Corea and Vitous are fascinating in and of themselves, winding down their personal rabbit holes with multifarious conviction. The last tune of first disc, “Slippery When Wet,” is exactly that, this one penned by Corea. After some lithe snare work it slides effortlessly into an upbeat swing.

For the second disc, we are treated to a hunk of Monk. Thelonious lives and breathes (he would pass away not three months after this album was recorded) in these hip arrangements. And certainly in “Rhythm-A-Ning” we get to see what this trio is truly capable of, for as intriguing as the improvisations are, there is something transcendent about the ring of their swing in Monk’s world. From these hot threads is spun a lasso that holds our attention with excitement and joy. Haynes, reason enough to buy this album, steals the show here, as also in the ascending quality of “Think Of One” and throughout the inescapable groove of “Hackensack.” Not to be outdone, however, are Vitous, who adds piles of jazz club beauty to “Eronel” and enhances every playful step of “Little Rootie Tootie” with his nimble fingerwork, and the unforgettable Corea, who, as he does in each of these, spreads his warmth and sparkle in turn over the gently burned toast of “’Round Midnight” and “Reflections” with a lushness all his own.

One need hardly expound at such length upon this album. The music speaks with far more eloquence. Highly recommend for the lovely Monk set alone, but give the improvisations a chance, and you will surely find a wealth of colors to explore again and again.

“A Confusion of Fusions” – Chick Corea/Gary Burton Live at Blue Note

Chick Corea and Gary Burton with the Harlem Quartet
Blue Note Jazz Club, New York City
Sunday, November 13
8:00 pm

Chick Corea piano
Gary Burton vibraphone
The Harlem Quartet
Ilmar Gavilan violin
Melissa White violin
Juan Miguel Hernandez viola
Paul Wiancko cello

Setting the stage

The year is 1959. A young Chick Corea, just out of high school and newly arrived in New York City, quits Columbia University after only one month and immerses himself in the City’s sixties Jazz scene, its second golden age. In the coming years he makes a name for himself, and his exuberant playing soon catches the ears of Miles Davis, Stan Getz, and many others. Jump to the 1972 Berlin Jazz Festival, where his fingers join the mallets of Gary Burton on record for the first time. So begins a musical partnership that has spun nothing but gloriousness ever since and brings us to 2011.

Burton and Corea

“The vibe is just conducive to making music,” says Corea of the Blue Note, a venue of personal choice for years, and where he now celebrates his 70th birthday with a month-long series of concerts. If anything, his flames burn brighter, bringing characteristic verve to every shade of his pianism: dynamic, utterly precise, and sparkling to the last drop. The Corea/Burton alignment is world-renowned, a boon to ECM and to the field as a whole for decades, and hopefully for decades yet.

The energy here at Blue Note is kept to a soft boil, every laugh seemingly exaggerated by anticipation. Tables are tightly packed, and one shares them with strangers, who by the end of the night leave their mark for having shared in such bliss. Our six-seat arrangement abuts the very front of the stage. It is my first time to this hallowed institution, and being in proximity to such avid Jazz fans, and to the music we’ve all come to witness, it feels good to be alive.

Tonight, Corea and Burton are joined by the Harlem (String) Quartet for a concert preview of their new Chamber Jazz collaboration, Hot House (due out on CD in February 2012). While on the surface this may seem like an unusual combination, in fact both Burton and Corea have already explored such crossovers. Burton was the first to do so when, after he and composer Samuel Barber had been toying with the idea for some time, he refashioned the mold with his Seven Songs For Quartet And Chamber Orchestra in 1973, then later with Corea himself on 1983’s Lyric Suite For Sextet and again on The New Crystal Silence (released 2008 on Concord). With such a varied palette from which to choose, the results promise to be extraordinary.

And indeed, extraordinary hardly begins to describe the sounds that wash over us once Corea and Burton take to the stage, made all the more so by the tasteful amplification and reverb. “Love Castle” kicks off the first of three duets, each a different glint from the same well-polished jewel. From chord one, we find ourselves wrapped in an expansive intimacy that only decades of collaborative playing can bring to bear. Burton is downright acrobatic on those gradated strips of metal and brings a cool fire to every lick he elicits from them. The duo takes a cue from Art Tatum in “Can’t We Be Friends.” Lush syncopations that would provide hours of head-scratching for many a frustrated player only give Burton further excuse to stretch his arms before applying his lightning runs to a crowd-pleasing rendition of “Eleanor Rigby,” in which Corea digs deep over a lithe ostinato.

