Chick Corea: Rendezvous in New York

John Kelman By

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...one of the most important aspects...is realizing just how easily Corea adapts his evolved style into each musical situation, making each one of them different and, in their own way, special.
Chick Corea
Rendezvous in New York
Image Entertainment

Legendary pianist Chick Corea sure knows how to throw a party. Most people, when they hit a milestone birthday like sixty, they go out for an extra special dinner or get together with some of their closest friends. But, of course, many of Corea's closest friends are musicians, and over a forty year career he's amassed an impressive group of them, spanning multiple generations. And, of course, he's also attracted a legion of fans that, through their support of a multifaceted career that's touched on a variety of musical contexts, have become an equally important part of his life.

So, when it came time to celebrate Corea's 60th birthday, rather than having a private affair Corea chose to park himself in New York City's Blue Note club for a three-week run. By bringing together many of the musical friends with whom he's collaborated in different projects over the years in a public venue, he was also able to share this confirmation of close amity with the audience that has, in many ways, facilitated his far-reaching musical pursuits.

A sampling of performances from his December, 2001 engagement at the Blue Note was released as a two-CD set, Rendezvous in New York (Stretch, 2003). But in many ways, with each of the nine aggregations represented by but a single track, it was more enticement than fulfilling experience. It gave evidence of the scope of Corea's involvement in acoustic jazz—this celebration ignoring any of the electric projects he's led over the years—but was more a brief retrospective demonstrating his incredible diversity, whetting the appetite rather than sating it.

And so, nearly four years after the event, Corea has finally released the set that has been promised since the beginning. This version of Rendezvous in New York is a whopping ten- DVD set, with nine of the discs containing close to an hour each of the nine groups of friends he brought together for the occasion, the tenth being a 100-minute documentary—that received limited theatrical release last year—that serves as a retrospective look at Corea, with live performances from the Blue Note date and interviews with many of the musicians involved.

Some may wonder if ten DVDs of live Corea might be too much, but the truth is that this surprisingly reasonably- priced box set has something for everyone. One's tastes might lean more heavily to his Three Quartets band with saxophonist Michael Brecker, bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Steve Gadd than, say, his duo with singer Bobby McFerrin, but one of the most important aspects of watching the entire set is realizing just how easily Corea adapts his evolved style into each musical situation, making each one of them different and, in their own way, special.

The set opens up with the McFerrin duo—in some ways the misstep of the box. There's no denying McFerrin's unique vocal abilities—often eschewing a more conventional singer's role and emulating all manner of instruments, sometimes more than one at a time. There's also no denying the unique chemistry that Corea shares with McFerrin. As much as there are certain structural foundations, one gets the sense that every tune they play is heading into uncharted territory—that even more than the audience, they are often surprised at where the music takes them.

One thing that has long separated Corea from some of his contemporaries is a certain playfulness and a demonstrable sense of joy. There's no doubt that some of his music is deeply serious, but so much of the time the fun he's having is there for all to see, and the sprightly approach that Corea and McFerrin take on Antonio Carlos Jobim's "The Frog demonstrates it's possible to be substantive and lithe at the same time. Corea's own classic, "Spain —where banjo wizard Béla Fleck sits in with an equally puckish approach—is equally impressive, with all three trading off throughout, with a thoroughly relaxed and impromptu vibe.

That doesn't mean that the duo can't be serious when the song calls for it. Their take on Monk's "'Round Midnight echoes the version McFerrin recorded with Herbie Hancock for the soundtrack to Bernard Tavernier's film of the same name, and is deeply evocative, with McFerrin's trumpet-like vocalizing as inventive as Corea's own poignant approach.

But despite the clear talent and chemistry, the playfulness sometimes verges on the border of shtick. Ending the set with Charlie Chaplin's "Smile, McFerrin heads out into the crowd, soliciting a woman in the front row of the club to sing a verse. From there he encourages the entire audience to sing along while Corea wanders through the crowd with a small hand drum. It's not that jazz has to be a spectator sport, but this ultimately ends up feeling a little contrived. On the other hand, the audience is clearly having a good time, so who's to say?

