Straight, No Chaser: Chick Corea – Plays

BY MICHAEL MARTINEAU //

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Chick Corea sure satisfies the soul. A true jazz monolith, Chick was partially responsible for the birth of jazz fusion as the replacement for fellow titan Herbie Hancock in Miles Davis’ crew. His piano composition can be found in any dusty, coffee stained fake book. Feeling unsatisfied with pioneering a new genre, Chick goes on to form the avant-garde group Circle with bassist Dave Holland and percussionist Barry Altschul. The trio recorded A.R.C. (’71), which wasn’t released under the Circles moniker. The title track, ”A.R.C” exemplified avant-garde’s strange, beautiful chaos. The rest of Chick’s career has covered the breadth of the jazz tradition.

Chick Corea’s latest album Plays is a true masterpiece. Comprised of live solo performances from 2018, Plays listens like Chick’s curriculum vitae and would captivate any maestro or band leader. There are three sections in the album. Each introduces a new theme with witty monologues to the audience. 

At the beginning, Chick muses about conversations classical composers would have had, and weaves them together. After ‘tuning’ the audience, he opens with Mozart’s “Piano Sonata in F.” He flows through the sonata with all the grace and emotion of Mozart himself. In “Someone to Watch Over Me” he introduces phrasing from Gershwin. Then, following improvisations and variations on Scarlatti, Chick Corea builds to his first crescendo: “Yesterdays”. After another monologue, Chick Corea imagines a slew of conversations between Bill Evans, Brazillian pianist Antonio Jobim, and fellow giant Thelonius Monk. He does justice to a personal favorite of mine, “Blue Note.” All told, the first section is a historiography of Chick’s influences as a pianist. He moves methodically from the sophisticated to the downright cool and builds bridges to erase the divide between the classical and contemporary. It isn’t Mozart, or Jobim, or Monk. It’s Chick. 

Having laid down his manifesto on the ivories, Chick goes a step farther. He has painted a portrait of himself, now he’ll paint portraits of others. In the “Chick Talks Portraits” monologue, he reminisces about bedtime with his cousins, aunts and uncles, ‘…we would just look at each other and make some funny, funny melody… Some musicologists call them tone poems.’ Then he plucks two volunteers from the audience, Henrietta and Chris. We have no way of knowing what they look like, but “Portraits” do offer some context. Chick genders his improvisation, and “Portrait of Henrietta” evokes something effeminate and beautiful. Meanwhile, the drive, cadence, and tension of “Portrait of Chris” reminds me of the masculinity of Don Draper et al on Madison Avenue. 

After his portraits, Chick invites Yaron and Charles on stage for a duet. “Duet: Yaron” pulses between callbacks to the earlier classical section to the avant-garde, with laughter from the audience that makes you think Chick must have been making faces when plucking the piano wires. It’s a welcome reprieve after the heavier-hitting standards and sonatas.

The last act of Plays is a selection of pieces from Chick’s 1984 album, Children’s Songs. Per the official Chick Corea website, these pieces are an homage Bartok. The simple melodies and constant movement don’t put you to sleep, as the name might suggest. Rather, they put you at ease. The ostinato in “Children’s Song No. 3” draws you in, and by the time you reach the finale, “Children’s Song No. 12,” the listener is fully prepared for what Chick has to say. After a brief silence, Chick receives an ovation. 

Strictly speaking, Plays is not just a jazz album. Chick begins with the baroque, then straddles the A and B sides with Monk’s cool jazz. In fact, it’s hard to say this is simply a live album. The thematic sections of stitching together influential composers, portraiture as a doctrine of improvisation, and dollops of the avant-garde come together to form Chick’s musical philosophy. There’s tension, there’s swing, and at last, it is over. The final chord’s dissonance makes clear: Chick Corea has more to say.

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