Pianist Chick Corea is the very definition of eclectic. He’s gone wholeheartedly into standards, fusion, classical, duets, trios, Spanish, Latin, and free improv. And while lots of jazz musicians venture into all of the above, Chick does it with such brio and prowess that only Herbie Hancock comes to mind as someone who matches his utilitarian success. As such, it’s hard to imagine any listener equally enjoying everything the man has recorded, and many titles are out there. I’ve got a smattering listed below.
Tones for Joan’s Bones
1966 / Vortex
Corea’s leader debut makes use of a solid cast (Woody Shaw, Joe Farrell, Steve Swallow, and Joe Chambers) to echo his hardbop apprenticeship and provide hints of future work. Despite a rather thin recording, what’s clearly audible is how original Corea was at this stage; he sounds more like himself than anyone he may have studied on the way up. Brisk lines and telltale chord voicings invoke McCoy Tyner but have an extra flavor exclusive to Corea. To make a comparison with a close peer, Tones is more advanced than Herbie Hancock’s first record, but then, Herbie started recording earlier.
Standout tracks include “Litha”, the alluring title piece, and the modernized bop of “Straight Up and Down”. Both Shaw and Farrell play strongly, and Farrell in particular is a saxophonist worth searching out in this time frame. A fun piece of history for Corea fans.
This trio record with Miroslav Vitous (bass) and Roy Haynes (drums) is Chick’s best in my view. It has outstanding individual contributions, plenty of amazing interplay, and an emotional resonance that I subjectively find to be as strong as any music I’ve heard, regardless of genre. It’s one of my favorite albums ever as it appeals equally to head and heart, and so much of what I admire most about jazz is here. The 2002 Blue Note reissue restores the original LP running order in the first five tracks and follows them with eight other pieces recorded at the sessions. (As opposed to the original CD that mixed up all the tracks.) The sound is noticeably improved although the very occasional breakup of the loudest piano accents is from the source tapes and could not be fixed. Anyway, the reissue is the version to get.
The main program begins with the epic two-parter “Steps-What Was”. After a gorgeous piano intro, “Steps” becomes a minor-ish blues that uses descending thirds as a turnaround. A lot of the music sounds free but actually adheres to form, disguised by the musicians superimposing other meters and frames of activity. Chick also has a penchant for starting many of his phrases on odd beats within the bar, thus making it sound like a beat has been dropped or shifted, and the trio then rights itself a few bars later in an exhilrating tension and release. Anyway, “Steps” works up a small frenzy for a while, then a drum solo from Roy leads into the beautiful “What Was”, a fast dance with a Spanish feel.
“Matrix” again uses the 12-bar form (the theme is a happy blues) as a springboard for daring piano and bass solos. The drum breaks are even more fun, as Haynes cuts right across the pulse, and you have to laugh at how tight the players are connected, even when going so far away from the basics. The title track, in my opinion, is the finest thing Corea ever wrote, part march, part Spanish swing, with lots of stirring chord changes (including the descending thirds again) and a clever coda. The solos on this piece are again astounding. “Now He Beats the Drum” starts with a lovely piano introduction and turns into the most standard sounding tune. Completing the original program is the miniature “Law of Falling and Catching Up”, a free sequence of notes, knocks, and isolated snare rolls. Even this piece has an engrossing aura about it.
So that’s the original sequence, which is followed by several bonus tracks that go off in various directions. The springloaded, upside-down groove of “Samba Yantra” is a highlight, and Corea would revisit the pretty “Windows” over the years. “Bossa” drifts into muted shockwaves. Chick’s solo ruminations in “Gemini” have a profound beauty, while “I Don’t Know” and “Fragments” take abstract paths. The two non-originals, “My One and Only Love” and Monk’s “Pannonica”, veer away from the rest of the album, yet they both reinforce the trio’s swinging chemistry.
Chemistry is the keyword for the trio, really. I’ve never heard any of the three men play better than they do here. This is one of my favorite drumming records ever, and so much of what Roy does is tied to what the piano and bass are doing. The other appeal of the album is harder to explain because it has to do with the chord voicings that Corea uses on every track, from the ambiguous fourths to more complex harmonies. Either they move you or they don’t; for me, it’s an embarrassment of riches. Just the intro alone to “Steps” has more harmonic suggestion than could be found on entire albums. Nothing Corea did afterward ever sounded quite like it, not even when he got back with Vitous and Haynes in the 1980s.
