Chick Corea: Solo Piano
It may be Keith Jarrett and Paul Bley who, with Facing You (1972) and Open, To Love (1973) respectively, put ECM on the map for what would become a lifelong focus on the art of solo piano, but it was Chick Corea's Piano Improvisations Vol. 1 (1971) and Vol. 2 (1972) that represented the label's first released exploration of a nexus where in-the-moment improvisation and, in some cases, preconceived form could meet to create a new kind of spontaneous composition that has since become a touchstone for record labels and musicians around the globe. Solo Piano, part of ECM's Old & New Masters series, collects these two out of print titles, along with with 1984's Children's Songs, another solo disc that came amidst of a flurry of renewed activity by the pianist for the highly influential German label in mid-1980s.
1971 was a watershed year for Corea. After emerging in the post-bop world of Tones for Joan's Bones (Vortex, 1966) and Now He Sings, Now He Sobs (Solid State, 1968), the pianistin addition to being recruited by trumpeter Miles Davis for a series of increasingly electrified albums that began with Filles de Kilimanjaro (Columbia, 1968) and ended with Big Fun (Columbia, 1974)gradually moved into increasingly free territory, collaborating with other Davis alumni including drummer Jack DeJohnette, bassist Dave Holland and reed man Bennie Maupin for the 1969 sessions collected on The Complete "IS" Sessions (Blue Note, 2002). Even more extreme was the avant jazz quartet Circle, which found Corea and Holland in collaboration with fearless improviser Anthony Braxton, and Bley alum, drummer Barry Altschul. The group's live release on ECM, Paris Concert (1972), remains a high point of early-1970s intuitive interplay, as Circle wound its way intrepidly (and at great length) through a series of original music and a version of saxophonist Wayne Shorter's enduring "Nefertiti" that demonstrated just how far four free-thinking players could take that most memorable of musical sketches.
But change was in the air. Corea has, in the ensuing years, spoken of a personal decision made, around that time, to move towards music more capable of reaching a wider audiencemore eminently accessible, perhaps, but music that has proven itself, in a career which is in 2010 nearing its sixth decade, to be deeply personal and both instantaneously memorable and recognizable. Piano Improvisations Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 represent the first recorded evidence of this significant paradigm shift, though the encouragement of label head/producer Manfred Eicher towards complete spontaneity means that these two discs are right on the cusp of Corea's move towards music that would reach larger audiences. Soon after, he would join in what is now a longstanding duo with vibraphonist Gary Burton documented on the Old & New Masters box Crystal Silence: The ECM Recordings 1972-1979 (2009). He would also form the early, Latinesque incarnation of Return to Foreverwhose eponymous debut was released on ECM in 1972, but which would ultimately achieve far greater acclaim as the high energy, guitar-driven group that released fusion classics including Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy (Polydor, 1973) and Romantic Warrior (Columbia, 1976).
What's most remarkable about Piano Improvisationsboth discs culled from the same April, 1971 recording session at Arne Bendiksen Studio in Oslo, Norwayis how much of it would appear on later recordings. "Song for Sally" ultimately appeared in Gary Burton's repertoire as "Sea Journey," but is already fully formed on this earlier solo version, and is an early demonstration of Corea's highly charged, percussive approach to the piano. Lyrical, but with powerful forward motion and a harmonic sensibility that combined the sophisticated language of jazz with Latin concerns and a touch of European classicism, it's a song more closely associated with Burton and his quintet record with legend-in-the-making guitarist Pat Metheny, Passengers (ECM, 1977), but is also one of Piano Improvisations Vol. 1's highlights. Another is the enduring "Sometime Ago," where Corea's Latin roots are displayed even more prominently, and which exceeds Return to Forever's version on its 1972 debut in length, scope and effortless freedom. Corea revisits "Song of the Wind," from The Complete "IS" Sessions, but here, while swinging in its own unique way, it's a more impressionistic reading that demonstrates just how much the pianist's voice had evolved in just two years.
