(Mostly) Good Vibes
Anyone who’s seen Chick Corea in concert once knows what to expect on a return visit. At a certain point in his career, his sense of showmanship began to play at least as big a role as his technical ability. It matters not whom his bandmates are or what sub-genre is being explored; Corea brings the same boundless enthusiasm to seemingly every show. Some audience members laugh at his between-song comedy bits and silly dances, others gasp in wide-eyed amazement when he reaches inside the piano and plucks the strings rather than playing the keys. But he can still play, and in a venue with the right acoustics, his kinetic solos take on a life of their own.
It is unfortunate that so little of that spirit survives the transfer to disc when Corea collaborates with vibraphonist Gary Burton, a criticism that applies not only to their latest effort, Hot House, but also to their whole body of duet albums starting with 1972’s Crystal Silence. While finding fault with a musician whose studio work fails to match the directness and immediacy of his live performances may be inherently unfair—it could be said about virtually any artist, any genre—remember that Corea, unlike Burton, has never been a player known for his restraint. He brought a certain drama, a Latin extroversion and exuberance, even to his pure avant-garde work with Circle. But something about the piano/vibes format leaves Corea sounding boxed in, and there is an unpleasantly ascetic quality to the production on discs like 1997’s Native Sense or (getting back to the topic at hand) Hot House. They tend to sound like ECM records even when they’re not.
All of which may be at least partly out of sonic necessity—that is, the need to preserve the delicate balance between the two instruments, leaving some space for Burton to make his presence felt. But the choice of material is another matter. To celebrate their 40th recording anniversary, Burton and Corea opted for their most standard-heavy set to date. They approach classic tunes with an appropriate tone of reverence that unfortunately leaves little room for surprise. For example, there is nothing along the lines of the piece I saw them play three years ago (in Bartlesville, Oklahoma) that began with both Burton and Corea rhythmically hitting and tapping different sides of the piano, jolting audience members out of whatever mental lulls they might have fallen into. Something about the self-consciously traditionalist mentality behind Hot House makes any such outside-the-box moments rather unlikely to find their way onto the track listing.
These concerns aside, Corea and Burton can always be counted on to play like two men sharing one musical mind; describing it any other way would be an understatement. “Can’t We Be Friends” swings right out the gate and pays homage to Art Tatum. This is particularly welcome because jazz musicians who predate bop are only occasionally discernible as influences in Corea’s style. “Eleanor Rigby” keeps up the momentum, though it’s not the best or most interesting jazz performance of this particular non-jazz standard (see Lonnie Smith’s Turning Point). Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Chega de Saudade” brings a little bossa nova to the table before Burton and Corea settle firmly into bop and post-bop mode for several tracks in a row, encompassing Bill Evans, Tadd Dameron, Dave Brubeck, and (of course) Monk. Eventually they get back to Jobim (“Once I Loved”). Their solos are never less than pleasant, often fairly spirited and inventive, but a sort of sameness begins to set in until…
…“Mozart Goes Dancing”, the final track, a Corea original drafting the services of the Harlem String Quartet. This was a wise move, accomplishing two things. First, it establishes a direct link to Burton and Corea’s early 1980s piano-and-vibes-plus-strings album Lyric Suite for Sextet, thus bolstering the retrospective value of the project. Second, it adds flavor to Hot House in the form of other musical personalities and overt classical influences; the effect is uplifting, due in part to the sprightly melody. As if too late, new potential emerges. Indeed, Burton in the liner notes describes the track as “a preview of what we’ll be doing with our duo next year.”
Until then, fans of previous Corea/Burton outings will enjoy Hot House, even relish it, particularly if they are unable to make it to the latest tour.