Within the first few of minutes of the second disc, featuring Corea's Now He Sings, Now He Sobs Trio with bassist Miroslav Vitous and drummer Roy Haynes, all feelings of consideration are gone. The trio may come together only occasionally, this being the first time they've played together since their two ECM albums—1982's Trio Music and 1986's Trio Music, Live in Europe. But it's proof that powerful musical relationships, once established, can't be broken apart, even with the passage of time.

While the set is weighted more towards standards— "Matrix is the only Corea composition of the set—it demonstrates just how even the most familiar material can be taken to new places. With this being the first of three trios represented in the box set, it also shows just how much Corea is able to adapt his playing to the different complexions of interaction each trio provides. While Vitous is capable of creating a more direct pulse, he often skirts the rhythm's edge with strong contrapuntal lines whereas Haynes' powerfully-swinging drumming acts as the glue that keeps things moving forward.

One of the most beautifully-constructed sets of the box in terms of sequencing, the first two songs—"How Deep is the Ocean and "Rhythm-a-Ning —build the intensity so that when the pace drops for "But Beautiful, the audience is clearly ready for a breather.

Vitous' solo introduction to "Matrix demonstrates that while he has remained on the peripheral of the jazz scene in recent years—spending as much time with his hugely popular sound samples library as in recording—he hasn't lost any of his creative edge. Haynes shares a special simpatico with Corea'"one that's also explored on the Remembering Bud Powell Band disc.

While Corea's free jazz group Circle is the only acoustic context not represented on this box, Corea manages to allude to some of that freedom when playing with Vitous and Haynes. The approach may be more towards the center, but Corea manages to inject levels of abstraction while still keeping things accessible.

One of the interesting aspects of each disc is during the introductory segment, where Corea briefly explains the context for each project, and how he's grown as a result. Corea has always felt a strong personal affiliation to Bud Powell, and his description of the way he studied Powell—not just the notes he played, but the physicality in the way Powell would lean into a note—is extremely insightful. And a terrific set-up for disc three, which features his Remembering Bud Powell Band—trumpeter Terence Blanchard, saxophonist Joshua Redman, bassist Christian McBride and drummer Roy Haynes.

What makes this disc so potent is the emphasis Corea places on Powell the writer. With only three pieces—a medley of "Glass Enclosure and Tempus Fugit, along with "Oblivion and "Uno Poco Loco —there's ample room for everyone to stretch out. But rather than being simple head-solo-head constructs, what makes Corea's tribute to Powell so personal is his creation of complex arrangements that fit more closely with his own more detailed sense of composition. The material may be Powell's, but the treatments are pure Corea.

When the tunes open up for soloing though, the clear virtuosity of everyone is front and center. Corea's vivid time sense—liberally crossing bar lines and developing staggered punctuations—creates the kind of dramatic push-and-pull that makes not only his own solos rife with tension and release, but those of Blanchard's and Redman's as well, when Corea is in accompaniment mode.

Blanchard and Redman are two players who may be moving more and more into contemporary areas with their own projects, but here they prove that not only do they have a strong understanding of the traditional jazz vernacular, but that it's absolutely essential as a foundation for a more evolving jazz aesthetic. While McBride's own projects have been somewhat inconsistent, he's always been a highly adaptable player, and here his rock solid sense of swing and dextrous solos work hand-in-glove with Haynes.

A key aspect of all Corea projects represented on this box set is that of listening. While virtually everyone Corea associates with has a strong musical personality, it's their ability to take in what's going on around them, work with it and create a collective whole that's greater than the sum of the parts that differentiates them from some of their peers. The trade-off between Corea and Haynes on "Oblivion is a perfect example of how each part may be strong on its own, but is elevated to greater heights through their almost empathic interaction.

While it's fair to say that all of Corea's musical friendships over the years have been about an advanced level of interplay, it's his longstanding duet with vibraphonist Gary Burton that represents communication at its most pure. Burton has always had a reputation for consistently creating work that's as near to perfection as humanly possible, the perfect match for Corea's equally high-level ability to always find the right notes, the right phrases every time he plays.