(Interesting note: Downbeat magazine awarded the original LP zero stars when it was released. Not zero stars as in “it sucks,” but rather the reviewer refused to rate it because he admittedly didn’t know what to make of it. Even trying to imagine the mindset of the day, I don’t think it’s that strange - there are heads, forms, solos, and swing. Maybe the abstractions were a little confusing.)
Originally resulting in two separate albums for different labels, these reassembled sessions form a widespread whole on two discs. This portrait of the young man as daring pianist was recorded during Corea’s stint with Miles. Before Corea went the fusion route, he cast his chips as an avant-jazzer with mixed returns.
The set leads off with swinging performances of “The Brain” and “This”, wherein Bennie Maupin (tenor), Dave Holland (bass), and Jack DeJohnette (drums) revel in Corea’s freebop settings. It’s very much like the high-intensity improvisations that the same rhythm section cooked up with Miles, topped by Maupin’s unhinged sax. Flautist Hubert Laws joins the group for “Song of the Wind”, a beautiful, ethereal waltz. Trumpeter Woody Shaw comes aboard for “Sundance”, a likeable neo-fusion theme that happens to wear thin after the nth repetition. Alternate takes of all four follow, with expected variations.
Disc 2 turns to harsher, freer explorations. The honk-and-shout mayhem heard in “Jamala” and the half-hour “Is” (both bolstered by a second percussionist) doesn’t add up to much beyond primitive sound and fury. Neither is it dull, but you get the sense that it didn’t matter who was actually in the studio on this occasion, as everyone succumbs to coarse noise-making instincts. “Converge” has some intrigue, if only in the way its cyclical, dissonant theme echoes left-field classical works of the period. So we can charitably call the second disc “of historical interest,” while Disc 1 is worth the gamble for adventurous ears.
Corea, Dave Holland, and Barry Altschul form a restless trio, their music an acoustic reduction of the electrified, near-atonal din Miles had on offer a couple years earlier. Interestingly enough, the opening tune is Wayne Shorter’s “Nefertiti”; both it and Holland’s “Vedana” contain the strongest tonal reference points on the record. Most of the rest is kind of frivolous. (Indeed, one of the tracks is named “Games”.) One can get happily lost in Altschul’s drumming and the dizzying cascades of notes that Corea and Holland pour forth at whim; nevertheless, moments of bliss beyond “Nefertiti” and “Vedana” are rare. Tough to tell if the trio was aiming for transcendence or just having fun.
Reedist Anthony Braxton joins the Corea/Holland/Altschul arc to make a Circle. Braxton adds timbral variety and some braying stunt sax, but he’s unable to keep up with the trio on the traditional tunes. He does have interesting ideas in “Nefertiti”, and they would have been remotely effective had he placed them anywhere near the beat. The other three players abstract the pulse, but Braxton just ignores it. Same goes for the lengthy “No Greater Love”, where his sour alto solo does no favors to the standard. Chick then takes over and demonstrates where a little traditional training will get you.
The four cylinders fire equally in the freer pieces, the best of which is the 25-minute “Toy Room - Q&A”. The balance of freedom and control, as the band moves gradually from the one improvising area to the other, is fantastic. The hootenanny “73 Kalvin” is sort of dicey, although the drum solo that precedes it is a good example of Altschul’s skills. Also successful is a ten-minute Braxton/Corea duet; funny how Anthony is out of his depth in “Nefertiti”, but he can complement Corea’s on-the-fly piano studies. Overall, this is an imperfect quartet, yet the element of hazard (and strange bedfellows) makes for the better moments. The sound, by the way, is “live” but good.
Better late than never, this album resumes the Corea-Vitous-Haynes partnership last heard on Sings/Sobs. Rather than focus again on original sketches, the trio turns to a couple of equally fertile areas, free improvisation and the compositions of Thelonious Monk. The trio’s communication is still given free reign, and they are as alert as ever.
The free improvs display an uncanny togetherness. In the first improv, the players romp through three minutes of tight freebop action, and at the end, an unprecedented closing figure is phrased simultaneously by piano and drums, an example of what the irrational might call ESP. But lo, it’s just the beginning, and through four more improvs, all sorts of configurations take place. From splintered dots of sound to uptempo swinging to indescribable abstractions, it’s a prime example of how good improvisation can be with high caliber players. The only downtime is when Corea and Vitous break away for two duet improvs. Vitous’ arco bass intonation isn’t very good, and while Roy’s drums cover it up elsewhere, it’s laid bare in the duets. The trio digs into one real composition at the end, Chick’s “Slippery When Wet”.