But the ultimate high point of Vol. 1 is the eight-part suite, "Where Are You Now?," where the pianist runs the gamut from the expressive beauty of "Picture 1" and joyous "Picture 4" (which foreshadows Return to Forever's dancing "What Game Shall We Play Today") to the more oblique freedom of "Picture 3," and its inside-the-piano musings, and the quirkily tempestuous "Picture 6." Released only a few months apart, the distance between Corea's more left-of-center proclivities on A.R.C. and his newfound ability to mesh unfettered improvisation with engaging, singable writing on Piano Improvisations Vol. 1 couldn't have been more profound.
Vol. 2 further established Corea's move into more approachable territory. It also provided clear evidence of Manfred Eicher's astute sequencing ability, placing the music in an order that not only made clear sense as a series of discrete pieces, but lent each volume its own overriding arc. If anything, Vol. 2 represents an even broader cross-section of the evolving Coreafeaturing, in addition to the pianist's own work, brief covers of Thelonious Monk's "Trinkle Tinkle" and Shorter's "Masqualero. Both demonstrated that his inherent love of the tradition had remained intact through his avant years, even as he inserted his own particular sense of comic quirkiness into the Monk and the kind of dramatic majesty and sheer virtuosity in the Shorter that his fellow Miles Davis alum would simply never have considered.
Corea had, by this time, become interested in the Church of Scientology, and the science fiction writing of its founder, L. Ron Hubbard, making the more cinematic free play of an abstract suite of otherworldly concerns make absolute sense within the context of Coreas's musical development. The outré, but still rhythmically centered "Preparation 1," and idiosyncratic, hard-hitting "Preparation 2" become contextual precursors to "Departure from Planet Earth," where dense, Cecil Taylor-ish chordsbut with the piano's sustain pedal turning them into a nebulous sonic cloudlead to a maelstrom of repetitive layers that ebb and flow as Corea moves seamlessly from keys to strings.
After the breathtaking abstractions that precede it, the closing "A New Place" suggests a more tranquil destination, though not without its twists and turns on "Scenery." The puckish "Imps Walk" foreshadows Corea's 1976 Grammy-winning The Leprechaun (Polydor), while the entire set ends on a calming note with the aptly titled "Rest."
And the sound. ECM's sonic model was classical recording, where transparency was paramount, allowing every note, every space and every nuance to be heard clearly across an audio landscape as much a part of the music as the playing itself. As the first of a series of solo piano recitals that has grown to include, in addition to Bley and Jarrett, Vassilis Tsabropoulos, Misha Alperin, Marilyn Crispell, Jon Balke, François Couturier, Stefano Bollani, Steve Kuhn, and Richie Beirach, Corea's Piano Improvisations Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 may not have made the deep cultural impact of Jarrett's Facing You, Bley's Open, To Love, or even Corea's own subsequent work for the label; but in hindsight, they set the stage for what was to come. Revisited nearly 40 years later, they are important, not just as a very significant touchstone, but as critical signs of a fundamental shift in musical emphasis that would position Corea as one of the most important pianists of the past fifty years.
When Corea, following many years recording for major labels in largely electric contexts (but with an increasing disposition towards acoustic music), came back to ECM to reform his Now He Sings, Now He Sobs trio featuring bassist Miroslav Vitous (by then an ex-Weather Report co-founder and leader of his own fine quartet for the label) and über-drummer Roy Haynes for Trio Music (1982), nobody knew it would signal the beginning of a second wave of recordings for the label. Not that he'd ever halted his affiliation with the labelhis ongoing duo with Gary Burton continued to release albums through to end of the 1970sbut his primary focus remained in the realm of major label releases like the excellent Friends (Polydor, 1978) and powerful acoustic classic, Three Quartets (Warner Bros., 1981).
While Corea continued to diversify with extra-curricular projects like the Echoes of an Era band (backing singer Chaka Khan but releasing two instrumental sets, The Griffiths Park Collection and The Griffiths Park Collection 2, on Elektra Musician in 1982), the pianist's return to ECM in the 1980s found him still making eminently accessible music, but in more exploratory and less inherently conventional contexts. Two 1985 releasesthe richly composed Septet, featuring a string quartet plus flute and French horn, and the gentler Voyage, a more improvisation-heavy duet record with Septet's flautist, Steve Kujalaremain largely (and sadly) overlooked to this day.