Pairing piano and vibraphone has its inherent risks, especially in Burton's case, where he's such a deft four-mallet player with a vivid sense of harmony—as opposed to those who approach the instrument in a more linear fashion. The opportunity for the two instruments to clash is great, which means that both players have to be aware of each other at an almost unconsciously instinctive level. It's that level of communication that has made the Corea/Burton pairing so enduring, responsible for a series of albums including the classic Crystal Silence (ECM, 1972).

Here Corea and Burton wind their way through material culled from their 30-year relationship, including a particularly tranquil look at "Crystal Silence, a playful reading of "Love Castle —originally recorded by Corea on his album My Spanish Heart (Polydor, 1976)—and the elegant "Duende, from their collaboration, Native Sense (Stretch, 1997). Throughout they range from ethereal abstraction to more grounded rhythms.

What's equally remarkable about the duo is how they can extract so much from so little. You can see Burton's chart during "Crystal Silence, and it's such a short chart—barely a sketch, really—and yet, despite the obvious extemporaneous nature of the song, it also feels as though so much more of it is orchestrated than is clearly the case.

While Corea concerned himself primarily with his fusion-centric Elektric Band from the mid-1980s through the mid- 1990s, he also began to feel a need to get back to an acoustic sound, and in particular the piano trio format. With bassist John Patitucci and drummer Dave Weckl, he formed the Akoustic Band, recording two albums that were released while the Elektric Band was still a going concern.

Reuniting the trio here for the first time in a number of years, the strengths and weaknesses of the band are immediately apparent, as are the lessons learned through the passage of time. Since first coming to prominence with Corea, Patitucci has become an increasingly in-demand player and is now a key member of Wayne Shorter's intrepidly exploratory quartet with Danilo Perez and Brian Blade. His technical abilities have always been evident, but his ears have grown considerably in the past few years, and so his playing with Corea here is considerably looser than when the Akoustic Band was a going concern.

Similarly, Weckl's a drummer who has long been lauded for his unassailable technique, but has often been accused of being too clinical, too mechanical. While his own career has remained in the funk/fusion vein as opposed to the more broadly-scoped Patitucci, it's clear from this set that he's also loosened up considerably, and consequently achieves far greater interaction than ever before.

Still, this trio is the most obvious of the three found in the box set. Still, their take on Corea's "Humpty Dumpty is as hard-swinging as ever, but there's a stronger sense of community. Patitucci's solo equals Corea's in both invention and imagination.

But the highlight of this disc is their take on another Corea classic, "Spain. Surprisingly impressionistic, and playing liberally with the signature themes that define it, the trio show just how malleable a song can be; remaining instantly recognizable but, at the same time, completely fresh.

A philosophy that, in fact, pervades the entire box. Playing material that's been covered numerous times by both Corea and other artists and with ensembles where there's a strong sense of the familiar, what's remarkable about the entire box is how nothing ever sounds tired or overdone. That Corea continues to work hard at advancing his skills as a pianist and composer shows in every group and on every tune as he manages to straddle the fence between reverence to some of these older projects that fans know and love, while bringing them firmly into the present.

Corea introduces the disc featuring his Origin sextet by expressing his desire for a small acoustic improvising ensemble that, nevertheless, had enough textural capability to handle his interest in chamber composition. Origin is, at the end of the day, a swinging post-bop band, but with Corea's complex arrangements, becomes something more. Along with the rhythm section of bassist Avishai Cohen and drummer Jeff Ballard, the front-line of trombonist Steve Davis and woodwind multi-instrumentalists Steve Wilson and Tim Garland make it possible to combine trombone and saxophones into a more conventional-sounding ensemble, or trombone, clarinet and bass clarinet for something a little more off the beaten path.

One of the more important aspects of this set is the chance to see and hear Garland., a British player who joined the band after they'd released their two single disc releases and the live Week at the Blue Note (Stretch, 2000) box set. With his own strong discography, including the recently-released If the Sea Replied (Sirocco, 2005), he's a player deserving of greater attention from American audiences, and hopefully this performance will help make that happen.

