Saturday, April 4, 2009


[NOTE: This and my other reviews are archived separately at The first four paragraphs of this review of Duet will appear April 6, 2009 in]

Combined with his abilities as a soloist, Chick Corea's uncanny accompanist's instinct for supporting and focusing the spotlight on another player's efforts has produced celebrated duets with everyone from Gary Burton and Herbie Hancock to John McLaughlin and Bela Fleck. With Hiromi Uehara he has done it again.

Duet captures the two pianists in an engagement at Tokyo's Blue Note club in September of 2007, and finds them repeatedly achieving ecstatic heights of ingenuity and inventiveness. At first blush the opening tracks might feel too quiet as an introduction to the Sturm und Drang of this dynamic pairing, but if the anticipated energy, the bounding, rampaging, red-eyed thunder-and-lightning this partnership promises to deliver is not immediately evident as the first of two discs opens with Bill Evans' "Very Early" and Antonio Carlos Jobim's "How Insensitive," don't touch that dial...

Once these two get their hands warm on "Déjà Vu," the first of Hiromi's contributed compositions, they ignite things with a respectfully deconstructed version of "Fool on the Hill" that hews neatly to the lilting Lennon/McCartney melody line and harmonies right up until the closing three bars, when Corea unexpectedly plucks a few portentous notes inside the piano. The cubist conflagration long-time Corea fans perennially yearn for then flares dramatically on a joyful, abstracted version of his enduring "Humpty Dumpty," ending with his throwing down fistfuls of Cecil Taylor-esque tennis-ball chords, and his protégé enthusiastically throwing them right back. When he next engages Hiromi in some gravity-defying rhythmning on Thelonious Monk's "Bolivar Blues," the first disc's final track, it is plain she's in a mood to play.

A meandering "Windows" opens the second disc, but then it's off again on a stunning steeplechase of a composition, Hiromi's "Old Castle, by the River, in the Middle of a Forest," featuring some vintage unison dressage. By the time the last notes are sounded they are both energized and ready for a quirkily non-traditional distillation of "Summertime," using the Gershwin standard to continue widening the degree of abstraction as they travel through a sublimely ordered track sequence (a good argument in favor of albums, and against selective MP3 downloads). Musically, the end of "Summertime" dovetails into Hiromi's evanescent "Place to Be," which manages to slow the heart rate a few more beats per second before the disc concludes with a free-playing romp on Corea's "Children's Song #12," re-titled "Do Mo," and finally, an off-kilter rendition of "Concierto de Aranjuez/Spain" to provide an insouciantly perfect coda.

In the interests of honesty and total disclosure, I have a small quibble with this album (which may require a couple paragraphs to express): if I had produced it I would have trimmed it to a single CD and kept only the heart-pounding fireworks. There's more than one reason I'd have done it.

One, I think the markets for this U.S. release are the jazz-rockers who have been listening to Hiromi and her band Sonicbloom or have heard about them, plus a smaller secondary market consisting of Corea fans who have heard the buzz about how wild these gigs got. The first group are the same crowd who packed a couple dozen large venues for the Return To Forever Returns tour last summer, the ones who turned out to see Stanley Clarke, Marcus Miller and Vic Wooten last Fall and who at this very moment are packing large venues for Chick Corea and John McLaughlin's Five Peace Band tour. The second group have been listening to Corea since his early recordings, and can be won only through word-of-mouth buzz generated by stellar performances. Neither are the same kind of adoring audiences who filled the Budokan in 2007 to see Chick and Hiromi perform this material - the major difference being that those people in Tokyo were devoted Hiromi (and Corea) fans who didn't need to be introduced. Chick's considerable drawing power notwithstanding, they throng to any performance she gives. American fans do need an introduction to her. You know the old saying, "You never get a second chance to make a first impression"? Why would a producer select Bill Evans' "Very Early" and Antonio Carlos Jobim's "How Insensitive" to open the first CD?

The second point is related to the first. The more I listen to the slower material like the Evans and Jobim tunes, and even Corea's "Windows" (which, once again, ill-advisedly opens the second disc) the more dispensible it sounds. These tunes have the feel of warm-up material, the kind of crowd-control music played to settle down the diners and get them involved with the music as the tables are cleared. Even the faithful who have packed the Blue Note can only manage polite applause. Whether it is Chick's restraint or Hiromi's still-developing sense of swing that keeps these tunes from bursting into flame, really doesn't matter. They are pleasant enough and were probably exactly right for the occasion. But why include them on the CD? Trim one more track, say Hiromi's "Déjà Vu," and the remaining 8 tracks would fit nicely on a single CD that would tear along like Beethoven's 9th Symphony.

All that said, I cannot recommend this recording highly enough. My tastes have undergone several overhauls and re-orientations listening to Chick Corea's many musical phases and faces over the years. As he moved through Blue Note bopper, Miles Davis' Rhodes scholar, and Circular logician into the engineer who drove the Return To Forever locomotive, he never strayed too far from being the intellectually curious composer and improvisational pianist who can out-think any harmony and out-play any composition. Through the Elektric Band and Akoustic Band, Origin and the Remembering Bud Powell band, and right up through his current Five Peace Band collaboration with John McLaughlin, he's always kept me listening for those moments of predictability when he changes direction. Tweaking the time-space continuum, he switches directions harmonically and rhythmically from wherever he was apparently going to somewhere else entirely. He has remained faithful to a social contract that only a few jazzers are able to adhere to, the one that promises me that I'll always be surprized. I'll always hear something new and fresh.

This recording with Hiromi lands right in the middle of a 3-day binge of newness. When he invited Hiromi to join him at the Blue Note he knew he was setting up two of those screaming-ass high-speed Japanese trains on the same track, not really knowing what would come of it, whether they would collide head-on or launch each other into space. But he knew it would be new. No matter how may times you have heard Bitches Brew or Circle - Paris Concert or An Evening with Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea, you are not prepared for what Chick does with Hiromi on this recording. You most emphatically have not heard it before. This is new.

Visit Chick Corea and Hiromi on the web.

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