The jazz pianist and composer constructs an absorbing, career-summarizing fantasy soundtrack.
Chick Corea was recently named a National Endowment for the Arts "Jazz Master", and there is little doubt that he has total command of the idiom. Indeed, Mr. Corea is one of the few jazz musicians who has not only worked in a rainbow of styles but also has been commercially successful across the board. He has been a delicate solo pianist, an avant-garde piano trio leader, a Miles Davis sideman, an accomplished composer and bandleader in a Latin style, a fusioneer, a Bud Powell interpreter, even a smooth jazz guy. That's only a partial list, yet Chick has pioneered -- and sold records -- everywhere.
The Ultimate Adventure is a stunning record because it summarizes a huge swath of Chick's career. It is a seamless and ingenious blend that even incorporates an element or two that are new to the Corea canon. It would be hard to call it Chick's best album, as nearly every fan will prefer a disc that works magic in one or another favorite Corea style, but it is surely the artist's most successful attempt to collect all that he does in one piece of music.
Mr. Corea composed these 11 multi-part suites as tone poems to match the characters and settings from a science fiction fantasy written by you know who. As a result they are inherently descriptive -- like musical portraits and landscapes. At the same time, they are meant to (and do) have a sense of drama and action. The compositions are immediately recognizable as Chick's: precise written bass lines, jaggedly pretty melodies, Latin grooves that provide plenty of room for a stabbing piano chord or a butterfly quick Rhodes solo, intricate parts-writing for flute, bass, saxophone, synth, guitar. The difference with The Ultimate Adventure is that Mr. Corea's tunes seem effortless again -- this recording seems to share something of the light-as-a-feather feel that defined the first Return to Forever band of the 1970s with Joe Farrell on flute Stanley Clarke on bass, and Airto Moreira on percussion. It's a welcome return to a more playful Corea.
The opening suite, "Three Gouls", easily earns its '70s feel, with Hubert Laws on flute, Airto on percussion, and Steve Gadd on drums. Here as throughout, Chick leads with an acoustic sound, then shifts to electric piano for texture and that trademark Corea Rhodes sound. While there will be synth lines and some crisply electronic passages, most of this record has an analog feel -- dominated by the overtones of the flutes and the reverberations of various hand-drums. Hubert Laws' rich tone and exacting technique remains intact, and Mr. Gadd's touch is equally distinctive, even these years later -- both getting the disc off to a warm start. On "City of Brass", with Mr. Laws replaced by Jorge Pardo on flute, the acoustic unison between flute and acoustic piano is riveting, set against only Hossam Ramzy's pungent hand drums and elastic electric bass by Carles Benavent. Neither straight ahead jazz nor "fusion" in any proper sense, this music is fresh and original in the same way the old RTF was.
Much of the record continues in this remarkable vein. "Queen Tadmur" allows Mr. Corea to use Tim Garland's bass clarinet as distinct orchestral color as the primary band continues to exploit the sound of flute and acoustic piano together. "El Stephen" begins with a vintage Gadd drums sound -- half funk and half jazzy syncopation -- in support of a melody traded among Pardo's flute and Chick's earthy synth. The tune's second part is a riveting duet for Gadd and Chick's synth, locked into a tight written pattern that is as much modern eletronica as it is any kind of fusion.
The suite "Moseb the Executioner" turns in the flute for a tenor sax, with Chick playing Rhodes. The sound is a bit more Elektric Band than anything until now, but the third part of the suite is a daring percussion breakdown with an African/Arabic vibe that you would hard-pressed to fit into the Elektric Band's style. Similarly, the theme of "The Flight from Karoof" has a nasal, snake-charmer intricacy that sets up the album's core quintet (Corea, Pardo, Gadd, Ramzy, and Benavent) for a stunning, polyrhythmic jam on which Chick plays an acoustic solo worthy of his best work ever.
Guitar (particularly, as played by Frank Gambale) makes only a brief appearance on The Ultimate Adventure. The two-part suite "Arabian Nights" finds Gambale on acoustic guitar, sounding piquant and sharp on his Part Two solo. These tracks, however, are muddied up with some string-section-synth sounds that -- to my ear -- detract from the otherwise clean palate of this recording.
The Ultimate Adventure works so well because it is an elegant combination of so many of Mr. Corea's best tendencies from the past -- light melodicism, intricate but ingenious arrangement, Latin/world polyrhythm, exploitation of a tight band sound, and poppingly fine improvisation. With a few tiny exceptions, Mr. Corea seems to have excised the parts of his old bands that were time-locked or heavy-handed, carrying forward only the best stuff. Then, he managed to add in just a enough new flavor -- particularly a new vocabulary of percussion sounds and middle-eastern tinges -- to make this recording truly new. And while my taste for some of Chick's more avant-garde tendencies isn't sated by The Ultimate Adventure, it's hard to be niggling with a recording that does so much so well, particularly in the service of a fantasy novel by the late L. Ron you know who.
It is, in fact, an album worthy of a jazz master, and proof enough that the music remains a more elastic form than any one camp gives it credit for being. Chick Corea, by playing across so many styles with such distinct personality, deserves his unique success.