Chick Corea has spent much of his career trying different playing styles and composing various types of music. The experiments have paid off with 12 Grammy awards and much acclaim. On his newest album, he's reunited the Chick Corea Elektric Band to go to the most extreme place yet -- outer space. Corea based the music for To the Stars on the L. Ron Hubbard novel of the same name. In many ways, it's a supreme accomplishment with difficult technique passages and broad soundscapes; on the other hand, it's a journey that's too long to take.
For the sci-fi illiterate, the liner notes include a brief description of the storyline. Astronauts who travel between earth and its first colonies must deal with the fact the their planet ages so much quicker than they do as they travel at almost the speed of light. Corea's not so interested in narrative development, however, as he is in character sketches and studies in ideas. The album contains 17 tracks. Ten of these pieces are based on characters or concepts (such "The Long Passage", the trip between earth and the ship's destination, which takes weeks for the ship but appears as years to those on the ground). The other seven numbers are "Port Views" that are described as "[m]usical interludes portraying the vast vistas of space viewed through the ports of a spaceship". These "Port Views" vary in quality. While some of them are interesting little compositions, others are simply atmospherics, and too often they fall to the concept album's trap of existing solely to push forward the disc's conceit without advancing the CD's music. These short works benefit those listeners desiring to be taken to space, but probably not those just wanting some unique jazz.
At its best, the music of To the Stars can be quite captivating. Guitarist Frank Gambale plays some extremely difficult parts on this album, and it he succeeds in creating great sounds and engaging the listener rather than just showing off his immense prowess. "Mistress Luck -- The Party" lets him have some wild solo moments in a Latin-tinged number that truly captures a party atmosphere. Gambale remembers feeling overwhelmed when he first looked at the chart and solo for "Alan Corday", but there's no sense of hesitation on the recording. His acoustic parts succeed beautifully without drawing too much attention to themselves. Gambale's solos warrant full attention -- they're each stunning and some of the most interesting guitar work of the year.
Although the whole band is tight and skilled, the performances barely balance out the over-the-top composition and orchestration. To the Stars -- like the ship in its narrative, I suppose -- is continually bounced between styles and moods in ways that aren't always favorable. Eclecticism can be admired; needless space-y effects layering shouldn't be. Corea's ambition keeps the album from holding to an exciting jazz pattern, yet he doesn't create a true soundtrack either. "Hound of Heaven" demonstrates the problem on a local level. The song has elements of traditional small-combo jazz and mixes in some great Caribbean percussion. Unfortunately, the song's weighted down with moments of electronic sound that comes across as an '80s version of the future that just distract from the island-feel of the song as well as the sci-fi feel of the soundtrack.
To the Stars contains some great musical passages, and Corea's continuing to be an innovative composer. His newest album's just overwhelmed by too much dabbling it atmospherics and unnecessary musical vignettes. Even knocking off the 16 minutes of vignettes would have cut the disc down to a manageable length. Had he done that, though, Corea would have been less with left of the space-adventure feel that he was going for. It's an ambitious project, but it's not one that works on its full-scale, despite its multiple memorable moments.