critic’s pick: chick corea, ‘the musician’

Now this is what you call a birthday celebration.

On a new triple CD/single Blu-Ray disc concert album “The Musician,” jazz colossus Chick Corea whittles down recordings from a nearly two month residency last fall at the Blue Note in New York. Planned in conjunction with his 75th birthday, the tenure placed the veteran keyboardist and composer in 15 different group configurations –  piano duos, jazz trios, fusion ensembles, flamenco groups and more. Most featured celebrated jazz names from multiple generations, although the broadly playful spirit of Corea’s musicianship – predominantly on piano – clearly fuels the birthday bash.

“The Musician” presents 10 of those settings and the results are continually fascinating. For those whose familiarity with Corea is limited to his fusion adventures, “The Musician” regularly offers colorful, though often tempered interplay. A realigned, acoustic version of the ‘70s Return to Forever quartet (with Frank Gambale in for Al DiMeola) darts through “Captain Marvel” and “Light as a Feather” with boppish, streamlined glee while a retooled Five Peace Band turns up the electricity for two very different exchanges with guitar giant John McLaughlin, the volcanic “Spirit Rides” and the comparatively modest but gorgeously textured “Special Beings.” The 80s era Elektric Band reunites for “Ritual” and “Silver Temple” to ignite Corea’s mightest array of plugged-in sounds, especially on Rhodes-style electric piano, although the warp speed percussion blitz of drummer Dave Weckl tends to overpower both tunes.

Those preferring Corea strictly on piano can indulge in generous duets with Marcus Roberts (on a riotously fragmented “Caravan”) and Herbie Hancock (on an ominous, slow-brewing “Cantaloupe Island” that sounds like it has spent the last few years soaking in the New Orleans sun with a freshly adopted Professor Longhair accent). The non-piano duo settings team Corea with vocalist Bobby McFerrin, on the former’s signature tune “Spain,” much of which is devoted to a wordless improvisational meditation, and vibraphonist Gary Burton, on “Overture” and “Your Eyes Speak to Me.” The latter tunes quietly stray into chamber territory with help from the Harlem String Quartet.

Traditionalists should welcome a lovely trio reading of “I Hear a Rhapsody” with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Brian Blade while an all-star quintet spotlighting trumpeter Wallace Roney salutes Corea mentor (and one time employer) Miles Davis on an insightful 22 minute version of  “If I Were a Bell.”

The highlight, though, comes from a pair of songs cut with the least known support team of the lot, the aptly named Flamenco Heart. The group provides a framework of guitar, percussion and reeds that allows the Spanish inspiration so clearly at the heart of Corea’s music to lightly but profoundly soar. The collaboration is the crowning touch in this expansive, celebratory overview of a restless jazz titan whose music truly knows no bounds.

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