Corea and Burton are both very personable, doing their utmost to make the crowd feel right at home between songs. Corea quips requisitely about cell phones and bids us to talk freely during the show as the Harlem Quartet makes its entrance. It is something of a dramatic one, as cellist Paul Wiancko navigates the narrow human corridor with his charge held carefully above our heads.

After a bit of tuning (more on this below), we’re off on two adventures from the aforementioned Lyric Suite. The quartet seems like a trampoline in “Overture,” sending piano and vibes flying into the neoclassical shades of “Waltz.” Here, Wiancko provides some welcome pizzicato on the way to a rosy finish. The quartet intros a shapely version of “’Round Midnight” as Corea jumps into the thematic deep end, leaving his partner to walk along the surface above. Last is a new Corea original entitled “Mozart Goes Dancing.” Burton’s flights are particularly noteworthy in this economical dialogue.

When both of these players perform, they appear so utterly focused on their task that one wonders how they connect so seamlessly. Corea’s answer: one need only serve the music and style will “take care of itself.” (This is exemplified in his penchant for conducting or clapping along from the bench whenever his hands aren’t on the keys.) Whatever the method behind their brilliance, it is the compatibility of their intentionality—the simple yet profound choice of where to place a note—that brands their synergy into the brain. They don’t so much trade places as constantly flit in and out of time, turning on a dime from supremely lyrical, almost elegiac passages, to head-nodding grooves. Such contrasts are like big bangs in miniature, each the potential for a new solar system of sound.


Harlem Quartet

And what of the Harlem Quartet? This seems to be the question of the night, for while these fresh-faced and spirited musicians clearly bring oodles of passion to the table, they are given little to work with in Corea’s often stilted arrangements. They are also, I feel, unfairly slighted by Corea and Burton’s last-minute encoring of the classic “La Fiesta,” which, though a powerful conclusion, keeps the faithful foursome on stage awkwardly for a good ten minutes while the two old-timers everyone has come to see weave their spell. (On that note, I strongly urge readers to hop on over to the Harlem Quartet’s homepage and take a gander at their many projects and inspiring commitment to outreach.)

There was, however, an unforgettable moment before the Lyric Suite selections commenced when, after taking their seats, the quartet took a minute or two for a tuning session. During this, Corea and strings spun some free improv that was, ironically, the most fruitful connection displayed between the two halves of the stage during the show, and perhaps territory they might explore in the future beyond the otherwise peripheral role assigned to them. Burton and Corea are such fully minded players already that one is hard-pressed to find any gaps in need of filling. How does one add more wind to a tempest?

In the end, the Corea/Burton experience, regardless of its augmentations, has never been at heart about blending idioms, but rather about exchanging them. In that exchange, one hears an ever-changing conversation, and we are lucky to have been a part of it on this balmy spring night. To walk through their sonic forests is to feel one’s feet on the earth, where soundtracks flitter through dusty, cobwebbed pathways of memory like Corea’s famous mouse. In traveling through these spaces, one finds the windows still crystal and silent, wiped clean from years of pressing our ears up against them.

Crystal Silence: The ECM Recordings 1972-79 (ECM 2036-39)

Gary Burton
Chick Corea
Crystal Silence: The ECM Recordings 1972-79

Gary Burton vibraphone
Chick Corea piano

The vibraphone and piano combine to make one of jazz’s most potent instrumental combinations, and nowhere so invigorating than at the hands of Gary Burton and Chick Corea. To say that the possibilities between them are limitless is to ignore the immediacy of their abilities, in which we may now bask to the utmost content in this timely reissue. Jazz’s most singular duo in a set of three albums on four CDs. Now those are some positive integers.