As does Children's Songs, first released in 1984 and included as the third disc of Solo Piano. Corea, who cites Béla Bartók as a major influence, had, throughout his career, written brief miniatures he called "Children's Songs." In some ways, Corea's lyrical but nevertheless rich in structure "Children's Songs" were his versions of Bartók's Mikrokosmos series, though Corea's 20 pieces are dwarfed by Bartók's 153, and whereas the Hungarian classical composer's pieces were designed in increasing degrees of challenge for young piano students, Corea's series seem more intended as highly melodic miniatures that reflect a certain playfulnessin some cases, naiveté, evenas opposed to intended pianistic exercises.
A slower version of "No. 1" first appeared on Corea's classic 1972 debut with Burton, Crystal Silence, while a group version of the same song appeared on the Latin-era Return to Forever's 1973 Polydor release, Light as a Feather, and two more appeared in group readings on Friends ("No. 5" and "No. 15"). The real revelations of Children's Songs begin, however, with the gentle "No. 3," which, in fact, was "Space Circus Part I" on Corea's first high volume fusion disc, Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy, though that version combined electric and acoustic pianos together. Even more startling is the discovery that the propulsive "No. 6" was, in fact, a core segment of Where Have I Known You Before's epic closer, "Song of the Pharoah Kings." Even the impish "No. 9" made its first appearance on The Leprechaun as "Pixieland Rag," the stage-setter for another closing epic, "Leprechaun's Dream," which represented a new high water mark for Corea's large ensemble writing at the time. Anyone who's seen Corea in performance and heard him speak knows that he's mischievous by nature; further evidence that the music we make is, by its very nature, a reflection of who we are.
The joyfully elegant "Addendum," which closes out Children's Songs, might seem like an afterthought to this otherwise solo set, but Corea's trio for piano, violin and cellothrough-composed as the rest of the discsets the stage for Septet, and demonstrates the pianist's contrapuntal excellence and ability to score for strings, a skill which emerged on The Leprechaun and was honed further on The Mad Hatter (Polydor, 1978). Here, however, in a sparser, all-acoustic environment, Corea's occasional tendencies to excess are trimmed away, leaving a score that's as close to perfection as anything he's written.
Noted Chicago journalist Neil Tesser writes, in his informative liner notes to Solo Piano (augmenting Corea's own newly-penned liners): "When someone asks me 'Who's this Chick Corea anyway?,' I hand the questioner this music. Everything else he's donehis trios and quartets, his fusion bands and acoustic duets with Gary Burton, his writing for strings and ensembles, the entire panoply of his utterly distinctive writing and piano praxis: it all starts here." It's difficult to improve on these words. Piano Solo, in addition to documenting a significant period of stylistic change for Corea, possessesbetween its unfettered spontaneity, unmistakable writing and confluence of traditional, cultural and historical referencesall the key building blocks that would drive Corea's thoroughly diverse body of work, one that will surely stand as some of the most noteworthyand accessiblemusic of the last half of the 20th century.
Tracks: CD1 (Piano Improvisations Vol. 1): Noon Song; Song For Sally; Ballad For Anna; Song Of The Wind; Sometime Ago; Where Are You Now?A Suite of Eight Pictures: Picture 1, Picture 2, Picture 3, Picture 4, Picture 5, Picture 6, Picture 7, Picture 8. CD2 (Piano Improvisations Vol. 2): After Noon Song; Song For Lee Lee; Song For Thad; Trinkle Trinkle; Masqualero; Preparation 1; Preparation 2; Departure From Planet Earth; A New Place; Arrival/Scenery/Imps Walk/Rest. CD3 (Children's Songs): No. 1; No. 2; No. 3; No. 4; No. 5; No. 6; No. 7; No. 8; No. 9; No. 10; No. 11; No. 12; No. 13; No. 14; No. 15; Nos. 16, 17; No. 18; No. 19; No. 20; Addendum.
Personnel: Chick Corea: piano; Ida Kavafian: violin (CD3#20); Fred Sherry: cello (CD3#20).