Posted by: russdavis | March 17, 2011

Chick Corea’s 2011 Adventures…Russ Davis Reports!

Chick Corea with MOJA Radio's Russ Davis

Chick Corea, possibly THE living master of jazz, turned 70 years old in 2011 and as they say…”Waiter, I’ll have whatever HE’S having please!” The man is absolutely a wonder and anyone who thinks 70 is old needs to sit down and have a conversation with Armando Anthony Corea and your mind will be forever changed on that topic! Chick is ageless, his music timeless, his energy boundless and he possesses seemingly unlimited creativity and a childlike attitude about everything. I cherish the memories of the time I’ve spent with him over the years and most especially the numerous times I had a chance to see his performances of or rehearsals for various projects including Return To Forever IV, his project with The Jazz @ Lincoln Center Orchestra (which we hear has been recorded for future release), the recording of The Continents, his second piano concerto recorded in June in New York City,  and some special nights at the The Blue Note in NYC. One such special presentation was for his salute to the classic Bill Evans Trio with Eddie Gomez and the late Paul Motian (this was captured and released on the 2-disc set Further Explorations on Concord) with special guests. I saw the night that included John Scofield on guitar. Then of course there was the entire month of November that saw Chick and various aggregations including special duos and trios in celebration of this milestone birthday. Read on and I’ll share some of the thoughts I wrote at the time for each event I was lucky enough to witness.

 The last two weeks of January 2011 were quite a time for Chick Corea.  First, he spent a week rehearsing about of a dozen of his finest compositions with Wynton Marsalis and his award-winning Jazz @ Lincoln Center Orchestra, who honored Chick by writing unique arrangements of his songs, then playing them with him at three sold-out shows at the beautiful Rose Hall.  Then, the very next day after the last of the three days of performances, he was in the Carroll Studios in Manhattan with a group of musicians he knows pretty well to put things together for a world-wide tour that began in February in Australia. Oh yeah, the band is the fourth incarnation of one of the greatest in all of jazz history…Return To Forever! If you’d like to take a look at a video from the guys just click on this link.

I consider myself honored to have been invited by Chick’s management team of Bill and Julie Rooney to come to the rehearsal to talk to the guys and get an idea of what to expect when RTF IV takes to the stage in 2011.  In short…expect to be thrilled! It’s Chick on piano, Stanley Clarke on bass, Lenny White on drums and, get ready…Jean-Luc Ponty on violin and Frank Gambale on guitars! I had run into Lenny at the Montreal Jazz Fest in 2009 and he told me to get ready for the Return of RTF once again in the future.  Well, the future is now and as I entered the rehearsal space and felt the strong, positive and confident spirit that these five masters conjure together I knew something special was being cooked up. This isn’t going to be a collection of jams my friend, these gentlemen were rehearsing the intricate music they’ve become famous for. We’re talking grand compositions in movements with elements of jazz, rock and classical all in one piece. I won’t spoil the surprise for you but you will hear songs you know given a new twist to incorporate the unique talents of the participants.  You’ll hear new music as well and since Jean-Luc Ponty is now a member of RTF (how exciting does THAT sound?) you’ll hear some of his music played by this lineup alongside Corea, Clarke & White tunes.  THAT alone would almost be worth the price of admission!

Witnessing the rehearsal just lifted my spirits, and I was already feeling pretty excited, but this music is simply inspiring. There was the stopping and starting that occurs in any rehearsal where material is being worked out, and when you look at some of these charts it looks like a black page, intricate stuff. But when things were clicking strong vibrations were happening and drawing me in. I can’t wait for the real thing in concert. I know these are gentlemen who know each other well. Chick, Stanley and Lenny have played together for 4 decades now, Jean-Luc and Frank Gambale played together before Frank joined Chick’s Elektric Band. Jean-Luc and Stanley go back to the Rite Of Strings project and Chick and Jean-Luc have been involved in numerous collaborations over the years. It all felt so natural.  It IS natural and there were only few things to be worked out as there was an obvious shared language and a warm, friendly, collegial attitude among the members of this group that was palpable. And then there’s simply the sound! When the three string players are soaring together it’s uplifting.  Lenny White keeps the pulse moving forward effortlessly from hard-driving backbeat to straight ahead swing. And Chick…what can you say? I just think he’s playing as well as he ever has and he just automatically emotes seemingly without effort as he moves between acoustic and electric keyboards. Another thing that’s obvious is that these guys are having fun with one another. You can be sure that we’ll all have fun when they hit the stage.  There won’t be a better or more important show to attend in 2011 and the lucky folks in Australia were the first to witness it! Here is a review of their first shows in Australia at the Sydney Opera House on the 15th of February.  Special thanks to citizen of MOJA Nation, James Stack of Hunters Hill, Australia for forwarding the story!

Here’s one by John Shand in the Sydney Morning Herald…

“THINK the early 1970s, think extravagant indulgence, epitomised by the music. Rock went symphonic, and jazz went down a very rocky road indeed. No jazz-rock band found more favour with rock audiences than Return to Forever. It dazzled the uninitiated with virtuosity, while reassuring them with howling electric guitar and the fat crack of a back-beat.