Corea has always collaborated with strong bassists, players who go beyond the more traditional role of the instrument to become essential thematic partners as well as rhythmic anchors, and Avishai Cohen joins a long and auspicious lineage. His tone here is fuller than on the commercial Origin releases, lending the bottom end more substantial weight.

Ballard is one of the most important drummers to emerge in the past decade. Now an incredibly in-demand player, working with everyone from Joshua Redman and Kurt Rosenwinkel to Brad Mehldau, Ballard was already an up-and-comer on the New York scene when Corea recruited him. But working with Origin gave him a cachet that's created a more meteoric rise in subsequent years, and a well-deserved one. Capable of being both a colourful textural player and a pointedly-swinging one, there's an underlying energy that can be either direct or understated; driving everything he touches.

If piano/vibes duets run the inherent risk of clash and clutter, piano duets represent an even greater possibility for train wrecks. But Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba has, in his 20-year career, demonstrated such a finely-tuned ear, that he's another perfect duet match for Corea, who previously had recorded a series of duets with contemporary Herbie Hancock.

Ranging from the more defined structures of Corea's "Melodic Conversation and Scenes, Shadows and Particles to Duke Ellington's classic "Caravan, the spirit of adventure is strong on this disc. As is the ability—similar to that shared by Corea and Burton—to effortlessly shift between accompaniment, solo and combined counterpoint that borders on the telepathic. Given that neither had recorded together at the time of these concerts this set may be the most remarkable. With two grand pianos facing each other, eye contact is clearly key in their ability to navigate arrangements that include a medley of Rodriguez's "Concierto de Aranjuez and the third look at Corea's "Spain to grace the box.

In the introduction to this disc, Corea discusses how he continues his own development by placing himself in new musical contexts with musicians he admires. Corea, of course, is no stranger to Afro Cuban and Latin music himself, but with him it's a more integrated style, while Rubalcaba—despite being an outstanding post bop pianist—wears his roots more vividly on his sleeve. It's clear, based on the music in this performance, that both Corea and Rubalcaba found things to learn from each other.

As Corea's Akoustic Band evolved out of the Elektric Band, his New Trio evolved out of Origin as a chance for Corea to continue exploring and developing the piano trio tradition, this time with Cohen and Ballard. This trio is, in fact, the only currently active group of all the ensembles represented in the box, which means that (a) no rehearsals were required, and (b) it best represents where Corea is today as a pianist and composer. While Corea doesn't treat any of his historical collaborations like the Akoustic Band or the Now He Sings Trio as museum pieces, he does somehow manage to approach them with a combination of reverence and currency. Clearly each of these bands had a particular vibe, a specific complexion that made them what they were, and so in reforming them here it was important for Corea to stylistically reference his playing from their various times.

But with The New Trio being a current and ongoing group, it's clearly the best summation of where Corea is right now. The rhythm team of Patitucci and Weckl has its own appeal, but Cohen and Ballard are clearly attuned to a more open-ended approach. Vitous and Haynes are both legendary players, and neither of them has stopped growing since they first played with Corea in the 1960s, but the very length of their careers means that they come at the material from a certain predefined historical context. On the other hand, the younger Cohen and Ballard are completely fluid, able to take a classic tune like Corea's "La Fiesta and imbue it with a sense of the abstract before gradually finding their way into its more recognizable Latin groove. It's not necessarily that Ballard and Cohen are better than either of the other two trio configurations, but they are somehow more modern.

Ballard's approach rests outside both Weckl's inherent rigidity and Haynes' more in-the-pocket sense of swing. He breathes more, allowing ballads like "Nostalgia to take on a more abstract ambience, while his ability to navigate knotty arrangements like Corea's "Revolving Door demonstrates just how orchestral even a small ensemble can be.

Corea's own playing with the trio contains fewer self-references and, in many ways, is the best example of his continued evolution, as he totally eschews some of the signatures that so characterized his playing with earlier groups. He may be in his early sixties, but his ongoing quest to grow his art shows no signs of slowing down.

