If you look merely at the first 10 years of Chick Corea’s career, he makes the cut as an influential jazz pianist. He appeared as a precocious sideman with Latin jazz groups, with trumpeter Blue Mitchell, with Stan Getz, and eventually in the so-called “lost” quintet of Miles Davis, recordings of which have since surfaced in spades. Corea was an accomplished and lyrical pianist in the Bill Evans mode when he recorded some wonderful trio records in the 1960s — Tone for Joan’s Bones (1966) and Now He Sings, Now He Sobs (1968). His work with Davis, including playing some wild ring-modulated electric piano on Davis’s landmark fusion records In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew, and several lives dates from 1970, led to a brief period of free or atonal playing with Davis’s bassist Dave Holland, drummer Barry Altschul, and reedman Anthony Braxton. Then, around 1972 he recorded a pair of fresh and singing solo piano discs for ECM and formed his band Return to Forever, initially a pleasant bossa nova band that featured Corea’s Fender Rhodes and singer Flora Purim and, in a sudden shift, a quartet for electric guitar, electric keyboards, electric bass, and drums that specialized in the highly complex jazz-rock fusion that sounded much like progressive rock without the vocals.
That’s a whole lot of styles and a wide array of successes. By 1980, Corea was nearing 40 and one of the jazz stars of an era that would become alternately famous for both smooth jazz and a kind of retro neo-classicism. (Here’s a neat Chick Corea fact: he has won at least one Grammy in each the last five decades — a total of 20.) Corea wasn’t a smoothie but his Elektric Band certainly flirted with synthy-schmaltz during its stretch recording for GRP Records. And he wasn’t a Young Lion in a suit, of course, but Corea frequently staged much-heralded returns to his old style: new acoustic solo albums, new acoustic piano trios, frequent duets with vibraphone master Gary Burton, and also a few bands that played repertory material — Monk, Bud Powell, and older Corea material too.
So, while I used to get excited that Corea was leaving behind one of his frequently forgettable electric outfits for “real jazz”, the toggle back-and-forth became old news. Were these bands frequently amazing? You bet. I was a particular fan of his New Trio with bassist Avashai Cohen and drummer Jeff Ballard (or the larger band, Origin, based around that trio and other players from Cohen’s circle), but more often Corea assembled all-star groupings: his recent 5 Peace Band (ugh, I know) with guitarist John McLaughlin and Kenny Garrett on saxophone; a Return to Forever reunion project with Al DeMiola, Stanley Clarke, Lenny White, and guests like singer Bobby McFerrin or violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, or his Herbie Hancock duet project.
On Trilogy, a new three-CD set from Corea, Corea’s 5 Peace Band is reduced to a trio with Brian Blade on drums and Christian McBride on bass, another all-star group. The 17 tracks are drawn from live concerts all over the world: virtuoso outings by three amazing musicians, playing songs new but mostly old.
The dilemma with this music is just how little really sounds new. This limber and swinging band, recorded beautifully by the way, works over Corea tunes or beloved standards that you know oh-so-well: “You’re Everything”, “Spain”, and “Armando’s Rhumba” (originals), plus “My Foolish Heart”, “Alice in Wonderland”, “How Deep is the Ocean”, and “Someday My Prince Will Come” (from his Bill Evans bag), not to mention “Recorda Me” (Joe Henderson), “Work” and “Blue Monk”. There are also new tunes (including a long reading of a piano sonata adapted for trio) that are harmonically impressive and lively. “Fingerprints”” for example, hops along with a wild syncopated groove that supports a vintage Corea melody: tricky, fast, and hard not to love.
Is the music impressive? Yikes, yes. Just listen to McBride’s solo in “Fingerprints”, with Blade tippy-toeing around him like a sprite and with Corea unleashing long, rippling strings of improvisation and a drum solo that makes Blades’ toms sound like marimbas of melody. The standards crackle with inventive lines and limber rhythms at every turn. But there is something in all this excellence that curdles too often.
