This elpee was a source of speculation for years, as I wondered what such a serendipitous summit of ivory merchants might sound like together. Apparently, I am a rube. This is simply a compilation of old and, in most cases, previously released material cobbled together to make a buck off of inexperienced jazz-tasters like, well, me. The selections are culled from Atlantic’s vaults: a pair each from the debuts of Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea, two selections from Ron Carter’s Uptown Conversation (Atlantic didn’t have the rights to any of Hancock’s solo material) and two unreleased tracks featuring three-quarters of John Coltrane’s band that date from the My Favorite Things sessions. The goal here, I guess, is to sample and compare the pianists’ different styles, but you’d really want a different platter to pick from. The album seems to get progressively difficult as it moves along. Jarrett is fluid and gentle, Corea plays in terse bursts of sound, Tyner is a torrent of notes and Hancock plays the willing accomplice to Carter’s artier explorations. I was only familiar with the Corea songs going into this, and they did sound different to me; the liner notes allude to a remix by Lew Hahn, so I’ll have to do a little more digging into that some day. Except for “This Is New,” everything here features the bass/drums/piano trio format, which always gives the piano plenty of room to breathe. You can hear that each pianist has their own distinctive style, but these styles would change over time, so comparing them here is pointless. Surprisingly, Atlantic re-issued this compilation on compact disc so a new generation can now experience the magic of being suckered into a star-studded compilation of stale treats.
So what exactly constitutes a Return To Forever album anyway? Musicmagic blurs the line between RTF and Chick’s solo recordings, since the same basic lineup (Farrell, Moran et al) was employed on Secret Agent and The Mad Hatter. Far from the stellar fusion of Romantic Warrior, Musicmagic is a song-oriented album. It’s some of the most commercial music that Corea has recorded (e.g., Clarke’s “So Long Mickey Mouse”), but not some of his best. Corea conjures the usual keyboard wizardry, Clarke takes a bow to his bass, and the rest of the band kicks something into the kitty, so there’s fire behind the RTF smokescreen, just not enough of it. Blame the high bar on earlier incarnations; of the RTF albums I own, this is the lamest and it’s still a pretty good record. Gayle Moran’s voice is expressive, warm and occasionally captivating. It’s on Musicmagic that she becomes, in the words of Beavis, “a full-fledged member,” playing keyboards and writing the graceful “Do You Ever.” The horn section also gives the band a different flavor, evoking memories of Frank Zappa’s The Grand Wazoo. Of Corea’s compositions, “The Endless Night” and “Musicmagic” have their mind candy moments where the mustachioed magician coaxes an armoire of sounds from his speaker cabinets. Stanley Clarke, who also sings on this album, adds the popular “So Long Mickey Mouse,” which is la-la-lovely in spots. Surprisingly, more than half of this album turned up on The Best of Return To Forever. If you bought that compilation, you were robbed. The selections on Musicmagic are simply too timid when RTF’s toils are taken in toto to testify in such a trial. If your tastes skip toward smooth jazz, then Musicmagic might be the safest entry into deep waters, but you can’t stand in the shallow end forever.
These are the midnight perambulations of the extant Miles sextet (minus Moreira and Miles himself), congregated in some eternal kitchen of the soul where scraps of meat and melody are served to the insatiable jazzeaters who would have a bronze cast of Miles’ every footfall. Originally recorded in September 1970 (and purists will point out that Steve Grossman was technically out), the music on The Sun didn’t see the light of day for years, and only then appropriately in the land of the rising sun. It is, like much of the Miles Davis marginalia, worthy of time and note. You could see this as a semi-Circle: a quartet of bass, drums, piano and sax with Chick Corea, Dave Holland and the brilliant Jack DeJohnette at the core. The songs fit squarely into Corea’s avant-garde phase: dissonant with a very tactile and percussive quality that includes scratching, groaning and quick staccato clusters of keys jumbled together. Solos devolve (evolve?) into an orgy of frenetic notes, structure and chaos play an endless game of tug of war, and throughout you’ll find the occasional moments of calm that pierce through the stormclouds of fierce invention and remind you of the potency of melody. Now, nothing on The Sun could be called timeless music. Corea fans have likely had their fill of this stuff already; Grossman’s fans may be more inclined to make the effort, since he shines on this recording. It appears from the liner notes that a few guests (including Dave Liebman on some bagpipe-like instrument called the musette) joined the fun on the last three tracks, although their contributions are barely audible.