Crystal Silence (ECM 1024)
Recorded November 6, 1972 at Arne Bendiksen Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

It all begins here, with Crystal Silence. The title says it all: silence crystallized into dazzling melodic gems, each its own prismatic doorway into improvisatory translucence. Corea offers a fine set of five compositions (the most notable being the slick opener “Señor Mouse”), along with three beautifully realized tunes by bassist Steve Swallow (“Arise, Her Eyes” being a personal favorite), and another by Mike Gibbs (the somber “Feelings And Things”). In spite of the variety of voices represented here, the album grows like one long, extended story, a dynamic that seems to shadow the musicians wherever they set foot. The title track, reprised and extended since its inaugural appearance on Return To Forever, is a subdued tour de force in style, presentation, and content. “Falling Grace” (Swallow) is one of the shorter pieces on tap, but what it lacks in time it makes up for in exhilaration. We end with an instrumental version of another Return classic, “What Game Shall We Play Today.” Each piece is rendered with such dynamic sensitivity that one can immediately recognize the effect Crystal Silence must have had when originally released, and no doubt continues to have to this day. Connected as they are by the same mellow fuse, these tunes need hardly a spark to set them to glowing.

This essential album constantly skirts the line between destitution and celebration, rebuilding as many structures as it tears down. The pianism soars, and one could never praise Burton enough for providing the intuitive right hand to Corea’s metronomic left. Above all, this is a masterful exhibition of improvisation around strong thematic material that breaks through its own generic conventions, and is another indispensable example of what ECM has done to enrich and enlarge the landscape of jazz music from day one.


Original cover

Duet (ECM 1140)
Recorded October 23 – 25, 1978, at Delphian Foundation, Sheridan/Oregon
Engineer: Bernie Kirsh
Produced by Chick Corea and Gary Burton

If Crystal Silence is the Corea/Burton universe writ large, then the “Duet Suite” that opens this follow-up album is its densest galaxy. Buoyant grace, turn-on-a-dime syncopation, and an abiding sense of direction make every moment an experience to savor and relive as many times as a single lifetime will allow. More than a lasting mosaic of what either of these musicians is capable of, the suite overflows with so much energy that it could easily have gone on to fill the entire album. And in many ways, it does, being a meta-statement of all to come. The lovingly arranged selections from Corea’s Children’s Songs that follow expand fourfold the brief glimpse into this masterwork afforded us in the project’s debut. These otherwise intimate excursions sparkle like film stills sped into viable movement. The hip nostalgia of “Radio” (Swallow) plunges us into the past, even as it directs our eyes to the future, reeling through its motifs with head-tilting abandon. Burton’s staggered rhythms make for an ecstatic crosshatching of polyphony. At last, we come to Corea’s seminal “Song To Gayle.” Soon to be a staple in the outfit’s traveling songbook, this fluid conversation is almost blinding in its agreement. Duet is rounded out by the ever so exquisite “Never” (Swallow) and “La Fiesta,” a Corea original that brings the album’s most enthralling moments into focus.


Original cover

In Concert, Zürich, October 28, 1979 (ECM 1182/83)
Recorded October 28, 1979 at Limmathaus, Zürich
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The Zürich live album is the clear standout of this collection and a real treasure among many in the ECM catalogue. All the classics are here, gloriously reincarnated for new and veteran listeners alike: a sweeping rendition of “Crystal Silence” flows with the power of a river during spring thaw, “Falling Grace” becomes strangely uplifting, “Song To Gayle” sparkles, and Corea’s improvisational turns during a vivacious “Señor Mouse” have all the makings of a hallmark triumph. These actually outdo themselves in live form, plain and simple. But they are only half the fun. Lest we forget the wealth of other material in the set, the duo delights us with “Bud Powell,” Corea’s pitch-perfect tribute to the bebop pioneer. The man at the piano can’t help but sing along as he negotiates one fluid key change after another. We also get some mesmerizing virtuosity from Burton, which makes us want to join in the applause at home. Another high point is “Endless Trouble, Endless Pleasure” (Swallow), which ends the show with a spicy half-step glory. But the real treasures here are the onetime C-Sides making their ECM digital debut at last. Each gives the respective musician his moment alone. Burton’s tender evocations of the Swallow standards “I’m Your Pal” and “Hullo, Bolinas” flit like a ballerina across the stage, while a lush 15-minute interpretation by Corea of his own “Love Castle” pulls his pianism into utterly new territories.

