Kronomyth 1.0: DUKE SKELETON. I first heard this music on Inner Space, a compilation that was easier to find than the original elpee, and it blew my mind. I was already a fan of Chick’s fusion phase at the time, but hadn’t been exposed to the post bop and avant-garde recordings of his early years. Hearing “Litha” and “Straight Up And Down” for the first time added a new dimension to my appreciation of Chick Corea. The lineup aligns with the contemporary quintets of Miles Davis and Wayne Shorter: trumpet (Woody Shaw, Jr.), tenor sax (Joe Farrell), bass (Steve Swallow), drums (Joe Chambers) and piano (Corea). The opening “Litha” comes out swinging with Shaw and Farrell sharing the melody, then shifts gears for short runs before returning to the loping opening melody, while Chambers propels the piece with perfectly timed crashes and tumbles and Corea spars with the melody from a distance. “This Is New” almost completely eschews melody for form, Corea again (surprisingly) avoids throwing any big punches, and it’s Farrell who lands the big blow with a well-placed solo. Corea finally emerges from the background for the title track, a sentimental ballad with a lovely melody, featuring only a trio of piano, drums and bass. The closing “Straight Up And Down” comes spilling out in a rhythm that recalls Herbie Hancock at first, but quickly turns into a spirited chase with everyone joining in; hearing Swallow keep pace with Corea on this song is a hoot. As I said, having been exposed only to his later recordings, hearing Corea adopt a “less is more” aesthetic was a shock to me (albeit a pleasant one). Compositionally, Tones For Joan’s Bones is remarkably strong for a debut record, although Corea was in his mid 20s and already an established session player. Honestly, the elpee is worth hearing for the playing of Joe Chambers alone, but hearing Corea in a “normal” jazz setting is also worthwhile as it reveals just how unusual he was.
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.
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.