There’s no point anymore in being surprised when Chick Corea veers from his fusion lane back over to the acoustic lane of the jazz highway. He is, and has always been, a stellar player, capable of playing all over the road. The truth is: when inclined away from fusion gadgetry, Corea is a top-shelf jazz pianist, capable of great imagination from bebop to free playing. He imprints his own sound onto everything he, breathtakingly, plays.
Further Explorations finds Corea with three equals, playing piano trio music of the highest order. These 19 tracks (across two compact discs) were recorded live at New York’s Blue Note in October of 2010 as part of a Bill Evans tribute, and Evans’ former bandmates Eddie Gomez (bass) and Paul Motian (drums) get proper co-billing here. The repertoire is largely from the Evans book, but there are also original tunes by the trio.
The title, Further Explorations, is a play on the 1961 LP from Evans, Scott LaFaro and Motian, Explorations. It’s a perfect title because the new record both comes from that early Evans conception and never feels trapped by it. As with the template, Corea/Gomez/Motian share the musical space equally, creating breathtaking jazz democracy. But there is very little sense that the group consciously restricts itself to some notion of a “Bill Evans style”. The early Evans trio is strictly a springboard, and then it’s off into the sky.
The trio’s take on “But Beautiful” is a prime example. This Jimmy Van Heusen song was introduced by Bing Crosby in Road to Rio (1947) and later recorded by Billie Holiday, Nat Cole, and Doris Day before Evans got to it—but for modern jazz players Evans essentially defines a delicate, impressionistic take on this tune. The new version here begins with Gomez playing a classical-tinged bowed solo that begins freely away from the melody and then brings us in. In “Part II”, Corea takes the baton from the bassist as a solo pianist and brings the trio into a swinging, mid-tempo exploration. The piano references the melody in places but not much, with Motian playing his standard but fragmented version of swing and Gomez providing accompaniment that is better heard as commentary, with dramatic bursts of plucked melody rising through the conversation every few bars. When Gomez takes his proper solo, it’s Corea who is impossible to suppress, and finally the song moves into a final phase where the rhythmic play becomes more complex. It is decidedly not a fragile ballad performance that another Evans imitator might cook up. Thank goodness.
Another tour de force here is a new “Turn Out the Stars”, with a dramatic opening section that finds the trio is free-improvising mode for nearly four minutes. Again, Gomez plays arco in the lead, blazing a melodic trail that the band follows rapturously. The melody does not appear until well past the six-minute mark, growing very gradually out of textural exploration by the band. It is not, strictly speaking, a swinging “jazz” performance until the last third.
Original music adds a great deal to Further Explorations. With Paul Motian now gone, it is extra special to hear Corea playing his melody “Mode VI”, a slow-to-unspool minor meditation. Motian has a knack for putting together unfamiliar yet pleasing strings of chord changes, and the band’s improvisation is continually surprising as it navigates this cool terrain. Motian himself is all whispered brushes and texture. Gomez uses his beautiful tone to sound like a humming baritone voice, resonating in plucked space, until he solos with his bow, moving occasionally into a chilling falsetto register. Beautiful.
Gomez is represented by “Puccini’s Walk,” a bopping swinger on which Corea and Gomez play the jagged lead line in unison and then take off for puckish solos while Motian swings old school. Corea plays the tune loose and free, with swirling up-and-down lines that blur strict tonality but never get forbidding. Motian even gets a rare solo, clattering like a man having great fun. This is kind of boppish play can be found elsewhere too: on the classic “Hot House” or on Monk’s “Little Rootie Tootie”, which starts with a minute or so of free play before the band brings in just one phrase from the tune as a recurring bass line. The band always gets around to swinging, but the scenery that gets them there is just as tasty.
One tune that may be of some unique interest to Evans-o-philes is a newly discovered and never-before-performed composition by the man himself, “Song No. 1”. It moves in a lovely way across a range of impressionist harmonies, generating a set of rising phrases that the band plays with swelling beauty. Corea surrenders just a bit more to his Evans influence, and it helps the listener to understand the way in which the younger pianist stands on his hero’s shoulders. Corea has always sounded, to me, like the lovechild of Evans, Bud Powell, and perhaps a great Latin-jazz player like Eddie Palmieri. On “Story No. 1” some of the staccato attack falls from Corea’s style and you can hear Evans shining through in purer form.
Bill Evans burst to prominence almost exactly a half-century ago with his landmark recordings at New York’s Village Vanguard. The notion that his sensibility, repertoire, and influence remain resonant in the New York clubs today is no surprise but still a kind of reassurance. Presumably in another fifty years Corea, Gomez and Motian will have their own descendants in New York and the story of jazz will roll on as it rises up.