[1 September 2011]
PopMatters Music Reviews Editor
Fifty-one. That’s how many times jazz pianist and composer Chick Corea has been nominated for a Grammy. It’s an astonishing number, really. Fifty-one is a lot. Of those 51 nods, the man born Armando Anthony Corea has walked away with a total of 16 Grammy Awards—exactly two more than the guy he replaced in Miles Davis’ group has been able to garner throughout his celebrated career. Who’s that guy he replaced, you ask? You might know him. He goes by the name of Herbie Hancock.
Indeed, Chick Corea is one of the most iconic jazz pianists American music has ever seen. He just hasn’t been able to cross over into the mainstream’s consciousness in much the same way more popular jazz figureheads—like, for instance, Hancock—have been able to. It’s not an injustice anymore than it is an act of ignorance, an ignorance displayed by many a common music fan.
That doesn’t mean he hasn’t deserved the attention or the accolades. In fact, he’s arguably just as responsible for the expansion of jazz music as anybody else living today. That notion is proven on The Definitive Chick Corea on Stretch and Concord, a two-disc collection of tunes spanning the jazz great’s four decades of piano-playing prowess. While the release may lean more on his more recent compositions than anything else he’s offered (there is only one song featured that predates 1980), the double-album is most certainly worth it for any seasoned Corea fan, or even the occasional music enthusiast who is considering exploring the annals of jazz music.
The first disc’s tracks highlight Corea’s work from both the 1980s and 1990s in a way that makes a great argument against anyone who claims both decades were worthless musical spans. 1997’s “Bud Powell”, Corea’s nod to the legendary jazz pianist who inspired so many of today’s greats, stands the test of time, highlighting Kenny Garrett’s saxophone and Wallace Roney’s trumpet in the best way modern-day bebop could. “Quartet No. 1” and “Folk Song” are two standout tracks that see the composer stretch music to levels most others probably can’t even comprehend. The former is a great showcase for tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker as his intonations scat through the piece like a man walking on hot coal. The latter is a fantastic lesson in soloing, as the live take from Montreux expands on the original Three Quartets recording.
Ironically enough, the first disc’s best moment comes from the collection’s earliest recording, 1979’s “Tap Step”, a lesson in electric jazz any wannabe player should immediately study. The synth playing Corea displays here is way ahead of its time. Steve Gadd makes an appearance to provide an intricate, complimentary drum performance that plays perfectly against the electronic effects the pianist provides with such ease and excellence. The track literally takes an entire genre of music to a level that many at the time had yet to consider.
Still, the collection’s best moments are held for disc two, when the pianist’s imagination truly starts to run wild. “Blue Monk”, the second CD’s first track, is an exhilarating take on a Thelonious Monk classic that features Bobby McFerrin play an entertaining game of call-and-response with Corea during a magical night in New York. The performance is smothered in fun. It’s a moment that discounts arguments based on the notion that jazz music is boring and mundane. You can almost feel the smiles radiate from both Corea and McFerrin as the performance begins to find its footing and the two artists start their quest to produce a memorable take on a classic piece of composition.
The pianist tackles more unseen territory with his rendition of the Beatles’ “Fool On The Hill”, an interpretation that demands attention and exudes beauty. The 2007 duet with Japanese pianist Hiromi is an intriguing take on a Lennon/McCartney classic that allows the two artists to display both their technical and percussive abilities. A previously unreleased performance of “La Fiesta” is a welcome addition to the collection as well. Featuring Stanley Clarke and Lenny White, its Spanish-tinged feel is a tribute to just how well-versed Corea is at his craft.
Yet nothing tops “Johnny’s Landing”. Sure, there isn’t much traditional about it, and yes, Corea will forever be known for his jazz standards and fusion legacy. But here, the piano great takes his vision to a completely unknown and unprecedented level. This Elektric Band release from 2007 features a groovy reggae backbeat, time signature changes that promise to make anybody’s head spin and individual performances that are the most aggressive jazz music has been in at least a decade. It’s so unique, it could easily be mistaken for your new favorite prog-rock outfit, ready to tour arenas, fully equipped with a laser show and video screen.
That’s what makes Chick Corea so unparalleled. His genius lies within his ability to successfully obliterate musical barriers. It’s all his vision, his idea of what music should sound like, his outline of what entails good composition. It’s what sets him apart from all the other technically sound, well-to-do jazz artists of the modern day. He’s fearless. And on The Definitive Chick Corea On Stretch And Concord, that brevity is presented in a manner only Corea could imagine: Eclectic and superior.