The Monk tunes are rendered all slick and cheery. Corea comes from a generation of players who dashed off outside chord substitutions as a matter of course, while a lot of Monk’s pieces feature built-in substitutions and/or detours. That Corea sometimes avoids Monk’s trap doors for his own isn’t a sign of irreverence; rather, it moves the music into a slightly more modern area. The one clear thing is that all three players love Monk’s work, and the likes of “Eronel” and “Little Rootie Tootie” spill over with giddiness. Maybe the bowed bass and piano reading of “Think of One” is a little abrasive, and maybe “Rhythm-a-Ning” is just an excuse to rip on familiar changes, but still, it’s a good tribute.
If there’s any complaint to be had, it’s that Corea is so good at aping Monk’s piano technique (the clusters and jagged phrasing) that his quotes come off slightly tongue in cheek in places, like unintentional satire. Regardless, he uncovers many riches, while Haynes is terrific as usual.
The studio reunion album above is a balanced dichotomy, but this live set is a jumble. There are some standards, a treacly Corea original, a Vitous original, and three extended solo spots. It’s hard to tell what the trio existed for anymore, let alone what this album wants to be. Surely their actual concerts flowed better than this.
Corea’s polite, swinging tune “The Loop” is decent, but it tells us nothing new about the trio and thus sounds regressive. As does the following “I Hear a Rhapsody”. Maybe Chick heard the first fruits of Jarrett’s standards trio and decided to hop on that train. If it’s a matter of this trio playing standards, I guess it just depends on which ones they choose, and the one-two medley of “Summer Night” and “Night and Day” works quite well.
Then we’re into the solo features, the first of which is a Corea recital that melds a Scriabin prelude and the original “Mock Up”. At 12 minutes, this performance is mildly interesting and leans on Chick’s eternal romanticism. Next up, Vitous scrapes out a bass solo of suspect intonations - best to skip it. Haynes then entertains with a drum solo. The closing “Mirovisions” is a rather elegant and somewhat intense tune, unfortunately introduced by torturous bowed bass. Overall, the CD is a mishmash, starting in at least three different directions and never quite going anywhere.
The problem with a lot of tribute records is that they’re either too reverential (forgoing the performer’s own identity) or too revisionist (molesting the tributee’s essence), or sometimes too star-studded, with a new band for every cut. At best, a tribute proves that the spirit and letter of a past law can still apply to the present, and that’s what happens here. Bud’s music was brilliant in its own time, and nearly a half century later, it inspires a cross-generation team (from drummer Roy Haynes, who actually played with Powell, to new cats like Joshua Redman and Kenny Garrett) to improvise with zest. Corea gets to be himself and make a broad connection to Bud’s technical bravura at the same time. The front line varies from track to track but is drawn from the same roster: saxmen Redman and Garrett, trumpeter Wallace Roney, bassist Chris McBride, Corea, and Haynes.
The material ranges from the familiar (“Bouncin’ With Bud”) to the obscure (“Mediocre”) to Corea’s upbeat original “Bud Powell”. The advanced blues “Willow Grove” features the full sextet and is introduced with a buoyant vamp that establishes an unbreakable level of tension. Haynes does a great job in this tune. Chick’s dramatic flourishes lead the way on a trio version of “Dusk in Sandi”. Also in trio form is “I’ll Keep Loving You”, a romantic paean for piano, bass, and Redman’s smooth tenor. For “Oblivion”, Chick takes the majority of the theme on piano, with Roney and Garrett answering the taglines in trumpet/alto unison. The pseudo-classical pomp of “Glass Enclosure” sits as a three minute prelude to the climactic “Tempus Fugit”, which features an outbound Corea solo and marvelous exchanges between Corea and Haynes at the end. The album ends with a short piano signoff on “Celia”.
This CD speaks well of both the players’ improvisational chops and also of Bud Powell’s music, in the way that it inspires everything heard here. (Including the occasional instrumental cries and knots that allude to Bud’s troubled personal scenarios.) Both Redman and Garrett are preoccupied with melodic motifs and sequences in all their solos, so it’s not just a bunch of meaningless young lion doodling. Roney plays with precision, and McBride handles his chores well. Corea certainly did his homework to ensure that this was a worthy testament to Powell. I remember playing the disc incessantly when it first came out, and several years later, it still sounds great.
