Chick Corea has a hell of a resume.
One of the co-founders of jazz fusion, the New Yorker-at-heart maestro has performed with, and for, the likes of Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, and Bill Evans. He started as a hotshot pianist in his 20s, and has done nothing but make a critically-acclaimed name for himself since then.
With close to 55 years worth of performances under his belt, the news that he sold out both his shows this weekend at Ruth Eckerd Hall’s new Kate Tiedemann and Ellen Cotton Cabaret Theatre weekend was no surprise. These would be his first shows since COVID-19 canceled the remaining dates of his European tour in March. And you know something? The jazz legend is gonna be 80 his next birthday, and Friday night, he almost put other piano crushers from his time like Elton John to shame.
“This is weird!” Chick joked as he walked onto the cabaret stage. Out came a massive, life-sized sheet music holder that he positioned on his Yamaha grand. “I made a kind of a setlist, but I probably won’t follow it… usually don’t,” he added.
Earlier this year, Chick released a new live album, Plays, which includes a handful of tracks recorded live in Clearwater. Kicking off this first show of his was the same thing that his live album started with: getting his crowd in tune.
“Gimme an A,” Chick requested right before launching into Jerome Kern’s “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, in the style of Mozart. The pianist played a few notes for about a minute, and gestured to the crowd to vocally repeat after him until the notes became chords you couldn’t really sing, and laughter came in. Somewhere, Freddie Mercury was nodding his head in approval throughout the whole schtick.
His first set also contained a version of Stevie Wonder’s “Overjoyed,” in the style of Thelonious Monk. That’s what Chick does when he plays solo live: He takes legendary tunes across all eras of music and just makes ‘em his own. And not once did he forget to acknowledge any of his fellow composers, many of which were allies of his.
There’s “force of nature” Austrian pianist Friedrich Gulda who introduced him to some of his heroes, including Mozart. Then there are folks that may not have a mainstream jazz reputation, but still remain part of the center of Chick’s universe. He would go on to give a shout out to the beauty of Bill Evans’ “Waltz For Debby.”
“That was his niece, Debby. You know that piece, right?,” Corea asked.
He mentioned how his mentors in the ‘60s were jazz gods among men, Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk, and would proceed to pay tribute to both. Monk got his “Round Midnight” tribute first, and damn it, if the title of Powell’s tribute hasn’t escaped me. It was easily the brighter of the two.
“Wanna try something?” Chick asked the crowd. And boom: The vocal improv from earlier in the show was back. For five minutes, a choir of mainly seniors sang back the notes the maestro tapped out, while absolutely perfectly in tune and sounding incredibly tight.
After a brief intermission, Chick began the new “Portraits” segment in his show: Portraits sees him imitate people in the crowd—by playing something that suited them in that exact moment. In an interview with Creative Loafing Tampa Bay, Corea said the exercise was something he learned to do on a basement piano when playing with his many cousins during family gatherings. There’s a chair onstage for him to bring people up to. Two men and two women would be selected, one at a time. (“I’m a guy!” one female fan jokingly called out.) The lucky ones were Sam, whose composition was peppy and upbeat in major chords, Anya, whose piece was slower and having a tinge of Vince Guaraldi in there, Mike, whose moment sounded like a war piece that could have been composed by Holst, and Vicky, who had a piece that sounded like the score of a war film’s final scene.
Capping off this intimate affair was Chick mentioning his 20-track Children’s Songs record from 1984, of which of course, he would dive straight into right away. The plan was to do a somewhat healthy mix of the more simple tunes from the album’s first half, and then one or two of the last ten. “Starting from [track] number 10, they kinda get involved,” Chick admitted.
Well, no matter how involved they may feel to the average pianist, he still managed to triumphantly and effortlessly close his first of two nights in Clearwater with the 20th track. The way this guy just allowed his fingers to glide across and crash land atop those keys made it feel like you’ve never heard a pianist at work before.
Thanks, Chick. We feel much better knowing that jazz is alive and well.
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