Do we need yet another “Spain”, this time with special guests Jorge Pardo (flute) and Nino Josele (guitar)? By now we have heard “Spain” every which way it can be played, Cool Ranch and Nacho Cheese and Sour Cream and Onion: by Corea and by plenty of others. And its drama — the slow introduction that comes from Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez” tumbling into the Brazilian samba groove and that great unison line over the stop-time rhythm — is a foregone conclusion. Hearing it again with Spanish guitar and flute is like eating your mom’s great meatloaf recipe but with a different side. It’s reliable and reliably good. But maybe the greatness just isn’t there any more, purely by virtue of repetition. And the fact that this version comes with a section at the end where Corea plays one-bar phrases that the audience then sings back to him for an interminable period before the close is cloying.
“Armando’s Rhumba” is the other Corea classic, but it gets a workout just with the trio after a long and pretty wonderful solo introduction by the composer, in which he shows off some of his classical influences as well as his Latin roots. Once the band comes in, there is a nice use of pedal point, and Blade demonstrates why he is probably the most sought-after jazz drummer in the world today. It’s a thrill to hear the tune, still sturdy after all these years.
Corea fans will note that the first song on the first disc is titled “You’re My Everything” and perhaps wonder if it is an arrangement of the tune from Light As a Feather, but that was “You’re Everything”. Other music fans might wonder, then, if Corea has gone somewhere new and done a trio arrangement of The Temptations hit. Sorry, but it’s an arrangement of a Harry Warren tune that seems to strip the tune of it’s original sound. Not a terrible thing, but anonymous.
Most of the standards here are terrific, no doubt. “Recorda Me” is taken at a quick bossa clip, “Work” is Monk but given a particularly piquant reading, and “It Could Happen to You” also gets a cooly interesting solo introduction that is as riveting as anything else on Triology. The material associated with Evans is a special treat, especially “Alice in Wonderland”, the Disney tune that evokes innocence so beautifully, played here as a waltz that bubbles and flows.
But we’ve heard it all before, yes? If not these tunes or these performances, then this same kind of thing from Corea and his bands, Monk and standards and “Spain” (yeah, a standard now, I guess). Try not to yawn, even though it’s well done.
The last disc, however, is more interesting. “Homage” is new to my ears: a more formal piece in Corea’s more classical vein that still taps the harmonies be loves from Spanish/Latin music. That is followed by the even more ambitious “Piano Sonata: The Moon”, which does not really come off as jazzed up classical music but, rather, as a longer form that uses a complex structure of spikey thematic cells. A few listenings pay off, as the composition unfolds and allows improvisation to glide through and complement different elements. It’s a satisfying experience: not nostalgia, not comfort good, and still operating within the language for which Corea is known.
It’s tempting to say that Trilogy should have been Unity? One disc only, please: the last one. But that would mean including the final track, a version of “Someday My Prince Will Come” that few will want to hear more than once or all the way through. The trio can play this kind of thing in its sleep, of course, and Corea’s unaccompanied introduction is another tasty invention. But having Corea’s wife, Gayle Moran Corea, take the vocal is a mistake. Moran is not a jazz singer, and she throws a crazy set of vocal affections into this performance, leaping registers uncomfortably, laying in the odd siren-like vibrato, getting off disturbing stretches of operatic grandeur that jam the song down the trio’s throat. She isn’t out of tune, it’s more like she is using a laser to paint a picture that is otherwise set in pastels or oils. Corea and McBride take affectionate solo, but when Moran reenters over the bassist alone, your mood turns cynical again. Must it end this way?
But this is the Chick Corea of 2014: a superior jazz pianist and composer who has been in his own multiverse of Grammy nominations and elektric bands and famous sidemen and new versions of “La Fiesta” when we don’t need them, an upcoming duet tour with Herbie Hancock, and this three-disc live set, perhaps an artist whose success has revealed more than was always optimal.
Fans, dig in. Fifty years into Corea’s career, however, the one thing you can count on: always more. Always too much?