“Can you give me an A, please?”
That was Chick Corea’s request last night at Xavier University in Cincinnati as his sold out trio performance with bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Brian Blade got underway. What the veteran jazz composer and keyboardist, 75, had in mind was something of an audience tune-up. He would execute a series of playful runs on piano – some artfully simplistic, others devilishly treacherous – in hopes the audience would sing his notes back to him. It was an engaging performance icebreaker, for sure – so much so, that Corea employed it again over two hours later during an encore version of perhaps his most recognized tune, “Spain.”
Such was the current reflection of what has always made Corea such an engaging performer – the ability to maintain a sense of playfulness even as his music dived deep into stormy compositional waters. But this acoustic concert was lighter in tone than the fusion and heavy bop-driven exercises that defined much of his playing through the decades. The initial skirmish, for example, opened out into a summery arrangement of Cole Porter’s “Easy to Love” than was anchored, as many of Corea’s own works were, by a sparse bass melody that countered piano runs of often delicate construction.
A similar make-up dominated the new Corea original “A Spanish Song,” where the music revealed an overall darker hue. But decades old works like “500 Miles,” “Humpty Dumpty” and “Sicily” emphasized a broadly animated trio sound that bordered on the exuberant.
Speaking of which, Corea benefited greatly from his onstage allies in summoning the show’s fanciful feel. Gomez, 72, spent 11 years as bassist for another jazz piano giant, Bill Evans. Last night, he brought a density and dexterity to the music, whether it was through the spacious grace of the Evans staple “Waltz for Debby” or the rugged bowed soloing that ignited “Darn That Dream.” Blade, 46, may have been a generation removed from his bandmates, but his sense of swing was potently exact throughout the performance, especially with the tasteful drive he set up under Corea’s piano leads during “Alice in Wonderland.”
Toss all of that cross generational jazz intellect together and, sure, one didn’t mind giving Corea an A at all.