I’m a sucker for program music, even when the pretense to a program is pretty flimsy, as it is here. Without the concept of Alice In Wonderland to tie things together, The Mad Hatter would simply be another of Corea’s eclectic jazz samplers from the late Seventies. But by giving the pieces themes (e.g., “Tweedle Dum mournfully recalls the beauty of his distant past”), Corea affords us a wider window into the music than might otherwise exist. Having gazed at these songs intently on a half dozen occasions, I’d proclaim The Mad Hatter one of my favorite Corea albums from this (or any) period. The music ranges from moogy mind candy (“The Woods”) to classical jazz hybrids (“Tweedle Dee”) to Latin-inflected jazz (“Dear Alice”) to a blowin’ quartet of the straight stuff (“Humpty Dumpty”). The same fare you’d find in mixed amounts on a lot of Corea albums, but The Mad Hatter stands taller than a Secret Agent or Tap Step. In fact, next to My Spanish Heart, this is the ‘70s Corea album closest to mine (not including RTF). The reason is the quality of the material; Corea has mined these forms many times, but rarely have they sounded so good. Gayle Moran’s voice (which I usually have to brace myself for) works very well in this setting, whether propped up against the strings at an angle on “The Trial” or soaring in and out of “Dear Alice” as if she’s always been there. Even Chick sounds more inspired than usual, building a palpable setting for “The Woods,” blending his piano perfectly into the potentially daunting number of players assembled for some of these pieces. From the rest of the cast, the rhythm section of Steve Gadd and Eddie Gomez is superb, and Joe Farrell is always a pleasure to hear. Herbie Hancock also appears on Fender Rhodes for the closing “Mad Hatter Rhapsody,” but to my ears it just sounds like so much noodling at first, improving only when the distortion is turned down. In the end, the story of The Mad Hatter really isn’t important; think of it as a nice package that makes you want to find out what’s inside. If you enjoyed the confections contained in My Spanish Heart, The Mad Hatter holds more of the same.
A nudge better than the recordings around it (Secret Agent, Touchstone) despite the silly costume. Drawing from a loose axis of familiar players, Corea presents seven new compositions that touch upon lighthearted funk, Latin music, cool jazz, and traces of fusion. In other words, Chick is still marching to the same pattern set forth on earlier albums, though the material this time is very good. Tap Step features no missteps, despite trying its hand at all manner of music. The opening “Samba L.A.” is unexpected, a gossamer samba both winsome and ethereal that serves as a cautious celebration (perhaps due to the lack of a low end that a bass player would have provided). “Embrace” is a lilting, pungent song featuring the vocals of Gayle Moran and a wonderfully sneaky arrangement from Chick. The march eventually arrives in “Tap Step,” given a distinctly jazzy flavor here. Side two begins with the delightful “Magic Carpet,” a piece that appeases both the sophisticated palette and the animal grace of jazz simultaneously. Squeaking and squawking herald “The Slide,” which Corea and Jamie Faunt (on piccolo bass) gingerly take up before immersing themselves in a remarkably rich rhythm. The playful “Grandpa Blues” features Chick on vocorder and Stanley Clarke contributing lead guitar-like lines from his piccolo bass (they must have rented one for the week). Tap Step ends on a serious note with the restless “Flamenco,” a noisy return to a style Corea has probably exhausted at this point. Add these seven tracks up and the sum total is surprisingly solid; not the sort of album to displace My Spanish Heart, but the kind of tasty fare that Corea fans can rally behind.
Kronomyth 4.0: MY SPANISH GUITART. Despite their personal differences over the years, Al Di Meola and Chick Corea have always been kindred spirits musically speaking. Splendido Hotel reunites the pair in what could be seen as a remake of My Spanish Heart in the guitarist’s own image. Both are double-album displays of a singular genius from multiple angles: jazz/rock fusion, Latin, classical, funk, romantic. Now, truth be told, not all of these facets were native to Di Meola, and it seems that some were fastened on to expand the Hotel. The classical “Isfahan,” for example, has its source in the languid jazz/classical landscapes of Corea, not Di Meola. And the ready-made funk song, “I Can Tell,” while well done (Di Meola’s voice is surprisingly restrained and effective), has more in common with Stanley C than Al Di. The rest of Splendido Hotel offers excellent views of Dimeoladom: the sonic steeplechases (“Alien Chase on Arabian Desert,” “Dinner Music of the Gods”), the various tangos (“Splendido Sundance,” “Two to Tango”) and tango fusions (“Al Di’s Dream Theme”), the romantic warrior poems (“Silent Story In Her Eyes”). Had Di Meola simply stopped there, Splendido Hotel would have been a logical (and excellent) continuation of his first three albums. Instead, he adds about an album’s worth of material that exposes a heretofore unseen side of the artist: smooth jazz (provided by a young Philippe Saisse on his first recording), funk, classical and pop (a duet with Les Paul on the Al Martino hit, “Spanish Eyes”), and even a closing lullaby (“Bianca’s Midnight Lullaby”). As I said earlier, it’s a bit of a case of artificial siding, but Di Meola doesn’t disappoint in any of those settings (although “Isfahan” is admittedly arid). I’d stop short of calling Splendido Hotel his masterpiece, because Al Di Meola albums don’t shake out like that; consistency is one of his hallmarks. Rather, this is a masterful collection of many pieces, some of which fit perfectly with previous impressions, and others that are slightly foreign but nearly as flattering.
