Music

Chick Corea and Gary Burton: The New Crystal Silence

The venerable piano/vibes duo revisits its most vital recording, cloaking it in classical filigree and nostalgia


Chick Corea and Gary Burton

The New Crystal Silence

Label: Concord
US Release Date: 2008-02-05
UK Release Date: 2008-02-04
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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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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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