Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Chick Corea - The Leprechaun at 75

Last June Chick Corea turned 75 and the famous Blue Note club in New York is celebrating the prominent composer, pianist, band leader with a series of nightly concerts between October 19 and December 11. On November 6, as I had meetings in New York the following days, I decided to go one day early and took the Delta Shuttle from the Washington Reagan National airport to La Guardia on the Sunday afternoon with barely time to stop by my Midtown hotel, take the 6 train down to the Village and walk over to the West Side to meet my friend Alan and his kids Emma and Ian at the club. We arrived early to secure good seats at the bar from where we would have an unobstructed view of the stage.

The Chick Corea series at the Blue Note celebrates the many faces of Chick Corea and features a broad cross section of the different combos he’s led and played with, including his famous Elektric Band, acoustic quartets and quintets, piano duets with Herbie Hancock, Brad Mehldau and Gonzalo Rubalcaba, two evenings with Gary Burton and the Harlem String Quartet, another two evenings with the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra, an evening with John McLaughlin (his partner from Miles’ Bitches Brew album), ending with four nights of Return to Forever meets Mahavishnu. Corea’s versatility and scope are indeed amazing.

 Over the past few decades I’ve caught Corea in various formats, starting with his 1970s performance at the Pori Jazz Festival in Finland with the original Return to Forever band. This was pure magic to me. Corea had previously worked with Miles Davis on a number of electric albums, which were path breaking in their hypnotic psychedelia. He had also made his own music in a more traditional piano trio format (his 1968 Now He Sings, Now He Sobs, featuring Roy Haynes and Miroslav Vitous, was a breakthrough). But the new band was something entirely different, something that no-one else had done before. It featured Corea on a Fender Rhodes, Joe Farrell on the flute and soprano sax, Stanley Clarke on bass and Airto Moreira on drums and percussion. Their regular singer, Airto’s wife, Flora Purim had just had a baby and was replaced by a less impressive male singer, but this hardly mattered. The band played music from their eponymously titled first album, which I had recently purchased and had hardly listened to anything else since then. Stanley Clarke was barely out of his teens then, but his work on the big bass was amazing and his interplay with Airto – unusually behind a regular drum kit beating a flat ride cymbal – made the music soar light as a feather (the title of their yet-to-come second album). I was just a kid, sitting on the floor in front of the stage in Pori Theater, and I was totally mesmerized (I can still remember the feeling). I could not imagine anything more beautiful than the ringing sounds of the flute and the Rhodes conjuring exotic soundscapes.

The last time I saw and heard Chick before this latest night was a couple of years ago at New York City’s Highline Ballroom, that time with an acoustic trio featuring Brian Blake and Christian McBride. This more conventional setting was anything but, as the three innovators created new music on old instruments. I was also there one night for the master’s 70th birthday celebration, also at the Blue Note. That evening the band featured Hubert Laws, the amazing flautist who was one of my greatest idols in my teen years.

This time it was the Leprechaun Band, named after the 1976 album. The band featured two other legends in addition to the maestro: Eddie Gomez on bass and Steve Gadd on drums. They had a frontline of three horns: Steve Wilson, Michael Rodriguez and Steve Davis. As per the commemorative program booklet, the evening found them “reimagining the game-changing music from The Leprechaun, My Spanish Heart and The Mad Hatter.” These three were among my all-time favorite Corea albums (although it’s hard to say, as most of them are excellent). Chick himself was in superb form alternating between acoustic and electric pianos and synthesizers (no Rhodes, though). He remains as boyish as ever and it would be hard to believe him to be his age.

Apart from his trombone, Steve Davis was in charge of the horn section, which worked together perfectly. Michael Rodriguez played crisp trumpet, although there was a debate between Alan and Ian about the merit of his solos, with the son defending Rodriguez’ work against some skepticism from his father. No-one could disagree, however, that some of the most beautiful solos were produced by Steve Wilson. Again, I was enthralled by his flute work. Where does Corea find all these stunning flutists? As a flute player myself, I have always appreciated the prominence Chick Corea gives to the instrument in his compositions.

Some of the most memorable pieces included ‘Friends’ from The Mad Hatter and ‘Reverie,’ a ballad that featured a gorgeous alto sax lead by Steve Wilson and beautiful unison work by the three horns. The set ended with a rendition of Pino Daniele’s ‘Sicily.’ This was a lovely homage to the wonderful Italian musician, composer and singer who passed away only last year at the age of 59. Needless to say, the audience that packed the Blue Note did not relent before an encore. And we got an incredible treat: ‘Spain’ as a duet between Chick and Steve Gadd. This, perhaps the most famous composition by Chick Corea, now performed only on grand piano and drums sent us to the cold New York City night radiating heat from the inside.