After several incarnations, the band disappeared, seemingly forever. Now Chick Corea’s keyboards, Stanley Clarke’s basses and Lenny White’s drums from the most popular version return, joined by Frank Gambale (guitar) and Jean-Luc Ponty (violin).

Ponty, who trailblazed a dramatic new role for the violin in jazz, proved to be the least showy and the most engaging and imaginative player on stage. His solos were consistently meaningful and lyrical, and were realised with a distinguishing bite to the sound, without it becoming rasping.

The other revelation was White, who was more preoccupied with texture and groove than flash. That is not a claim that could be made of Clarke, certainly on electric bass. Some of his soloing was simply too fast to have definition, while his tone became ugly and metallic.

But, surprise, surprise, the idle extravagance vanished when the whole band played acoustic instruments for much of the second set. On double bass Clarke showed what a consummate musician he can be: still dazzling, but now with substance and beauty. His finest playing came on a less stilted, more open and flowing version of Romantic Warrior than was the original recording. Ponty embellished it delightfully, and Gambale, on acoustic guitar, generated rhythmic force and melodic interest, without quite sustaining them for his solo’s duration.

Nearly all Corea’s best work came at the grand piano, and his Romantic Warrior solo was superb, each melodic idea acting like a spring for the next. His brilliance as a composer was there, too, as the magic of Spain filled the room, with Ponty exquisitely rendering the melody.”

Then, for something completely different, Chick played his music with Wynton Marsalis & The Jazz @ Lincoln Center Orchestra. Here’s my blog on the event

I entered the palatial estate that is Jazz @ Lincoln Center in New York on Saturday night, January 22nd with a little trepidation. JALC is the beautiful array of three performances spaces, practice halls and studios that have been dubbed by artistic director Wynton Marsalis, “The House of Swing,” where his mission is and always has been to celebrate the history of this great America art form and perpetuate its traditions. So when I heard that they had invited Chick Corea, a man who has proven his ability to swing with the best of them, to play some of his compositions with the JALC Orchestra I thought it could work but knowing Chick to be one who lives and works “in the now” I thought there might be some conflict.  I felt Chick might be a bit unhappy doing a set list of “oldies.” I should have known better, and as soon as the music began my fears disappeared and this meeting of possibly disparate musical minds instead yielded one of the finest nights of live music I have ever heard!

I learned through various conversations backstage that Wynton and the orchestra had approached Chick with the proposition of having them choose about a dozen of his most famous songs from the 1960’s & ‘70’s.  The members of the orchestra would arrange the songs and have Chick come in and rehearse with them for a few days then perform them while they were fresh on three consecutive nights for packed houses in the beautiful Rose Hall, the biggest of the three live music venues at JALC. The two sets, with a 15 minute intermission, ran almost three glorious hours and not only was the music fantastic, the spirit in the hall was over-flowing with positivity as all the artists involved seemed to revel in playing THIS music with THESE musicians.  Wynton introduced Chick and appeared genuinely honored to have him work with his great orchestra. Chick honestly seemed struck with a sense of child-like wonder and enjoyment, introducing each song with delightful, personal remembrances of how each was written or what inspired them.  The stories would have been enough for me but the music…OH THE MUSIC…! Chick’s fingers were flying and he was absolutely inspired!

There was certainly plenty of swing in this performance in “The House of Swing.” Tunes like “Tone For Joan’s Bones,” “Matrix,” and “Straight Up And Down,” gave the orchestra a chance to do what they do best, and that’s just let it swing.  The spirits of Duke Ellington and Count Basie, both of whom led a big band or two in their day, never seem to be too far away from this place and they were closer than usual during the playing of these Chick classics.  I’m sure they would have loved to be sitting at the keyboard with this band for these performances but a guy named Armando already had that seat and he wasn’t going to let anybody else take his place on this night.  Speaking of Armando, there was plenty of Latin too in tunes like “Armando’s Rhumba,” and “Wigwam,” featuring the great conga work of Bobby Allende.  There was the gentle side too with two songs featuring a guest harpist on “Windows,” and “Crystal Silence.” Plus Wynton had specifically asked for some “slow songs” to perform and Chick had suggested they play some of the collection of 20 “Children’s Songs.” Wynton took a liking to numbers 10 and 19 and turned them into gorgeous arrangements.  One of the real peaks of the night was when Chick invited, as he said, “his soul-mate of 38 years,” Gayle Moran, to join him on stage to sing “You’re Everything.”  They were like two kids on a play-date together and the spirit of the performance and Gayle’s comments were priceless.

