wed 17/07/2024

Chick Corea, Barbican | reviews, news & interviews

Chick Corea, Barbican

Chick Corea, Barbican

Legendary jazz pianist's solo recital morphs into a dazzling variety performance

Chick Corea: love of music shines through the circus

Jazz pianist Chick Corea put a bomb under his reverential “rare solo concert” billing at the Barbican last night, with an outrageously showmanlike variety performance that seemed to take in everyone from Keith Jarrett to Gareth Malone. Corea’s two ECM albums, Piano Improvisations (1971 and 1972), blazed a trail for similar work, music that was cerebral, even austere, from Paul Bley and the arguably even more distinguished Jarrett.

Anyone expecting a similar experience last night will have left reeling not just at moments of sublime musicianship, but also at Corea’s multifarious programming, which verged, at times, on the surreal.

To begin with, he followed the pattern established by the recent release of Corea’s album Solo Piano: Portraits. The first set comprised Corea’s versions of a group of standards. It was a conservative set list, with pieces by Bill Evans, Monk, Ellington and Jobim. Generally, Corea would begin with a wistful, dissonant chord, suggesting a mood of reflective abstraction, before strands of increasingly familiar melody emerged, entwined around the surrounding chords. He captured the style of each composer - Monk’s contorted, percussive rhythm, Jobim’s sultry swing - deftly, and his sound had a kind of rough-hewn immediacy, and suggested Corea was improvising at least part of the arrangements.

They were, for the most part, too much fun to quibble with, though by the time he reached the fourth and fifth tune, the pattern - abstract opening, improvisation on the melody, then an abrupt finish - was becoming familiar. For a pianist who has, since the 1960s, been at many of jazz’s sharpest of cutting edges, there wasn’t, perhaps, the sense of revelation and innovation we’ve come to expect from Corea.

Chick’s indefatigable banter kept reminding me of Bruce Forsyth

The final piece in the first set was also the most original: a pairing of Stevie Wonder’s “Pastime Paradise” and a Chopin mazurka. The combination of pieces was, as such, mostly a novelty, since these were essentially two separate pieces with a short linking phrase, but the incorporation of (for jazz) less familiar source material made the pieces fresher, and the border between the new and original music an intriguing puzzle. Corea’s warping of Chopin’s elegant rhythms, in particular, created a refreshing, invigorating sense of alienation.  

Chick CoreaThe second set contained the most exciting music, in the form of Corea’s re-interpretations of his own compositions from the 1980s: first “Yellow Nimbus”, dedicated to guitarist Paco de Lucia, with whom it was originally performed, then a series of re-workings of his children’s songs. Where his standards occasionally betrayed a touch of autopilot, here he was working at full stretch, at his most Jarrett-esque, his slaloming melodies, tumbling harmonic exploration, and urgent, introspective phrasing creating a virtuosic and intense sound. In length, the children’s songs are miniatures, but artistically, they were his most searching creations.

Between the sublime solo piano pieces was some audience interaction that revealed a completely different side of Corea’s performing identity. Members of the audience were invited to the stage to improvise with Chick; the two who did so acquitted themselves impressively well, but these episodes couldn’t help but break the musical spell, while Chick’s indefatigable banter kept reminding me of Bruce Forsyth, in a way that didn’t enhance my appreciation of his music, though it’s only fair to say that the audience seemed to love it.

Further surprises were to come with an extended encore featuring Tim Garland on soprano saxophone, and Egyptian percussionist Hossam Ramzy, on tabla, world-class musicians who just happened to be available. They played a piece improvised on an Arabic theme, all sinuous, silvery soprano melody and shimmering tabla. It was punctuated, in a strangely effective way, by an audience singalong, another pieces of spectator participation, reminiscent, this time, of Gareth Malone.    

It was difficult to decide, in the end, whether Corea was making a point about spontaneous music-making, or whether he’s simply an exhibitionist. Or perhaps both. He’s well worth it for the solo piano alone; reactions to the rest of the evening will depend on taste. Not a perfect gig, but a memorable and extraordinary one.

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