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Chick Corea / Gary Burton: San Diego, USA, March 1, 2011

Robert Bush By

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Chick Corea / Gary Burton
Anthology,
San Diego, CA
March 1, 2011

Pianist Chick Corea and vibraphonist Gary Burton first met in the late 1960s, as Burton was leaving, and Corea was joining saxophonist Stan Getz's band. Together, they released one of the most astonishing records of the 1970s, Crystal Silence (ECM, 1973). Since then, they have reunited several times, expanding their original concept of piano/vibes duet to a new plateau.

Tuesday's concert at Anthology was the first of a two-night residency, which is somewhat unusual for the San Diego venue. The building was almost sold out, and filled with boisterous, enthusiastic listeners. Anthology has almost a million dollars invested in its sound-system, and it's rigged so that every seat in the house is provided an equally stellar audio experience.

Corea approached the microphone, dramatically slimmer than he has been in recent years; whatever he's doing, diet and exercise-wise, is working. The two began with a look at a chart from Corea's My Spanish Heart (Polydor, 1976), "Love Castle," which the duo also recorded on Native Sense: The New Duets (Stretch, 1997). This one had two distinct themes: the first, a sort of rolling, arpeggiated pastoral statement; the second, the archetypal Corea Latin groove. Both men navigated the tune's quirky structure like Jedi warriors, with an expert, fearless and joyful attitude. Burton took the first solo, and here, as elsewhere, he stuck to his modus operandi: tell a story. Burton's solos always have a beginning and an ending, as well as a real-time improvised theme in the middle. Corea followed with a masterful, multidirectional solo of his own, periodically referencing the sly Latin melody.

Native Sense's title track followed, another Corea original, with the pianist setting up an insistent left-hand ostinato while Burton began laying out the melody, which seemed to extend every time he repeated it. The vibraphone master took the initial solo, painting a long melodic landscape, colored by bits of bluesy brushstrokes. Corea opened things up with winding thematic flourishes, intervals based on fourths, and bits of chromatic material.

From there, the duo featured some rarely heard standards, often radically re-harmonized, with arrangements that sometimes took the form of 8-12 page charts. A tribute to pianist Art Tatum, "Why Can't We Be Friends?" was the first, with a truly startling approach like a virtuoso machine—mindboggling, but rarely swinging in the conventional sense. It wasn't until the duo dispensed with the eight pages of written material that things loosened up. Burton's solo reversed the absence of groove, while Corea took that move several steps further, locking into a semi-stride section complete with a left-handed walking bass line.

Burton comped for Corea with all four mallets and, forty years after pioneering that technique, it was still amazing to watch his incredible dexterity, performed with such casual ease. Morphing back into the written material, an Asian theme emerged—the arrangement, at one point, taking on the nature of a Chinese Return to Forever.

After such tightly wound material, it was a relief to hear Corea announce Thelonious Monk's "Light Blue" as the next piece. Burton commandeered the melody, and filled it with Monkish intervals. The composition has an ebullient, stumbling theme that reaches a release point where it dances. Corea alternated blues-based themes with florid, rococo explosions. Burton also referenced the blues in his solo—staking out, and sneaking up on spontaneous riffs in real time. "Light Blue" was also an instant, indelible highlight.

The pair continued, with a massive yet oblique arrangement of Antonio Carlos Jobim's classic "Chega de Saudade," where it was necessary to really strain to hear snippets of the original melody. It was all very impressive from a technical standpoint but, without its original melody—and absent the comforting bossa nova groove—there was a lot missing from this version. Nonetheless, Burton unwrapped a marvelous, complex solo that hit all the right spaces for a sensual experience.

The duo recovered nicely, though, with the second indelible highlight of the evening, a picture-perfect reading of Lennon/McCartney jewel, "Eleanor Rigby." Corea chose a busy ostinato to set things up for his right hand, which plinked out the melody in single notes, and then harmonized it the second time around. Burton ripped into his best solo of the night, his mallets chasing after one another and crashing into lush chordal cloudbursts. It was highly reminiscent of his quartet work with guitarist Pat Metheny, circa Passengers (ECM, 1976). Corea's solo kept up the left-hand vamping, while the right hand hammered out knotty, voice-leading and block-chord punctuations, broken up by seemingly infinite melodic story telling.

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