Backstage after the show yours truly, with flash recorder in hand, grabbed the comments of Ms. Moran, then stuck my recorder between Wynton and Chick as they talked about what a joy and honor it had been to work together.  Later, from the department of “things coming full circle,” Todd Barken, one of the main men at Jazz @ Lincoln Center and former owner-operator of the famous San Francisco jazz club The Keystone Korner, opened up a free room for me to get a quiet few minutes to talk directly to Chick about this wonderful night of music.  Todd had hired Chick and a trio featuring Stanley Clarke on bass and Lenny White on drums back in 1973 to play for a week of gigs that had a lot to with the formulation of Return To Forever. I wanted to get Chick’s thoughts about this wonderful night before the spirit faded.  As always he was generous with his words and feelings and I look forward to sharing them with you on MOJA Radio and The Voice of America very soon.  As I said to Chick, I think I’ve heard almost every note he’s ever recorded and seen him live any number of times.  I can’t remember ever enjoying a single show any more than this one.

Then, in June, I was off to hear RTF IV for the first time myself.  It would be the first of three performances by the group over the year as I saw them at New York’s Beacon Theatre as well as the Moody Theatre in Austin, TX near the end of the tour. Read on and you’ll see my blog posted after seeing them in Montreal at the 32nd Festival International de Jazz de Montreal.

Well, as for the very first performance I took in at the 32nd edition of the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal, the sold out show by Return To Forever IV in the festival’s largest venue, the 3,000 seat Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, I couldn’t have found a flaw if you had held a gun to my head.  If there were mistakes I couldn’t hear them as I was under the spell of the majesty of this music and power of the incredible musicianship of Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke, Lenny White, Jean-Luc Ponty and Frank Gambale. From the first notes of Medieval Overture to the last note of the encore School Days…yes…SCHOOL DAYS…I continued to say to myself, “Now THIS is what I’m talking about…THIS is ELECTRIC JAZZ at its very highest level!” There may be others who have made MOJA like this but none better, ever! 

After having seen the 2008 “Return To Forever Returns” tour with Chick, Stanley, Lenny and Al Di Meola I remembered how excited the crowd was at the two shows I attended and how satisfying the experience was, but this was something more and as I reflect now on what made it so I come back to the same point, the added attraction of Jean-Luc Ponty and his incredible contribution on violin!  As our fellow MOJAN, Bruce Raff, who just happens to be attending the entire festival on his first trip to Montreal said to me when I asked him for his comments about the show…” Beyond Belief!  I had huge expectations for the show and it was even more than that.  One of my biggest was to see Jean-Luc Ponty for the first time.  It was already awesome to see the world’s greatest fusion band, but to add to that another of the world’s greatest fusion pioneers, as well as greatest violin player, made this one of the best shows I have ever seen!” Bruce and I had lunch the day after to de-brief once more and we both concur that Jean-Luc was the added spice to make this the perfect gumbo!  We also agreed that the versatile guitarist from Australia, Frank Gambale, was brilliant and could have used more of the spotlight.  Considering the talent on the stage you can understand why there just wasn’t enough to go around and honestly I think the “band” was the star on this evening though there were certainly moments of individual brilliance too numerous to mention.  Even RTF classics like Senor Mouse and Shadow Of Lo were taken to new places as quite often pieces would morph out of their original form into passages of funk, to classical, to straight ahead, to rock-jazz and back again, and the guys were obviously having great fun.  There was a childlike attitude pouring from the stage as the players congratulated one another after each song like kids high-fiving on the basketball court. (BTW…after the show backstage, Stanley, RFT manager Bill Rooney and I challenged all comers to a 3-on-3 basketball game but could get no takers!) 

Back to the show…Chick is on his game as much as he has EVER been with a youthful energy I haven’t seen in him in years. He is obviously having a blast and he and Jean-Luc had a special, very spiritual exchange as they occupied stage right while Frank and Lenny seemed especially in sync on stage left.  In the middle, like the mountain that he is, stood Stanley Clarke on electric bass for the first set and both electric and acoustic for set two.  Stanley had been awarded “The Miles Davis Award” on stage just before the show began. The award has been given by the festival each year since 1994, when John McLaughlin became the first recipient, to celebrate the entire career of an international jazz artist and their special contribution to the advancement of jazz.  As they say where I come from, “Yeah, you know you right!” Lenny stopped the show for a minute to remark that he and Jean-Luc had never played together before, that he was really thrilled to be doing that now with RTF4 and that he just wanted to let Jean-Luc know that in front of everyone.  They shared a “man-hug” on the spot to the delight of the crowd. Later in the show Jean-Luc took the mic to say much the same and since he was in Quebec he could say it in French as well as English.  The performance of his contribution to the CD Forever titled Renaissance was a true show-stopper, bringing the crowd to its feet in mid-show, and one of the peaks of the entire night.  Back to my original point…Jean-Luc is the wild card in this band and though each member is brilliant and essential, his contribution is what makes this group magic beyond a doubt! When Frank Gambale and Stanley moved to center stage together to begin the encore they had a purposeful resolve in their faces and that purpose was to ROCK!  They kicked off the classic School Days and RTF4 joined in as the machine they have become to finish off the night with a roar!  I’ve seen many shows in my years on this planet but none I enjoyed more than this.


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