Kronoymyth 50.0: CRITICAL MASK. The census in prog circles suggests the Elektric Band was winding down, though smooth fusion fans seem to get a charge out of this final disc from the original Elektric company. Spineless, shaven weasel that I am, I side somewhere in the middle, feigning toward the former’s phobia on the smoother cuts (“A Wave Goodbye” and “Free Step” are tasty but hardly chewy), leaning toward the latter’s enchantment with the impressive “Charged Particles” and “99 Flavors.” With John Patitucci and Dave Weckl cowriting most of the material, there’s no central theme at work on Beneath The Mask. The songs are short, lively, mostly smooth fusion numbers featuring lots of soprano sax and guitar solos. The core trio of Corea, Weckl and Patitucci are mostly in the background (Patitucci does get a cameo on “Jammin E. Cricket”) while Marienthal and Gambale are given the limelight. And so, under the sign of the staid emperor sit Chick and his chicklets, issuing smooth uniform slices of upbeat saxotarotimo songs and waiting for a strong third wind to guide them. Weckl and Patitucci sailed for new ports after this disc, making it something of a death mask (they looked so Alive not long ago), while Gambale and Marienthal stayed on board for the Emperor Elektrobath II. In my opinion, the next chapter (Paint The World) is far more interesting, so I have no trouble turning the page on Mask and moving on. Plus those RTF albums were made in the sweetly smoky analog air of the Seventies and not the airer-free digital clean rooms of the Nineties, with their soundbanks and triggers. If you enjoy the GRP smooth fusion sound, and a lot of people do (fusses all of them), Mask is a blast. If, however, the mere suggestion that a comparison could be made between Frank Gambale and Al DiMeola elicits a snortle (a mixture of snort and chortle), then this album might be beneath you after all.
Kronomyth 63.0: FULL CIRCLE. As writing to one in the world for whom it matters, the new Trio is Origin shorn of horns, mourning the lost past in the pink dawn of a new millennium, the view of our visionary starcaptain still clear at sixty, fingers dancing dexterously over the controls while those young turks of time travel, Avishai Cohen and Jeff Ballard, provide the supple and smart support needed to make the new trio’s maiden voyage a success, and yes the lost shepherdess Anna may be the ghost in the time machine, but Chick is truly a man who transcends time while embracing (rather than defying) it, gliding through new vistas where progexotica may yet be glimpsed (e.g., ending the title track with a sheer cliff of stunning triads), breathing life into history (“Jitterbug Waltz”), stirring a world of sounds into a tasty stew (“Rhumba Flamenco,” “Anna’s Tango”), as Cohen coaxes and cajoles black drops of elastic notes from his acoustic bass and Ballard bounces rods of endless energy off of skins, rims and metal spheres in perfect time to advance the Captain’s march, and it dawns on you at the cusp of this new age that the traditional trio format has never failed Corea, though some of the solo records have been deadly dull. With a sounding board of young stars at his side (in a career that has created a cluster of them), few surf the sea of space and time like Chick, a luminary from the past, lodestar of the present, magnetar of tomorrow.
Armando “Chick” Corea was born one year later than Herbie Hancock and initially seemed destined to follow him, as a member of Miles Davis’ outfit and as a Blue Note recording artist. Corea’s Blue Note albums, recorded in his mid 20s, showed a facility for complex composition and a ferociously fast imagination. His first recording, Tones For Joan’s Bones (1968), features horns, but it was in the subsequent trio settings that his early music found its best expression. Of these, the later compilation Circling In (1976) is the best place to start. Corea also recorded several albums as a member of Circle with Barry Altschul, Dave Holland and Anthony Braxton.
In early 1972, Corea released an electric fusion album with a group that consisted of Stanley Clarke, Joe Farrell, Airto Moreira and Flora Purim; the record was called Return To Forever. RTF would become one of the leading voices in the new fusion movement, at its peak consisting of a quartet that featured Corea, Clarke, Lenny White and Al DiMeola. In between RTF releases, Corea continued to release his own recordings, including My Spanish Heart (1976), The Mad Hatter (1978) and collaborations with Hancock and vibraphonist Gary Burton.
Corea’s style is expositional in nature; he’ll introduce a theme, then provide commentary for and against it. There have been a few occasions where I’ve felt the charge of “too many notes” (made famous in the film Amadeus) might have been justly applied to Corea as well. More often however, are the occasions where Corea’s commentary opens new avenues of discovery. Although born and raised in Massachusetts, Corea has always had an affinity for Latin music, which can be heard in his melodies and his solos.
