“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.