Sunday, May 16, 2010

Chick Corea with Hubert Laws @ Blue Note, May 13, 2010

The fact that Chick Corea can pack New York’s Blue Note club for 24 shows over a two-week period is firm proof, if any was needed, that he remains a jazz superstar. The theme was ‘Further Explorations of Bill Evans’ and Corea had for the occasion put together a trio with two important Evans alumni: Paul Motian played drums with the pianist’s legendary trio since 1959 till 1964; Eddie Gomez became the chosen bass player for Evans in 1966 and stayed with the maestro for eleven years recording a number of classic trio and duo recordings.

On selected evenings of this month’s Blue Note gig, the trio was supplemented by stellar guest artists, such as Joe Lovano, Greg Osby and John Scofield. I timed my concert going to the evening when the guest soloist was the flutist Hubert Laws, an early hero since I was a boy back in Helsinki. This was actually the first time I’d ever heard Laws live, as the gentleman is not a frequent sight at even New York’s best and foremost jazz venues. Apart from having had an outstanding career as a studio musician and the preferred flautist to producers such as Quincy Jones, Laws has released some twenty records under his own name (many of them, I must admit, fall under the category of smooth jazz, some borderline schmaltz). He has also played solo flute with top-notch classical orchestras, such as the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera. His records Afro-Classic and The Rite of Spring, released in 1970 and 1972 respectively, in which he combined his classical acumen with jazz arrangements, were cherished treasures to me when I was studying the flute.

So I was appropriately excited when the band walked down the stairs of the legendary West Village club onto the stage in front of a packed audience. Corea, who will turn 69 in June, appeared as boyish and communicative as ever. He stood up to introduce the band—each member of which has been a leader in his own right—including Laws with whom he said he’d been buddies since the 1960s. Then he simply announced that, “This is a jam session. We’re going to start with something.” He sat behind the piano and started a lively solo, which the band joined in after just a brief intro. Laws initially took the lead melody but the band soon settled into a mood that would permeate the evening.

While all of the players are virtuosos in their instruments, none of them would dominate. The music was distinctly characterized by collective interplay where all players would closely listen to each other and keenly react to impulses emanating from their band mates. Throughout the concert, Paul Motian would keep a low profile avoiding any flashy displays, rather sensitively contributing to the music with delicate accents. The music played this evening would be light as a feather.

After the first tune, Corea and Laws apparently felt that the flute microphone wasn’t turned high enough in the mix. The leader got up and told the soundman in a thick fake foreign accent, “The flute player need more flute.” Once the volume was adjusted, Corea continued joking, “The flute player will now play solo flute.”

What followed was one of the high points of the evening for me. The piano led the band into a light medium waltz, which I soon recognized as the familiar and wonderful Bill Evans piece ‘Waltz for Debby’ from half a century ago. Laws played the lovely melody with a beautiful tone. With Hubert Laws, you don’t expect vocalizing or any of the other gimmicks so common with many jazz flutists; just smooth and beautiful playing with a fluid technique. His tone is thick like Gazzelloni’s and his double and triple tonguing as facile as Rampal’s. Indeed, Laws’ flute playing sounds so light and easy that it belies the complexity and skill.

Next, Corea explained that they would now try to play a Bill Evans tune that they had just discovered on a tape and transcribed this week. He said shrugging that it had simply been titled ‘Song #1’ on the tape. It turned out to be an exquisite ballad with a melody that fit perfectly the band’s harmonic combination of flute, piano and bass.

The next number was introduced by Gomez skilfully bowing his bass in a classically-inspired solo, which at times sounded like a cello as he climbed high on neck. The solo then morphed into a dramatic tango rhythm into which the rest of the band joined. This to me would be the second high point of the show. The band explored the piece from various angles and in his solo Corea himself brought out the unmistakably Moorish roots of the Argentinean music. The atmosphere intensified, as the players ventured outside of the strictures of the genre, the Puerto Rican born bass player slapping the strings before switching back to his French style bow, again bringing order to the dance.

The remaining two numbers were more mainstream jazz. Hubert Laws played both somewhat unusually on a piccolo. The first, a medium swing, was light and good humoured. Finally, a fast be-bop version of the standard ‘What is This Thing Called Love?’ brought the concert to a satisfying close.

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