In the 1980s, Corea put RTF to bed and focused on longer jazz/classical compositions including Three Quartets (1981), Lyric Suite For Sextet (1983) and Septet (1985). He also reunited with Miroslav Vitous and Roy Haynes for a pair of albums: Trio Music (1982) and Trio Music Live In Europe (1986). The Eighties were also notable for the introduction of a new fusion group, The Chick Corea Elektric Band (and its later Akoustic incarnation), which introduced listeners to John Pattitucci and Dave Weckl.
In the last two decades, Corea has played the role of the living and very active legend while leading the Akoustic/Elektric band, forming a new band (Origin), releasing solo albums, reviving RTF for a few profitable dates and collaborating with artists as diverse as Bobby McFerrin, Hiromi Euhara, Nicoloas Economou and Stefano Bollani.
Kronomyth 14.0: VULCAN AMAZING. There are some days–let’s call them sumdays for the sake of a lovely argument—when the whole English language is a slippery squid. Words dart, half-glimpsed, in the murky ruins of an Atlantean ampitheatre, furtive ghosts that serve roe-eyed monsters, and I move as in the amniosis* of a dream. (*Not a word, see?) Jazz does this to me. For a gooey handful of sumdays now, I’ve built and torn down monuments to Where Have I Known You Before, all in an effort to capture something that is the very essence of elusion*. The group’s earlier effort, Hymn To The Seventh Galaxy, marked the maiden voyage of the U.S.S. Artieff into space jazz/rock fusion. That album, clever as it was, could be contained in dry prose without suffering too deeply the infirmities of air. WHIKYB is more exotic, almost extraterrestrial, and quickly shrivels up when hauled onto the dry deck of my imagination for examination. At best, I can tell you what I’ve seen in those glimpses: Al DiMeola, the fleet-fingered recruit from the starmaker academy, careening around the opening corner of “Vulcan Worlds” with guns blazing; the surface eruptions of a red sun silhouette against a Lo moon of cool indigo; the alien chatter of sentient matter communicated in popping, bubbling, boiling bass notes; and Captain Chick split into two persons, two worlds, two times and still holding it together. This album is its own monument to a meeting of galactic consequence. The future adventures of the Artieff’s crew would be more amazing still as Al DiMeola, like a certain newt, got better, but even here the young guitarist’s greenness is one more color in a technicolor trip beyond the seventh galaxy.
Kronomyth 54.0: STORY TIME. In an act of mercy that must have been guided by the benevolent hands of angels, someone absconded with the liner notes to the library’s copy of Time Warp, which meant that I was spared from reading yet another nonsensical plotline that no doubt involved aliens, unicorns and telepathic flowers. You, on the other hand, with your jaunty ways, will be spared nothing, but subjected to an even more convoluted story of my own devising, for I am a mean and spiteful creature with no regard for the suffering of my fellow man… Chapter the First: Whirled Over. Two comical butterflies are dancing in the breeze when suddenly a giant owl swoops down to eat them because there is nothing comical about butterflies. Nothing. Chapter the Second: Lieutenant Warp. A Star Trek fan and a Star Wars fan are debating whether a photon beam is stronger than a light saber when a giant owl swoops out of the sky and eats them both. Because giant owls have to eat like 10X their weight every day or something like that. Chapter the Third: Wishful Tinkling. Water nymphs made up of millions of raindrops sail down an emerald river in a canoe they’ve fashioned from the husked-out carcass of a giant owl. A storm of saxophones ensues, blowing them off course into the Great Thorned Desert. Chapter the Fourth: The Great Thorned Desert (Which You Were Kind of Expecting, Weren’t You?). The water nymphs travel over the rough, difficult terrain by foot, over sand and thorns that protrude everywhere from the ground, dragging the giant owl husk behind them and using it as a shelter in the cold evenings. At night, the nymphs dream of the lesser water god Arndok, who tells them that his body is buried under a ruby thorn in the center of the desert. Chapter the Fifth: Larry the Lava God. Deep in the desert, Larry the Lava God guards the ruby thorn. He dances around the thorn, and his dance attracts the water nymphs, who join him, their bodies creating clouds of steam when they touch. They dance to a fanciful ruby rhumba, and the footsteps awaken the sleeping body of Arndok, who emerges from the ground and dances with them. Arndok has one leg as small as a twig and another as big as a tree trunk, which makes a loud thumping sound when it hits the ground. Together, all four of them pile into the owl canoe and sail into the stars on the moonsea, where they witness a battle between the blue dwarves and the red giants. Chapter the Sixth: Owl’s Well That Ends Well. Two butterflies are dancing in a dawn breeze, and we’re left to ponder: Was it all a dream? Did the Water Nymphs really ever exist? Would it matter if Chick Corea wrote an album based on the ingredients from a jar of pickles at this stage? The answer to all of these questions, of course, is buttons. If that wasn’t the satisfying answer you were looking for, be it known that this is actually a very good disk of post-bop jazz (quality-wise on a par with Paint The World), and hearing Bob Berg blow with Chick, Gary and Patches is a hoot.
