This past Wednesday August 7,2013, as a truly fitting ending to a talent packed Jazz in July concert series in Stamford's Columbus Park, the creative pianist Armando "Chick" Corea played a stirring set of music with his latest touring group the Vigil. Mr. Corea is a world-class pianist and keyboard artist whose presence has been at the forefront of the contemporary jazz scene for nearly half a century. It's hard to believe that I first heard Mr. Corea play almost 40 years ago in a now defunct venue in New Jersey. Mr. Corea was initiating a new guitar player to his then fusion band Return to Forever. The guitar player then was a young Al Di Meola, who amazingly sight-read the incredibly complex and as yet unfamiliar charts as band mates Stanley Clarke, Lenny White and Chick put him through a baptism of fire. The music was eye-popping and hit you like a mainline shot of adrenaline. It was part of a trend that was then blurring the lines between rock and jazz, creating a wild variant that boasted, incredibly complicated musical lines and unprecedented synchronous virtuosity, all executed at blazing, mind-numbing speed. Mr. Corea, along with the drummer Tony Williams and his band Lifetime, the guitarist John McLaughlin and his Mahavishnu Orchestra, the pianist Herbie Hancock and his Headhunters and the saxophonist Wayne Shorter and co-founder Austrian keyboardist Joe Zawinul's group Weather Report were all major proponents of this new and energetic music. These artists, among others, were all alumni of the trumpeter Miles Davis' foray into electronic music. Davis had taken jazz by the scruff of its neck and daringly thrown it on its ear by delving into the newly developing world of electronic instrumentation, first with his 1969 album In a Silent Way and later with his landmark album Bitches Brew. For many its was a sacrilegious experiment, but for Mr. Corea the die was cast and despite maintaining a love of both traditional and avant-garde jazz, Mr. Corea has seemingly found the use of electronics as an effective tool, a bridge that allows him to reach his audience, expand his base and create some marvelous music along the way.
Mr. Corea started the evening's set by introducing his fellow musicians to the packed audience. On guitar from Berkeley, California, Charles Altura; on saxophones, bass clarinet and flute from London, England, Tim Garland; from Queens, New York, on drums, Marcus Gilmore; on percussion, from Caracas,Venezuela Luisito Quintero and for this performance -replacing regular Vigil bassist Hadrien Feraud-on acoustic and electric bass from Philadelphia, PA the inimitable Christian McBride.
Chick Corea & the Vigil photo by Ralph A. Miriello
Mr. Corea has always been able to attract top talent to perform with him around the world. On this overcast evening in Stamford, that threatened but never produced showers, he certainly didn't disappoint bringing with a top-notch group. Mr. Corea started the set with a beautifully ruminative acoustic piano introduction, reminiscent of his early acoustic work on Now He Sings, Now He Sobs from 1968. This morphed into a driving ostinato bass groove by Mr. McBride opening the song. Mr. Corea's has an orchestrator's penchant for creating harmonically and rhythmically rich compositions that make full use of all the timbres available from his band mates.The groove created by the rhythm section allowed for some splendid solos- Mr. Garland on soprano saxophone, Mr. Altura on electric guitar, an unbelievably facile bass solo by McBride and some bombastic percussive runs by both Quintero and Gilmore. The song spanned over twenty minutes without a moment's lull throughout.
Wasting little time for applause, Mr. Corea immediately went into a more mainstream jazz standard on acoustic piano, Jimmy Van Heusen's "It Could Happen to You," where his telepathic interplay with Mr. McBride was most evident. For his part, Mr. McBride beamed delightfully throughout the song and for that matter throughout most of the evening. He has the contented smile of a Cheshire cat and his playing brings an unbridled enthusiasm to the music. He possesses an amazingly swift pizzicato technique and a sophisticated language based on tradition and invention. Mr. Altura's playing was fairly reserved and a bit pedestrian. A more robust solo by saxophonist Tim Garland on tenor was well received. Mr. Garland is a versatile reed man who plays with a fiery attack that is visceral and liquid is a welcome voice in this group. Mr. Corea, for his part, was content in accompanying his fellow musicians and enjoying their creative forays on the well-worn melody.