A six-disc set, not to be confused with the single disc sampler taken from the same engagement. Call it Chick Corea’s Jazz Messengers, a sextet with Steve Wilson and Bob Sheppard (on a variety of reeds), Steve Davis (trombone), Avishai Cohen (bass), and Adam Cruz (drums). Usually, it’s history and/or longevity that merits such a comprehensive document, but Chick had mikes in place for his fledgling band’s early recital. (And if you’re curious which microphone models were used, those are detailed in the booklet - after the diatribe about the hindrances of studio recording techniques.) One could refer instead to the aforementioned single CD as a more modest proposal, but those selections don’t match the better takes in this full box. The sampler will clue you in to the band’s sound, though.
The sets mix original material and choice standards. “Double Image” serves as the flagship piece, opening and closing the collection, and it’s perhaps the best of the original pages. “Soul Mates” is a flute-leavened waltz, “Hand Me Down” has a Spanish cast (kind of dull, but it builds to an big finale), and “Dreamless” sounds like Charles Mingus and Gil Evans getting drunk together and writing a ballad. Good old “Matrix” gets some dynamic workouts. The arrangements contrast different reeds (flute, bass clarinet, soprano sax) with pungent intervals and contrapuntal bass parts. The cover material is also spiced up, like “Bewitched”, or Bud’s “Tempus Fugit”, although “It Could Happen To You” is pretty much a laissez-faire swinger. Monk is honored with two blues jams and the complex “Four In One”. Corea’s solo on that tune is amazing.
We get to hear a lot of everybody (there are several marathon lengths here). Wilson and Sheppard, on respective alto and tenor, indulge in a lot of postmodern jabberwocky, occasionally rising into more meaningful statements, while Davis’ trombone generally delivers worthwhile solos. Between all three horns, I don’t think I’ve ever heard this many Love Supreme quotes before, not even in A Love Supreme itself. Corea is on the ball and remarkably attuned to Cohen and Cruz in creating spontaneous changes of scenery. Cohen’s bass solos are a treat, as well.
Despite the top-notch band and well-executed tunes, not much of the whole stands in memory. I won’t snipe at the abundance of music, but truth be told, it would have been more effective as a two-disc set, although you’d be stuck trying to decide which version of which tune to include, etc. Origin itself, with slight personnel changes, made a studio album soon hereafter, and then disappeared. So much for an ongoing venture.
Beyond the occasional cloying, Corea can be an astonishing solo player, drawing on his vast facility and imagination to transform song texts into mini fantasias. His acoustic piano touch has always been lightning quick, and he crams a grand linear scope into the heat of spontaneous performance. If it comes off a little showy at times - as Chick plays himself as much as the material - well, that’s why his name is on the cover of the album. Or two albums, as we have here. Both were recorded live in 1999 in various locations with great sound.
The Originals disc features several Corea themes, from “Brasilia” and “Spain” to some ballads and “Children’s Songs”. Filling out the bill are two Scriabin preludes and a series of short improvs based on audience suggestions: “The Chase”, “The Falcon”, etc. Corea finds a lot of inspiration in his own tunes but never strays too far from the influence of their melodies. The Scriabin pieces are nice but aren’t really necessary, as Corea treats his works with enough classical flair already, and the free improv vignettes are too fleeting to mean much. The music occasionally meanders into dreamland, yet the beautiful parts are still beautiful at the end of the day, and the closing “Children’s Song #13” gets a little avant-garde, replete with water-glass-on-strings effects.
Standards resonates even more than its sister, and it finds Corea in a freer frame of mind. Expected nods to Bud and Monk are here, along with reformulated standards like “But Beautiful”, “Yesterdays”, and “So In Love”, each examined in detail. Almost every phrase of “How Deep is the Ocean” becomes an ornate musical inspiration. The Powell tunes (“Dusk In Sandi”, “Oblivion”) come off well. There is something overwhelming about the treatment of Thelonious’ material, though. If “Monk’s Dream” per its author is a cool leather jacket, Corea’s rendition adds flashing sequins and glittery epaulets; if “Ask Me Now” is Monk in repose, it’s Chick on a playground. Corea has enough technique to outplay Monk several times over, but it’s important not to outplay the material, which he runs the risk of doing. Yet I suppose I prefer Corea’s extravagant “Round Midnight” to hearing someone else sleepwalking through it. Anyhow, there’s a lot going on in Standards, and it’s best to sample a few tunes at a time to better appreciate it. Otherwise, it can sound excessive in one full sitting.
These two volumes taken together make a flattering portrait of Mr. Corea, who sits down at a Yamaha grand every now and then and reminds us of what an exquisite pianist he can be. I have to give the nod to the standards disc.