“One of these days Alice,” said the Red Queen, “straight to the stars.” A reunion of the Chick Corea Elektric Band in its stellar quintet form becomes the launching point for this concept album based on the L. Ron Hubbard book, To The Stars. Space is apparently a swinging place filled with rumba and calypso music, at least some of the time, which is to say that Corea and company don’t really try to reinvent themselves for this outing; an album based on Watership Down probably wouldn’t have sounded much different. Corea goes ahead and aligns the music with sections of the story anyway (remember The Mad Hatter?), and breaks up the compositions with short space interludes that have nearly the same effect as Steve Miller’s segues between songs in the Seventies, suggesting that Corea might have the makings of an excellent space ambient album up his sleeve some day. The opening “Check Blast” is a cool collision of rock and spiky jazz, but it’s the noisy anomaly on an album just as likely to settle into five minutes of cosmopolitan jazz (“Mistress Luck-A Portrait”) or Weather Report-styled island fusion (“Johnny’s Landing,” “Hound of Heaven”). The quintet has only grown finer with age, and it’s a pleasure to hear them engaged in a vital new work rather than breeze through oldies or half-baked originals. Corea has explored many of these ideas before on past albums, with the spacey interludes being the new wrinkle in time. In my mind, fusion always looks better wrapped in the context of fantasy (Romantic Warrior, Where Have I Known You Before). The character of Captain Jocelyn, the piano-playing and enigmatic anachronism who leads his crew into space, must have resonated with Chick Corea, who closes this disc with pages torn from the original plot. Otherwise, as I said, it’s a somewhat loose interpretation of events, familiar electric fusion (plus the acoustic “Alan Corday”) with the usual Latin elements, smartly arranged and executed by a veteran crew. The thematic framework gives the music an added dimension, and it’s enough to propel this disc into my shortlist of favorite fusion destinations for the moment.
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.
Kronomyth 10.0: THE FIRST PHOENIX RISES, RETURNS. There is, first of all, some heavy Rhodes work ahead of you, all of it under the bright heat of The Sun tarot, where wah-wah petals bloom and breathe, and exotic flora draws the fluted bill of hornbirds (farrell prized for their feathers), darting between tiny flecks of buzz and trill in the moving Air to which the thick kerplunk of bubblebees in silky grottoes do attend, a rich stew of ebullient bass. This sambient air buoys the second ride of the Phoenix, which has caught many a critic’s accolades in its currents. With Corea as its marvelous captain, RTF dances in the dappled sunlight of this new world, as animated exotica moves in dreamy sambanambulance and tiny eruptions of hardened jazz rumble harmlessly through the forest. 500 miles high, the Phoenix soars, light as a feather. It reappears as a dream-image in a child’s mind, carrying only the persistent tick-tock of a clock from the workaday world. It winds through the lively streets of Spain as a spirit, beckoned by the bacchanal of the living. There are the light and lithe rhythms of Airto Moreira, the airy vocals of Flora Purim, the refreshing flute and heated hornwork of Joe Farrell, and the Phoenix would soon find itself light these few original feathers. Then there is the stunning complexity of structure evident in Stanley Clarke’s electric, acoustic and bowed basswork and, greater than all that, the colossal Rhodes of Chick Corea. The captain plays the Rhodes like a lead guitar sometimes, hammering out notes in quick staccato stabs or bending the notes with his wah-wah pedal. Rarely has the instrument sounded so free and expressive, so timeless and beautiful. Light As A Feather is a different animal than the ferocious beast that RTF would later become. Here it’s all sunlight, warmth, bathed in beauty, using its superlative playing as a buttress to support an airier, lighter creation that fuses samba and electric jazz into something exciting and adventurous.
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.
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.