In some ways, the best is saved for last. When Corea released Three Quartets in 1981, after spending much of the mid-to-late 1970s exploring fusion with various Return to Forever incarnations, it was a sign that he was still capable of the kind of fiery post bop of his earliest days on albums like Tones for Joans' Bones. Recruiting bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Steve Gadd'"who'd been instrumental in a gradual shift from the electric excesses of albums like Romantic Warrior (Columbia, 1976) and MusicMagic (Columbia, 1977) to the more stylistically-mixed The Leprechaun (Polydor, 1975), The Mad Hatter (Polydor, 1978) and Friends (Polydor, 1978)—Three Quartets also featured Michael Brecker. Brecker had already been establishing himself as one of his generations most promising young saxophonists, but on Three Quartets he demonstrated a kind of post-Coltrane energy and improvisational élan that surprised even those already familiar with his work.

Corea reformed the Three Quartets band back in the early 1990s to celebrate the album's reissue on CD, but with the late Bob Berg substituting for Brecker. Berg was a notable player in his own right—something for which recently-released Remembering Bob Berg (Savoy Jazz, 2005) serves as solid reminder— but the sheer chemistry of the Corea/Brecker/Gomez/Gadd combination was something that simply could not be recreated without everyone's participation.

Here the group recreates the entire record, and it's once again evidence of Corea's ability to create finely-structured compositions that, nevertheless, impose no restrictions on the interaction of the players. With Michael Brecker currently battling a rare form of blood cancer, watching him here is a bittersweet experience—a reminder of just how powerful and inventive he is, with the hopes that he'll soon return to good health and continue his own musical quest that has been served so well by recent albums including Two Blocks from the Edge (Impulse!, 1997) and Wide Angles (Verve, 2003).

Gadd's performance on the disc is especially compelling. A more visceral drummer than any of the others, it's his powerful sound and uncanny ability to pick up on and enhance the slightest motif from the others that has made him such an in demand player for decades. And while he's able to swing as hard as anyone, he has a more physical approach, a more powerful attack that doesn't mean he can't be delicate when necessary.

Gomez seems to have slipped below the radar in recent years—surprising considering his high profile work with Bill Evans in the 1960s and early 1970s, and on a number of important ECM recordings in the late 1970s and early 1980s by Jack DeJohnette, Ralph Towner and Mick Goodrick. Here he's as flexible an accompanist as he is a soloist, and makes one wish he'd be heard from more often

The sheer energy of this disc makes it the clear highlight of a box set that has little in the way of weak points. With Corea's writing combining the best of form and freedom, this is a truly historic document of a group that, sadly, didn't last nearly long enough.

The final disc of the box is the theatrical documentary that includes tracks representing all the groups who performed during Corea's birthday celebration. Narrated by actor Jeff Goldblum—also a fine pianist—it features interviews with many of the participants, as well as other artists who showed up for guest appearances not documented in the set, or just to be there for the occasion. While the nine discs that document each group from the engagement are the kind that will demand repeated replays, the documentary will be of more passing interest. Still, it provides further insight into Corea, and acts as a worthy retrospective look at his career in the acoustic arena.

While some will bemoan Corea's decision not to represent any of his electric fusion projects, the simple truth is that as strong as some of them are, many of them have become dated, either through technology or the kind of high-concept virtuosic-based premises on which they were founded.

Releasing a box of this scope might cause some folks to wonder if nearly ten hours of concert and documentary footage is simply Corea overkill. But Corea's career has been marked by a personal playing style that, while always discernable, has constantly moved forward. And his writing style, combining roots in classical composition, Latin music and the jazz tradition, has always been very specifically tailored to whatever musical project he's had on the go at any given time. There's no doubt that everyone will have their favourite discs on Rendezvous in New York, but as a whole it stands as an ambitious, far-reaching look at the life of an artist who still has many more years of adventure ahead of him

Visit Chick Corea on the web.

Disc One: Chick Corea/Bobby McFerrin Duet

Personnel: Chick Corea: piano; Bobby McFerrin: voice; Béla Fleck: banjo on "Spain.