Mr. Corea has been a longtime follower of L. Ron Hubbard's Scientology and over the years his music has frequently incorporated themes about space and time undoubtedly influenced by his readings.The next tune, a Corea composition titled "Portals to Forever," builds from the music that he once created for his fusion band Return to Forever. Creating an electronic keyboard generated ostinato that leads into another McBride bass line, the song features a repeating vamp played synchronously by Garland and Altura, as Gilmore and Quintero lay down the groove. Mr. Corea is now a sprite 72 years old and his trim figure in t-shirt and jeans gave him the appearance of being a much younger person, especially when he stood to play synthesizer, a keyboard instrument that seems to be a like a fountain of youth for this man. When Mr. Corea uses the instrument's other-worldly sounds to communicate in conversation with his fellow musicians -- in one case with the responsive Mr. Garland on tenor saxophone, and then with an equally compliant Mr. McBride on electric bass-he seems to be tapping into some invisible energy field that invigorates his creative juices. When the song allows for a drum solo, Mr. Gilmore creates a battery of sounds that rumble forth like an exploding fusillade of artillery on display. Mr. Garland introduced the woody, resonant sound of his bass clarinet in support, eventually closing the piece on soprano saxophone. Mr. Altura, who along with Mr. Gilmore are the youngest members of Mr. Corea's current group, was curiously stiff and seemed to be playing in water that was a bit over his head for most of the evening. Mr. Corea has been a good judge of talent and it will be interesting to see how well the young Mr. Altura develops on this tour. On this song, Altura's semi-hollow bodied Gibson ES335 guitar rang out with some sensitivity and he provided his best solo of the night. The song created a blissful trip into the forever of Mr. Corea's fertile mind.
"Royalty" is an homage to one of Chick's early mentor's the great drummer Roy Haynes. Corea played with Mr.Haynes as a fellow sideman in Stan Getz's group and later used Haynes on the seminal Now He Sings, Now He Sobs with bassist Miroslav Vitous. Mr. Corea introduced the song with a romantic acoustic piano solo that was subtly moving. Mr. McBride's warm, bellowing bass added to the lush arrangement. Mr. Garland entered on soprano saxophone as the song ascended like a delicate, bejeweled debutante climbing up a grandly winding staircase. All eyes were on Garland as he soared to new heights. The song then sauntered a bit and Mr. Altura added a flowing guitar solo that fit nicely into the changes. But it was Mr. McBride's upright bass that danced to the delight of the crowd. Interjecting snippets of "My Favorite Things" to his solo, McBride's command of what can at times be a lumbering instrument, was truly a lesson in just how artful a sound the instrument can produce in his skillful hands. He is clearly one of the most talented bassist of his generation.
The finale was a song from the new album, a Corea composition titled "Galaxy 32 Star 4."
The young twenty-seven year old drummer Marcus Gilmore, who just happens to be drummer Roy Haynes grandson, begins the song. Gilmore demonstrates that rhythmically, at least, the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. Mr. Gilmore is a creative drummer whose has a penchant for syncopated rhythmic lines that he plays predominantly on the toms and rims. He created a whirling, circular, poly rhythmic sound before the band joined him back on stage to start the song behind him. With Mr. McBride on a distinctive Jaco-style electric bass, Mr. Garland was on soprano saxophone and Mr. Corea played on synthesizer and Fender Rhodes. The song took on the distinctive flavor of early Weather Report. The song lasted for the better part of twenty-five minutes, with each of the artists having their turn at soloing generously.
Mr. Corea's latest band the Vigil is in fact just that, a representation of keeping the musical flame alive and preserving the magical connection that happens between an artist and his audiences over generations and through the cosmos that is life. You can hear this new music on the latest album titled The Vigil.