Kronomyth 7.0: GEOLOGICAL POSITIVISM. Stanley seems to be inching slowly toward mainstream R&B with each album. The man likes to sing, and has a decent voice, although he’s still a little too spread out stylistically to win over the fusion or funk camps entirely. Highlights this time include a space funk adventure with Chick Corea (“Underestimation”), the soulful “You/Me Together” featuring Marcy Levy (late of Eric Clapton’s employ) on vocals and the suite (if slightly indigestible) “The Story of A Man And A Woman.” Those last two tracks feature a substantial string section in tow, while Clarke calls in Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall-bangers for the rudimentary funk single, “We Supply.” Like Modern Man before it, Rocks, Pebbles And Sand is a mixed bag. I prefer the fusion and can do without the funk. As for the vocal songs, they work some of the time; the opening “Danger Street,” for example, reminded me of John Lennon and Frank Zappa, artists I don’t readily associate with Stanley Clarke. Modern Man and Rocks are two albums that do many things well, none of them exceptionally well. I can tell you that some of the subsequent straight-up R&B albums are pretty awful, although I think jazz in general collectively cringed in the 80s as fusion players pursued funk and disco as a way to cash in on their chops. This album at least rocks some of the time and continues to make a case that the words “singer/songwriter” belong somewhere after the title of world’s greatest bass guitarist.
An album that captures all of Salvador Dali’s humidity and little of its fantastic surrealism. The comparison is invited through a short story from Tony Cohen that appears on the inner sleeve. Whether this is program music based on the story (or vice versa) is anybody’s guess. You could probably lump Touchstone in with Corea’s “spanish” works, as many of these songs would have felt at home on My Spanish Heart. The presence of guitarist Paco De Lucia on “Touchstone” and “The Yellow Nimbus” is dominant, lending a romantic edge to this remote and troubled music. Lee Konitz takes the lead on the sad, apprehensive “Duende” (similar to Corea’s Lyric Suite for Sextet), Steve Kujala for the cagey “Dance of Chance.” Like a number of Chick’s group efforts, he either pairs his instrument with other players for joint solos or slips from the spotlight altogether. The results are initially interesting but ultimately underwhelming, save for the RTF reunion on “Compadres” where Al Di Meola spices things up for the record’s most refreshing track. But refreshment is hard to find in the world of Touchstone; more often than not I find this album draining and even listless at times. This is music you need to be in the mood for, say on a cold winter’s night when hot and humid are desirable. Otherwise this is simply another of Chick Corea’s also-rans, like Secret Agent or Again And Again. There was a time when the opening “Touchstone” held my attention, its funereal pacing nearly mesmerizing, but that was the halo effect of newness at work. Looking for more and finding little, I’ve since grown disenchanted with Touchstone. Perhaps I’ve dug too deeply or not deep enough in search of a fruitful fusion.
Kronomyth 8.0: V.S.O.P.P. I like RTF, so I picked up Echoes of An Era and Griffith Park Collection when they came out. Both bored the pants off me, and I ended up giving Griffith Park away. Loads of talent on these recordings (Freddie Hubbard and Joe Henderson on horns) but not a whole lot to say. Echoes took a gamble by letting Chaka Khan chew up eight classics. Her voice is the neodymium magnet in the room: you’re either attracted to it or freaked out that it’s in there. Personally, I’m pretty freaked out by her voice most of the time. I can listen to her without wincing, but to say that the horn solos of Henderson and Hubbard bring me relief is an understatement. Since I can only listen to people talk about jazz for about fifteen minutes before I want to tweak their little red tomahto nose, maybe I’m not the best judge of Echoes. You really need to buy into the idea that jazz is this evolving dialogue between the past and the future or something. You need to buy into the idea that Chaka Khan’s vocal interpretations make you hear classic music in a new way, and not in the way that The Chipmunks made you hear it. Whether you want to pay fifteen bucks to buy all that, that’s your decision. If you’re intrigued by jazz titans from the ‘70s playing old school jazz, I’d point you toward Herbie Hancock’s VSOP engagements instead (Freddie Hubbard was involved in both projects).
Kronomyth 37.0: SWIRLED TOUR. This is a studio recording of material that Chick and his current five-piece band were playing on tour, some of it written as far back as 1979 but captured here for the first time. Recorded in a single day in South Africa (thus the parenthetical addendum), Again And Again is split down the middle between warm Latin jazz (side one) and noisier, funkier fare (side two). Steve Kujala also splits his time between the flute and the sax, and something about the flute makes the first side quieter, particularly in the rhythms from Tom Brechtlein, Don Alias and Carlos Benavent. This has historically never been a favorite album of mine, but it seems I’ve softened with age and thoroughly enjoyed both halves this time. The first side is a good example of Corea the composer, particularly the opening “Quintet #3,” a piece that had originally been scored for a trio (according to the liner notes). It’s one of those warm musical vistas bustling with good ideas and well synchronized movements. The two tracks that follow are also enjoyable and representative of this “quiet period” in Corea’s work before the bombast of the Elektric/Akoustic Band. On side two, “Diddle Diddle” has always caught my ear for its Lounge Lizards edginess (once a punk, always a punk), though the chemistry between Corea and Kujala (here on soprano sax) is surprisingly poor. Again And Again isn’t a fusion concept album and it doesn’t quite fit into Corea’s early 80s classical phase. It’s two sides of a multi-faceted artist captured at a moment in time with one of his less ostentatious outfits, a pair of pleasant excursions to interesting places.