Tracks: Introduction; Improv 7—Istanbul; The Frog; 'Round Midnight; Autumn Leaves; Introduction 2; Spain; Smile; End Credits. Approximate Running Time: 47:00

Disc Two: Now He Sings, Now He Sobs Trio

Personnel: Chick Corea: piano; Miroslav Vitous: double-bass; Roy Haynes: drums.

Tracks: Introduction; How Deep is the Ocean; Rhythm-a-Ning; But Beautiful; Matrix; Straight, No Chaser; End Credits. Approximate Running Time: 48:00.

Disc Three: Remembering Bud Powell Band

Personnel: Chick Corea: piano; Terence Blanchard: trumpet; Joshua Redman: tenor saxophone; Christian McBride: double-bass; Roy Haynes: drums.

Tracks: Introduction; Glass Enclosure/Tempus Fugit; Oblivion; Uno Poco Loco; End Credits. Approximate Running Time: 50:00.

Disc Four: Chick Corea/Gary Burton Duet

Personnel: Chick Corea: piano; Gary Burton: vibraphone.

Tracks: Introduction; Love Castle; Mirror Mirror; Duende; Monk's Dream; Crystal Silence; Bud Powell; End Credits. Approximate Running Time: 53:00.

Disc Five: Chick Corea Akoustic Band

Personnel: Chick Corea: piano; John Patitucci: double-bass; Dave Weckl: drums.

Tracks: Introduction; Bessie's Blues; Someday My Prince Will Come; Humpty Dumpty; My One and Only Love; Spain; End Credits. Approximate Running Time: 48:00.

Disc Six: Chick Corea & Origin

Personnel: Chick Corea: piano; Avishai Cohen: double-bass; Jeff Ballard: drums; Tim Garland: saxophones, bass clarinet; Steve Wilson: saxophones, clarinet; Steve Davis: trombone.

Tracks: Introduction; Hand Me Down; Armando's Tango; It Could Happen to You; Wigwam; End Credits. Approximate Running Time: 56:00.

Disc Seven: Chick Corea/Gonzalo Rubalcaba Duet

Personnel: Chick Corea: piano; Gonzalo Rubalcaba: piano.

Tracks: Introduction; Toccata (improv 7); Melodic Conversation; Carnaval; Scenes, Shadows and Particles; Concerto de Aranjuez/Spain; End Credits. Approximate Running Time: 50:00.

Disc Eight: Chick Corea New Trio

Personnel: Chick Corea: piano; Avishai Cohen:double-bass; Jeff Ballard: drums.

Tracks: Introduction; La Fiesta; Nostalgia; Revolving Door; Dignity; Anna's Tango; Fingerprints; End Credits. Approximate Running Time: 52:00.

Disc Nine: Three Quartets Band

Personnel: Chick Corea: piano; Michael Brecker: tenor saxophone; Eddie Gomez: double-bass; Steve Gadd: drums.

Tracks: Introduction; Quartet No. 1; Quartet No. 2 Part 1; Quartet No. 2 Part 2; Quartet No. 3; End Credits. Approximate Running Time: 53:00.

Disc Ten: Rendezvous in New York: The Movie

Personnel: Chick Corea: piano; various others.

Tracks: Introduction; Now He Sings, Now He Sobs Trio: Matrix; Three Quartets Band: Quartet No. 2, Part 1; Chick Corea/Gonzalo Rubalcaba Duet: Concierto de Aranjuez/Spain; Chick Corea/Bobby McFerrin Duet: Armando's Rhumba; Chick Corea Akoustic Band: Humpty Dumpty; Chick Corea/Gary Burton Duet: Crystal Silence; Remembering Bud Powell Band: Oblivion; Chick Corea New Trio: Lifeline; Now He Sings, Now He Sobs Trio: Straight, No Chaser; Chick Corea & Origin: Hand Me Down; Chick Corea/Bobby McFerrin Duet: Smile/End Credits. Approximate Running Time: 100:00.

DVD Review #2
Chick Corea: Rendezvous In New York

Related Articles
October, 2004 interview with Chick Corea
Chick Corea: Artist Profile
Chick Corea: Building a Jazz Library

Photo Credits
All images from the DVD release, courtesy of Image Entertainment.

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