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Chick Corea and Gary Burton

The New Crystal Silence

(Concord; US: 5 Feb 2008; UK: 4 Feb 2008)

The 1972 album Crystal Silence paired two relatively young jazz musicians, playing a gorgeous and filigreed set of duets on piano and vibraphone.  As one of the relatively early recordings on the ECM label, Crystal Silence helped to define the trademark sound of the label—a beautiful form of chamber-jazz recorded with a dry clarity.


A series of perfectly balanced virtuosic miniatures, the Crystal Silence performances are irresistible.  The tunes crackle with melody, yet they were played on two percussion instruments in syncopated dialogue.  While these are entirely acoustic tracks, they are undoubtedly part of the swath of early-‘70s jazz that crossed over to an audience attuned to pop sounds.  Too intricate and daring to be elevator music, but too attractive and ingratiating to seem like straight-ahead “jazz”, the Crystal Silence duets are something sui generis—exciting, relaxing, fascinating, daring, lovely.


But the partnership did not end in 1972.  Corea and Burton—both fine bandleaders on their own—regularly recorded together in duet over the decades.  2007 found them on the road again, bringing the duet around the world 35 years on.  The New Crystal Silence memorializes that tour, particularly the concert in Sydney, Australia, featuring five Corea tunes orchestrated by Tim Garland as concertos for the duet.  The second disc returns to the pure duet format in concerts from Norway and the Canary Islands.


Frankly, Burton and Corea are old pros as duet players.  Their playing together remains brilliant—unified, sympathetic, and deeply creative.  It is also slick and shimmering, which is not a problem, but which does testify to the fact that the partnership has, perhaps, lost its ability to surprise.  The second disc of pure duets finds Corea and Burton in fine fettle, doing three of their classics (“No Mystery”, “Senor Mouse”, and “La Fiesta”) along with three standards and two newer Corea originals.  The pick of the litter may be the Bill Evans classic “Waltz for Debby”, where the players make full use of the percussive qualities of their instruments, chattering like snare drums even as they play the infectious harmonies of the tune.  Of the more familiar duets, “No Mystery” is taken quick and crisp, with some nice new syncopations, and “Senor Mouse” is exceptionally loose and fun.  Some of the material is surprising to hear in this format.  “I Loves You, Porgy” and “Sweet and Lovely” call for conventional jazz ballad treatment, and Burton and Corea prove easily enough that their work together transcends the rippling iciness that their first recordings seemed to define.  Nice work, but it is not so much the “New Crystal Silence” as it us just the usual Corea and Burton—which is terrific, but less than fresh.


The first disc of orchestral pieces for the duet is more intriguing to consider.  The delicate shimmer of the duet is placed within the set of five sympathetic symphonic scores that do not change the playing as much as they recontextualize it and make us hear it in a new way.  To Tim Garland’s great credit, the accompanying writing does not overpower the piano and vibes, nor does it push Corea and Burton into some kind of uncomfortable pseudo-classical compromise.  Garland’s work is consistent with the general tone of Corea’s writing, and on the songs less familiar to Crystal Silence fans—particularly “Duende” and “Love Castle”—there is a keen balance between the “chamber” sound of the jazz players and the orchestral lead.  These tunes are essentially concertos for piano and vibes that toggle smoothly between the delicacy of the duet ad the clarity of the full group.  “Brasilia” is more of a seamless tone poem, an impressionistic piece that could as easily be the music you hear in a planetarium as something you expect from Chick Corea.


The larger challenges on the first disc, of course, are the orchestrations of two famous songs from the original recording.  “Crystal Silence” itself is such a beautiful and original melody that simplicity has always suited it best.  Garland’s new arrangement begins with a long introduction that provides little hint at what song has begun.  Corea and Burton introduce the classic with their usual grace, and the orchestral can add little but sprinkles of fairy dust and gentle swellings of harmonic underpinning.  Eight minutes in, the orchestra takes the tune its own direction, with a double-reed solo on the melody set to a castanet-y accompaniment.  The rhythmic interest is well used when the soloists return, but it is impossible to see this arrangement as something other than a mistaken gilding of the lily.


“La Fiesta” is the more famous of these two songs, but it has also been remade many different ways over the years.  After the duet introduces things, the orchestra comes in to color and punch up the rhythm some.  Here, the surprise is in how little Garland chooses to intrude at first.  The orchestra does not play on a full chorus until the mid-point in the tune when—somewhat wonderfully—the groove of the song collapses into some free/modern playing that is actually the most interesting new music on either disc.  This writing and playing moves largely away from the well-known and the joy is in listening to the song slowly reassemble itself.  When it does, alas, the limber joy of the original performances seems smothered in accompaniment that is rarely a plus.


On the balance, then, The New Crystal Silence suggests the problems inherent in this kind of remake.  When Chick Corea and Gary Burton simply do that thing they’ve done for so long, it’s lovely and inspired, but it is certainly not anything “new”.  And when Tim Garland weighs in with orchestral accompaniment where none was previously needed, the results are somewhat awkward or overly sweetened.  When the orchestra makes wholly new music along with the jazz players, only then is something genuinely new and exciting going on.  But those few minutes of “La Fiesta” probably do not make you want to buy a double-CD.


As much as anything else, this recording makes us realize the degree to which the Corea-Burton franchise has become part of the jazz mainstream.  In 1972, Crystal Silence was at the cutting edge, acoustic music with the crackle of pop pleasure.  Today, the duet is teamed up with orchestras, playing to the academy with a set of tunes and a sensibility half-a-lifetime old.  That does not make the music inherently less valuable, but it cautions the music fan looking for something fresh.

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Will Layman is a writer, teacher and musician living in the Washington, DC area. He is a contributor to National Public Radio and frequently appears as a guest on WNYC's "Soundcheck" as a jazz critic. He plays both funk and jazz in the bars and clubs in and near the nation's capital. His fiction and humor appear in print and online.


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Chick Corea and Gary Burton - Bud Powell
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