Live energy brings inexpressible wonder to these pieces. With each listen, they show their colors by an increasingly visible logic, extending solos here and shortening graces there, until the whole picture begins to make intuitive sense.


Original cover

Once in a great while, there are combinations that simply cannot fail. Chick Corea and Gary Burton embody one of them. Their supporting articulations are sometimes so delicately applied that one cannot help but become an extension of the other. They seem to find in each other a new vision of life, which they bring to every note. They also really know how to introduce a piece. Rather than lead us patronizingly into their sound-world, they drop us directly into its liquid center, so that while coming up for air we begin to understand the music from the inside out. These are two wirewalkers at the height of their creative talents, yet who have since forgone their balance bars in favor of more airborne travels. This is quite simply music for the ages.

 

Chick Corea: Solo Piano (ECM 2140-42)

Chick Corea
Solo Piano

Chick Corea piano
Ida Kavafian violin
(Children’s Songs, Track 20)
Fred Sherry cello
(Children’s Songs, Track 20)

Much of the jazz that has come to characterize the “ECM sound” is known for its pellucid solemnity. Conversations between sound and space abound, in which vestiges of their own histories mark the passage of time. To younger listeners like myself, it is sometimes easy to forget that the label remains rooted in the youthful immediacy one finds in these formative efforts from Chick Corea. While his refreshing approach to pianism inhabits the same continent as other formidable players, Corea is very much his own culture. Much of the later material that would come to define the “Corea sound,” however, is in clear evidence throughout these discs, and especially in the improvised efforts.

Piano Improvisations Vol. 1 (ECM 1014)

Recorded April 21 & 22, 1971, Bendiksen Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

From note one, these improvisations abound with the freedom of an artist who is ever at his peak. Their many tender touches and nostalgic leanings are shielded by a powerful optimism. Such exuberance makes them all the more embraceable in their poignancy. Tunes such as “Noon Song” twirl like a skirt in the breeze. Others (“Sometime Ago” and “Song For Sally”) are flirtatious and skip from one thought to another: a love in overdrive. The pièce de résistance, however, is the eight-part suite “Where Are You Now?” In this series of “pictures,” Corea renders for us a film whose soundtrack precedes its images. There are no mysterious titles to ponder; each tells us exactly what we are going to hear. The playing is at once pliant and mechanical, carrying across its feelings with such genuine appreciation for the listener that one cannot help but smile.

 


Original cover

Piano Improvisations Vol. 2 (ECM 1020)
Recorded April 21 & 22, 1971, Bendiksen Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

This companion volume of Corea’s improvisations doesn’t merely continue where the first left off, but fleshes out finer details unexplored in its neglected depths. This volume is more nocturnal than the last, a siesta in songs without words. “After Noon Song” starts us off alluringly before the crisper interjections of Thelonius Monk’s “Trinkle Tinkle” and Wayne Shorter’s “Masqualero.” The second act is where the album begins to fray at the edges, and becomes all the more mystical for it. At first, experiments like “Departure From Planet Earth” seem to stray into unnecessarily weighty territory. Yet with each listen, they tell us more about their travels. And while Corea’s often-discussed religious predilections (I dare not invoke the “S” word here) may give us even greater insight into the music’s enigmatic borders, in this instance such forays into biographical details provide little advantage. Either way, Corea reacclimates into “A New Place.” This is polyglot music, of which each melody its own tongue. Though some are more readily interpretable than others, we always know what is trying to be said.

