Review: Chick Corea at LJF 2012

Fred Grand finds Chick Corea in fine form as part of his new "Jazz Trio" with Christian McBride and Brian Blade at the Barbican Centre, London, for one of the London Jazz Festival's headline acts

The latest in a long line of stellar trios that Corea has led during the last five decades, this particular triumvirate began its life on the road as the rhythmic backbone of the Five Peace Band (with John McLaughlin and Kenny Garrett). When Brian Blade was headhunted to replace the unavailable Vinnie Colaiuta for a  2009 tour of Asia and America, the more open-textured and less fusion-heavy approach appealed to the pianist. Now working as what Corea rather interestingly terms his "Jazz Trio", it made this London stop-off as part of a short but high-profile European tour.

Chick Corea and Christian McBrideAfter a suitably reverential intro from MC Julian Joseph, reminding us of the pianist's 18 Grammys and all pervasive influence, the trio took to the stage. "My genius partners..." announced Corea, pointing to his colleagues and taking an ovation before even a note had been struck. With piano, bass and drums tightly arranged to maintain eye contact, this highly conversational trio were rather fittingly configured as an equilateral triangle. As the first notes rang out I was relieved to hear the hall's natural acoustics exploited to the full. Corea's exquisite touch and unique rhythmic attack was immediately evident in his lengthy rubato prelude.

Fairly typical of a largely unannounced programme, the trio were moving in separate orbits, their arcs often intersecting just enough for recognisable song forms to emerge. McBride, dead centre of the stage, was a revelation in this context. Undoubtedly the pre-eminent upright bassist of his generation, his fingers darted up and down his fretboard with all of the elasticity of vintage Ron Carter. Throwing good-humoured curve-balls at one another all night, blocking the most obvious routes from A to B, each member was forced to rely on their creative mettle. The trio is in some respects similar in approach to Wayne Shorter's current quartet, and Blade is of course the common denominator with both. His off-kilter punctuations traced a clear line back to Tony Williams and Joe Chambers, his virtuosity often seeming understated.

Corea was clearly relaxed and thriving in such an open-ended setting, casting tantalisingly suggestive fragments of Windows and Now He Sings, Now He Sobs to the wind and toying with expectations. At times it felt like we were all gate-crashing a private jam, this strange fly-on-the-wall effect accentuated by the lighting in the hall, which had been dimmed rather than cut. Monk's rarely heard Work was the nearest we got to a conventionally voiced standard, at least that was until the gig took rather an unexpected turn. Many thought that the show was over as the trio left the stage after 75 incident-packed minutes, but a spritely Corea re-emerged, took the mic, and announced that they would now be joined by a very special guest. A palpable frisson of suspense reverberated around the hall, though I must confess to slight disappointment when it was none other than Jacqui Dankworth who took the stage. Her interpretations of But Beautiful and 500 Miles High were impeccably executed and not without merit, but they felt rather incongruous after the trio had trodden in more rarified improvisational airs.

Audience power finally brought Corea back for one last hurrah, the trio returning to take a playful stroll through All Blues, which was given a funky backbeat and even a touch of rumba. As the largely happy crowd dispersed into the night, I was left to reflect on what I'd heard. Corea has certainly led some great trios over the years, and it is probably true to say that this noted musical chameleon usually finds his broadest appeal when returning to this classic format. Every phrase that he played was emblazoned with his unique thumbprint, and it's difficult to ask for much more than that. Yet despite being broadly enthusiastic, I couldn't help feeling that the show had been a little uneven in places. Not always able to find a common language, the trio's performance lacked either the full-bore swing of Corea's "New Trio" (with Cohen and Ballard), or the almost borderline vulgarity (but irresistible technophilia) of the Akoustic Band. Corea's oeuvre contains some almost impossibly high watermarks, most of which were in the 60s and 70s, and it wasn't always obvious where this new vehicle is going to fit within that lineage. I certainly felt privileged to have eavesdropped on some remarkably limber and spontaneous artistry, and this new formation certainly gives the pianist options. If their busy diaries permit, I'm sure that the obvious chemistry between these three giants will only strengthen.

Chick Corea and Christian McBride photo by John Watson

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