Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Honoring Chick Corea

Chick Corea, a long time jazz pianist who played with Miles Davis in the 60s, pioneered jazz fusion in the 70s, has experimented with jazz and classical compositions in recent years, and continues to play a rich and accessible brand of jazz, was honored by an appreciative group of collaborators on Saturday night at Symphony Space. For most of the performance, he sat in the audience enjoying the many tributes to him.

The lead appreciator was Gary Burton, the great vibraphone player, who told us that he has been playing off and on with Corea for 38 years. He also told the audience a story about Corea's plans to write a sextet for string quartet, piano, and vibraphone. Corea prepared by listening, in particular, to the Beethoven and Bartok string quartets over and over, and by trying out variations on what he heard on his piano. Then at a certain point, he decided he was ready. He gave himself about 6 weeks to actually compose the sextet. In addition, before he had actually written anything, he scheduled a long and involved touring schedule for playing the unwritten sextet. This caused Gary Burton considerable anxiety, especially when he called Chick after he had been supposedly working on the piece for a week and learned that although Chick had not written everything he was very satisfied with the excellent composition paper he had chosen for the occasion. Somehow, though Corea did make the deadline, the rehearsals and the tour went on without a hitch and Burton called it one of the finest professional experiences of his life.

We heard a lot about this sort of thing from the folks who were gathered there to play Corea's music and to recognize his accomplishments. He is apparently a generous collaborator and a consummate professional. Everyone seemed to be expressing a kind of subdued awe for this great jazz pianist. And they played his music beautifully and sensitively, especially as they got warmed up and surged with a new energy into the second half of the program. Finally, at the very end, Chick Corea himself was brought up on stage and after the expected handshakes and hugs, he sat down to play with them one of his recent and most successful compositions - Matrix. It was at that point, as Corea started those amazing jazz riffs up and down the piano that we could see clearly how great he is. For even in the midst of these wonderful, acclaimed musicians who came to pay this tribute to him, he stole the show. He completely controlled the stage. He was the attraction and it seemed no one could touch him, though it was interesting that Gary Burton seemed to play with even more speed and fury than he had at any time earlier in the evening. Chick Corea was at the piano and one of the greatest jazz pianist of his generation (along with Keith Jarrett?) utterly dominated the bracing finish. A great evening!

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