Return to Forever
rec. 1973-76, rel. 2008 / Concord
This two-disc set covers Return to Forever’s ‘rock quartet’ years, omitting the early Latin-tinged recordings (with Flora Purim and Joe Farrell) that appeared under the group’s name. (Return to Forever and Light as a Feather, if you’re curious, and they’re both worth a listen.) In this subsequent period, Chick Corea moved into the electric jazz/rock/funk area, alongside other major fusioneers like Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, John McLaughlin, and Weather Report. Never one to do things by halves, Corea’s music is the most overtly melodramatic of the crop, full of sudden turns, tightrope execution, and godly soloing. That description might also apply to Mahavishnu Orchestra or Weather Report, but Chick seems especially determined to impress.
The awesome Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy (1973) appears in full here, featuring the lineup of Corea (keyboards), Bill Connors (guitar), Stanley Clarke (bass), and Lenny White (drums). It has its share of stern melodic figures, but it also has a funky looseness and unscripted edge, thus setting it apart from the flashier albums to follow. After the compelling introduction of the title track, the group develops kinetic soloing grooves in “After the Cosmic Rain”, “Theme to the Mothership”, and the Spanish rocker “Captain Senor Mouse”. For “Space Circus”, groove alone is enough, while “The Game Maker” sums up all of the previous adventures. The players all shine individually - like Corea’s electric piano solos (“Mothership”!), White’s flexible drumming, and the smart string work of Clarke and Connors - and they bond very well as a group. Despite some of the heavy handed thematic ideas, the music has plenty of improvisational headroom and a minimum of daintiness, and this is why I consider Seventh Galaxy the most potent RTF album.
For a few reasons (including a distaste for Corea’s Scientology leanings), Bill Connors departed the band, and Al Di Meola filled his place. The party line is that Return to Forever was waiting for Al to complete the ideal lineup, but I think Connors had already done a fine job, and without much of the technical showboating that could infect Di Meola’s playing. But nevermind; credit to Al for stepping into a very challenging position. The four selections from Where Have I Known You Before (1974) are more directly funky in places than Seventh Galaxy, and more obviously partitioned into character pieces, such as Clarke’s “Vulcan Worlds” and White’s “Shadow of Lo”. Corea’s lengthy “Song to the Pharoah Kings” explores some exotic themes and then features solos over a cool four-chord vamp. Corea gets heavier into the lead synthesizer tones on this album, somewhat to my dismay, as he settles on some tacky sounds. I really prefer the overdriven electric piano he favored on Seventh Galaxy. Nonetheless, Known You Before has some stellar moments.
The selections from No Mystery (1975) include a couple of amusing funk briefs (“Dayride” and “Sofistifunk”) and the pleasant acoustic title track that weaves in a classically Corean way. The most imposing selection is the two-part “Celebration Suite”, which uses a terse harmonic flavor and assumes the multi-textured bombast of Emerson Lake and Palmer - big fanfares, heroic crescendos, martial rhythms, and other brain salad whatnot. From the performance point of view, it’s certainly impressive, but emotion and/or feel lacks when the group is so concerned with technical execution.
Romantic Warrior (1976), included here in its entirety, picks up where “Celebration Suite” left off and goes full trot into progressive rock lands. The portamento synth lines, tight unison sections, and ever-shifting rhythms could have come from any top-shelf prog album, and a title like “Duel of the Jester and the Tyrant” reaffirms the connection. Actually, the first part of that piece stays with a jazzy vamp for a while, and then it turns into a more excitable section that includes one of the goofiest synth themes ever (the little “interrupting” part, for those who’ve heard it.) And that’s my beef with this highly regarded album - there’s too much time spent switching gears or trying to dazzle the listener. One man’s change of pace is another’s schizophrenia, and while I like many prog-styled dynamics, I find it hard to keep a straight face when the rocking “Majestic Dance” guitar riff is overtaken by a fey keyboard break, or when “The Magician” succumbs to speed riffs, or when “Medieval Overture” takes one overbearing step too many. More pomp than depth, I’m afraid. That being said, Romantic Warrior has some breath-catching moments, such as the airy title track and the funky “Sorceress”. More on the positive side, I think the majority of the album’s themes are substantial, but most of the time, the group is so busy beating you over the head with their prowess that I wonder if some understatement wouldn’t have been more effective.
Nothing like a generous anthology to make me re-evaluate a group. If you’re curious about RTF, you almost have to buy this - two full albums, good selections from two others, great sound, solid packaging. For me, it reaffirmed everything I liked or disliked about their music, sometimes in the space of a single tune. Ah well, the remixed/remastered Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy followed by a handful of other outstanding tracks is a worthy investment.