What's Wrong With This Picture?
You’d think Chick Corea would have nothing left to prove. After all, he was a crucial part of Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew-era band, he formed classic world-fusion band Return to Forever, he’s had big hits on his own with both his Elektric Band and his Akoustic Band, and composed long-form jazz and classical works, including a string quartet. The dude has won 20 Grammy Awards in his career. What more is he supposed to do?
Well, he was challenged to write a symphonic work in the spirit of Mozart, and he took the challenge. The Continents combines a small jazz group’s dexterity and flexibility with an orchestra’s heft and depth. The work has six movements, one for each continent if you count North and South America as one large landmass. (Geographically dicey, but that’s the way it’s taught in some places.) This is some ambitious territory here, make no mistake.
Wisely, Corea’s work does not really attempt to incorporate everything about the named continent in any of the six movements. One can occasionally hear suggestive textures here and there; the slow sweep of “Asia”, which later turns into intricate bustling exchanges between the musicians, seems to say something about Asia in a subtle way. But there is nothing stereotypically “Asian” about the music, nor is the “Australia” section marked by didgeridoos. (There is a fairly excellent bass solo by Hans Glawischnig, but that doesn’t count.) There may or may not be a slight Aaron Copland vibe in “America”, but there seems to be one in the 20-minute “Europe” section too, so it’s a wash.
This is a smart move by Corea, but one wonders why it has to be broken into the continent sections at all if they’re not going to have any kind of different flavors. Best idea: don’t worry about titles, just listen to the music. There is plenty to love: great solos by Steve Davis (trombone) and Tim Garland (all sorts of woodwinds, from flute to bass clarinet), as well as Corea himself. (What Corea does at the end of “Antarctica” is both technically tasty and dramatically spot-on.)
The drumming is by Marcus Gilmore, who is not just one of the greatest drummers alive but perhaps even an all-timer. And Paul Mercurio’s orchestra (including members of the Harlem String Quartet and the Imani Winds) knows how to swing as well as hit those classical passages right in the gut. It reminds this reviewer most of the orchestral work in Chuck Mangione’s “Children of Sanchez” soundtrack—high praise indeed.
So why is this piece, with all its great musicianship and Corea’s beautiful melodies, so unfulfilling? There is something just kind of ... not-quite-there about it all. Maybe it’s too much musical information for right now, and it will all reveal itself in a decade or so. But maybe it’s a lack of thought and planning. Sadly, it might be that these are just six compositions in search of a construction that never quite arrived.
The second disc included here provides a supporting clue to that conclusion. Corea admits that he himself felt that the package was unfinished, and went back into the studio with his band to record some straight-ahead jazz. He also noodled around on solo piano for a while, only to find that the engineer had been recording him the whole time. So he added a second disc of this stuff: five songs with the quintet, then 11 free-form piano tracks labeled as part of a “Solo Continuum.”
It’s fine music, as it goes, with a wonderful rendition of Kenny Dorham’s “Blue Bossa” and a boppy version of Corea’s own “What’s This”. But if the composer himself doesn’t really think that his 71-minute orchestral suite is good enough to stand on its own, why should we?