 


Original cover

Children’s Songs (ECM 1267)
Recorded July 1983 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

By a similar twist of fate that kept me from The Köln Concert for so many years, I only discovered this album recently, and I must say that it deserves a throne alongside Keith Jarrett’s magnum opus for its unfathomable hidden power. Beneath the album’s contemplative veneer beats a furnace of a heart stoked by creative flames, the heights of which are rarely surpassed in today’s genre-hungry climate. Begun in 1971, and recorded here twelve years later, Children’s Songs gives us Chick Corea at his compositional best. At first, the title is an enigma: Are these songs to be played by children or for children? But as we soon discover, the child has already outgrown itself. Like clouds, these pieces take on whatever shapes we project onto them. On the one hand, their steady obbligatos and carefully chosen points of contact resemble the latent energies of Philip Glass (No. 1) and Steve Reich (No. 9). On the other, they pantomime a range of influences, from ragtime to Satie (No. 19 is like something lifted straight out of Gymnopédies) to Bartók (the Mikrokosmos parallels being almost too obvious to mention). One can also clearly see how influential this music must have been to others. The filmic beauty of No. 4 cannot have been lost, for example, on Michael Nyman. These are also pieces about contrast. Take, for example, the left hand in No. 6, which lays out a triadic darkness, while the right hand insists on spinning light before our very eyes. Corea’s characteristic ornaments, as in the descending trill at end of No. 3, grow richer every time, and the sweeping elegies of No. 10, 12, and 13 allow the Corea we know and love to shine through. Violin and cello add delightful pliancy to the “Addendum,” a classically minded closer that puts a stylish bow on an already crisply wrapped package.

 


Original cover

Corea and his legacy blossom at every moment throughout these three seminal albums, with which he singlehandedly revitalized the solo piano program as an art form to be taken seriously in the post-Art Tatum era. He is the reliable narrator, the quiet provocateur, and the entertainer. He is also none of these. He bids us to listen without pretense, knowing that a carefully defined surface is nothing without the depth to support it. At the same time, he wastes no time in trying to intellectualize what lies beneath, secure in the knowledge that his music will carry on the conversation. This is an essential collection that belongs on any ECM fan’s shelf, not to mention a prime candidate for reissue of the century.


Circle: Paris Concert (ECM 1018/19)

Circle
Paris Concert

Anthony Braxton reeds, percussion
Chick Corea piano
Dave Holland bass, cello
Barry Altschul percussion
Recorded February 21, 1971 at the Maison de l’O.R.T.F, Paris
Engineer: Jean Delron
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The short-lived Chick Corea outfit outdoes itself in this 1971 live recording. A delicate piano intro primes us for an extended rendition of Wayne Shorter’s “Nefertitti” to start. Once Braxton throws himself on top of incoming bass and drums, however, what began as contemplative awakening quickly turns into a spastic jaunt into more upbeat territory. The gnarled unity of the quartet paints in bold strokes, all the while flirting with total breakdown. Braxton’s perpetual motion and uncompromising tone make a superb tune out of a great one. “Song For The Newborn” gives Holland a moment in the spotlight. Swaddled in all the innocence of its title and bound by a mature sense of structure, this is an engaging interlude to the Braxton/Corea duet that follows. Corea’s frenetic style in the latter works its way through a host of rhythmic options before settling into a row of block chords. Braxton’s heady phrasing tears a page from the book of Coltrane, while his solitary diversions crackle with the urgency of a broken mirror, as yet unframed by the bastion of mundanity. Altschul delights in “Lookout Farm,” in which he dives headfirst into his percussive arsenal. The tinkling of icicles and cowbells in an open field give way to an extended solo, thus providing ample segue into “73 506 Kelvin 8,” a beautifully convoluted organism that could only come from the mind of Braxton. Below its cacophonous surface pulsates a vast network of instrumental veins, through which flows the passionate immediacy that is Circle’s lifeblood, and from which Holland’s rapture sings with detail and imagination. “Toy Room ­ Q&A” (Holland) boasts Corea in notably fine form, leaving plenty of elbowroom for Braxton to flex his reeds. The freer aesthetic crashes in on itself by the end, leaving us craving a familiar foothold. This, we get in the standard “No Greater Love,” capping things off with notable turns from all.

Corea busts out with some of his most captivating fingerwork, proving himself finely attuned to the mechanisms of his caravan at every rest stop along the way; Braxton’s “Pharaonic” sound titillates the ear; and one could hardly ask for a tighter rhythm section at one’s side. As a collective unit, Circle doesn’t so much make music out of as inhabit its raw melodic materials. This recording is a lasting testament to a vibrant formative period for ECM. The audience’s enthusiastic reactions give the listener the feeling of being present in the making of history.