[Review] Chick Corea: Secret Agent (1978)

Another of Chick’s costume changes, featuring new and old friends for a mix of vocal and instrumental fusion, funk and jazz.

Kronomyth 23.0: Agent double-o b eight.

After Chick Corea put Return to Forever to bed, he returned to making solo albums. Lots of them. In 1978 alone, he released three new studio albums and two lives ones. Secret Agent was the last of these, slipping in before Christmas on the off chance that fans could fit one more Chick Corea album in their stocking. Recorded with a new lineup that featured Bunny Brunel (bass), Tom Brechtlein (drums) and a full horn section, the album included a mix of material that included funk, synthesizer jazz and a few vocal excursions with wife Gayle Moran.

Chick has released some brilliant albums in his lifetime. Lots of them, actually. This is not one of them. To begin with, the band is a bit unwieldy: horns, strings, vocals and percussion end up toppling the arrangements half the time (e.g., Central Park, Glebe St. Blues). Corea is a masterful arranger, but nobody can keep that many pieces in the air. Secondly, Gayle Moran’s voice is something of an acquired taste; she’s no Yoko Ono, but she’s not Flora Purim either. It takes a really strong vocalist to stand out in a full jazz setting (cf. Al Jarreau on Hot News Blues), and Moran is more of an airy accompanist.

Secret Agent is otherwise notable for its pronounced shift toward synthesizers. Corea had got his hands on an early version of the Oberheim Eight Voice synthesizer (first appearing on The Mad Hatter) and, together with his small army of Moogs, tilted the scales in favor of electronic sounds on Secret Agent. The music has aged much better than most synthesizer work from the 70s, almost approaching the moody jazz sounds of Vangelis in a few spots (notably on the wonderful arrangement of Béla Bartók’s Bagatelle #4). The opening Golden Dawn is another successful marriage of synthesizers and jazz.

The synthesizer’s seduction of jazz artists is not synonymous with their best work (cf. Herbie Hancock, Jean-Luc Ponty), and few would argue that the late 70s and early 80s were the golden age of jazz. Funk and its ugly sister, disco, had begun to creep into jazz, smoothing over some of its rough edges in the process. Fickle Funk, for example, is a little too smooth for my tastes. Personally, I preferred The Mad Hatter, in part because I like program music. There are few mind-candy moments on Secret Agent. The opening two instrumentals are solid, the closing Central Park is a swell way to end things, and the Bartók piece is an oasis of cool. The rest of the album is more ho-hum than tweedle-dum, and few are likely to get jazzed about Corea’s third-best album from 1978.

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Original elpee version

A1. The Golden Dawn (3:39)
A2. Slinky (5:42)
A3. Mirage (2:11)
A4. Drifting (lyrics by Gayle Moran) (4:09)
A5. Glebe St. Blues (lyrics by Gayle Moran) (6:58)
B1. Fickle Funk (5:05)
B2. Bagatelle #4 (Bela Bartok, arranged by Chick Corea) (3:34)
B3. Hot News Blues (lyrics by Chick Corea/Gayle Moran/Al Jarreau) (6:18)
B4. Central Park (5:22)

All music written by Chick Corea unless noted. All music arranged by Chick Corea.

Original 8-track version
A1. The Golden Dawn
A2. Mirage
A3. Fickle Funk
B1. Slinky
B2. Central Park
C1. Drifting
C2. Glebe St. Blues
D1. Bagatelle #4
D2. Hot News Blues

The Players

Chick Corea (acoustic piano, multimoog, minimoog, OB-8 voice, Fender Rhodes, Moog 15, clavinet, hi-hat, cowbell, vocal choir), Tom Brechtlein (drums), Bunny Brunel (deep fretless bass, fretless bass), Joe Farrell (C flute, alto flute, E. flute, bass flute, tenor sax, soprano sax), Gayle Moran (vocals, vocal choir, vocal background), Airto Moreira (percussion, hi-hat), Jim Pugh (trombone), Al Vizzutti (trumpet, flugelhorn), Bob Zottola (trumpet) with Paula Hochhalter (cello, vocal choir), Al Jarreau (vocals on B3), Ron Moss (trombone, bass trombone), Carol Shive (violin, vocal choir), Charles Veal (violin and viola, vocal choir). Produced by Chick Corea; engineered by Bernie Kirsh.

The Pictures

Cover concept by Chick Corea and Paolo Lionni. Photography by Ed Caraeff. Art direction by Paolo Lionni, Mike Doud/AGI. Design by Michael Moanoogian. Hand tinting by Larry duPont.

The Plastic

Released on elpee, cassette and 8-track in December 1978* in the US and Canada (Polydor, PD/CT/8T-1-6176), India (Polydor, 2391 381) and Japan (Polydor, MPF-1220) and in 1979 in Turkey (Calliope, LP.7905) and Yugoslavia (RTB, LP5952) with picture innersleeve; reached #7 on the US Jazz Charts (1979). (*First appeared in 12/9/78 issue of Billboard.)

  1. Re-issued on elpee in 1981 in Japan (Polydor, 18MJ-9005).
  2. Re-issued on compact disc in 2005 in Japan (Polydor, UCCM-3062).

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