Chick Corea has been involved with an incredible variety of musical projects throughout his career, a point that was brought home with incredible force last December when the artist celebrated his 60th birthday with a month long stand at New York’s Blue Note. There, he played with a variety of musicians and ensembles that spanned everything from his early trio work to his duets with vibraphonist Gary Burton to electric bands to a Bud Powell tribute and back full circle to his new trio work. The only thing not represented was his 1970’s fusion work and later Elektrik Band, which will reunite for a tour this Fall.
During his days at ECM records, Corea produced an output that was more in line with the label’s overall aesthetic, and this music is well represented on Chick Corea: Selected Recordings/Rarum III, part of the label’s Rarum series on which artists select the best from their work for the label. The discs are all 24-bit/96mHz remastered and sound crisp and clear. In his introduction to the set, Corea says, “To get a fair sampling, it was necessary to divide the recordings into two general categories: ‘Jazz’ and ‘Chamber Music’. This is the first of the two compilations.” So it sounds like we’ll be treated to another Corea collection in the future.
The disc begins with two selections from the first incarnation of Corea’s Return to Forever group, which represented Corea’s attempts to “jump into the fulfillment of melodic and rhythmic communication.” Several of the songs had lyrics and represented an attempt by Corea to reach the largest possible audience, though not necessarily the popular music audience that most critics have postulated. In any case, the sound of the band was light and airy, nothing like the heavy progressive rock sound that defined the group with guitarist Al DiMeola and drummer Lenny White. Here we get Stanley Clarke on acoustic bass, Joe Farrell on flute and soprano sax, Corea on Fender Rhodes electric piano, and the husband-wife team of Airto Moreira on drums and Flora Purim on vocals and percussion. “Sometime Ago” is lyrically a meditation on the theme of a world that is in perfect harmony. Following the statement of the song’s lyrics, Farrell takes a flute solo, accompanied by Corea’s Fender accompaniment. Corea also takes a solo and reminds us that he was one of a handful of musicians, along with Joe Zawinul, Herbie Hancock, and Bill Evans, who fully realized the possibilities of the Fender electric piano. The rhythmic interplay between Clarke and Moreira is intricate and driving in the best jazz tradition. “La Fiesta” is perhaps one of Corea’s most famous compositions, having been arranged and performed by everyone from Woody Herman to Maynard Ferguson. It is a beautifully arranged piece, offering the opportunity to the soloists to work against the Spanish modal progression until they have built their solo to a fevered pitch, with the tension released by the catchy major-key melody that is the refrain. From there the energy level is returned to its opening level for the next soloist to begin.
Corea and Gary Burton have collaborated periodically from 1972’s Desert Air to the present. Desert Air was an incredible album because it gave the impression of completely compatible musicians from the outset with no adjustment needed on the part of either Corea or Burton. Both artists are capable of playing impressionistically or of launching a full-fledged technical flight of fancy, and therefore each is capable of supporting the other regardless of what he is doing at the time. Corea’s harmonically complex composition “Desert Air” is a wonderful workout for the two musicians, and a pleasure to hear again. “What Game Shall We Play Today” is an adaptation of a track from the original Return to Forever album given a playful (no pun intended) rendition here with both musicians demonstrating a quick melodic imagination that is fully capable of keeping up with their prodigious technical skills. “Tweak” is a seldom-heard number that puts the duet in a more straightforward jazz setting, with predictably wonderful results. Both “Tweak” and “Mirror, Mirror” were recorded live in Zurich during the duet’s 1979 tour.
The rest of Selected Recordings is given over to work by the re-formed original trio of Corea, Miroslav Vitous, and Roy Haynes that recorded Corea’s masterpiece album Now He Sings, Now He Sobs (which, incidentally, will be reissued by Blue Note Records in July). The group reunited in 1981 and from that session we get two trio improvisations and interpretations of three Thelonious Monk tunes. The improvisations give us insight into the trio’s sublime communication, with no one musician carrying the ball for very long. The group was, in many ways, the logical outcome of the original Bill Evans trio’s concept of the trio as an interaction between three equal contributors, with bass and drums not being relegated to merely keeping time. Corea’s conception, both of the trio and the piano, is quite different than Evans’, of course, but the idea is very similar. Corea says that when the trio reunited it was “as if no time had passed” and the recordings heard here certainly bear that out. What was delightful about the original trio is all still there on these recordings. The three Monk tunes are particularly interesting, since Corea is far from a Monk-style pianist. Here he does what one would hope, playing Monk’s compositions like Corea rather than making the mistake many pianists do, of trying to play Monk like Monk, which was always pretty much impossible. It was especially enjoyable to hear the not often recorded “Eronel”.
The last two tracks are standards delivered live by the trio in 1984. The effect is the same as the last couple of releases by Keith Jarrett’s trio-the experience of hearing masterful musicians who communicate almost as if by telepathy play some well known compositions, impressing them with the stamp of their own considerable experience. If one were to compare the latest Corea trio with this group, even in its reconstituted state, the original trio would have the edge, largely because Vitous and Haynes are more adventurous collaborators than Avishai Cohen and Jeff Ballard. This is not to take anything away from these musicians or the new trio, because it is a new group that must be judged by its own standards, and it succeeds admirably on those terms. But it is a treat to hear the original trio in action again and the generous slice offered up on Selected Recordings makes this a must-have for Corea aficionados.