Historic Meeting: Valdés & Corea Collaborate in NYC

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Pianists Chick Corea (left) and Chucho Valdés (foreground) perform during their first duo concert on Nov. 15 in the Rose Theater at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York.

(Photo: Ayano Hisa)

Chucho Valdés and Chick Corea had never played together before they squared off across two grand pianos in the Rose Theater at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York on Nov. 15. This four-handed performance was the first of two evenings for the duo, with Valdés as the headliner and Corea as his special guest.

From the stage, Corea expressed surprise that the two had never worked together. After all, they’d been friends for a long time. And over the course of their long careers—both were born in 1941—their paths and musical interests had crossed often. So a collaboration has been a possibility, if not an inevitability.

Such a musical meeting certainly makes sense: Two of the most influential pianists in the jazz world would certainly have a lot to say to each other. In 1973, Valdés helped change the course of Afro-Cuban jazz with the formation of his Latin fusion band, Irakere. Three years later, Corea staked his own claim in Latin jazz with the Iberian-roots album My Spanish Heart. Both Valdés and Corea went on to win multiple Latin Grammy awards. (On Nov. 20, Corea—who already has 22 Grammy awards—received a Grammy nomination the category Best Latin Jazz Album, for his Concord release Antidote, recorded by the pianist and his Spanish Heart Band.)

Before the history-making part of the Nov. 15 concert, each of the acclaimed pianists played solo selections. Valdés opened with a mostly improvisatory take on the Juan Tizol/Duke Ellington standard “Caravan,” a staple of his live performances. He approached the tune contemplatively, making full use of the keyboard, shifting the tonal center now and again, and embellishing the melody with Latin, blues and swing riffs. Absent percussion, Valdés’ harmonic choices lay exposed—a tumble of shape-shifting lusciousness.

Valdés often borrows from the classical lexicon, as on his second tune, an original with an arresting motif, symphonic in its underpinnings and expansive in its feeling. From this motif, Valdés segued into an overtly modern improvisation that poured into a quote from the second movement of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2; he then returned to his motif for a traditional jazz outro—in all, a spectacular display.

Third, Valdés played “El Manicero (The Peanut Vendor),” a popular Cuban dance song and a reprisal from his 2001 album, Solo—Live in New York (Blue Note). In Valdés’ version that evening, the folksy elements of the song fell away as he improvised on the lilting theme, choosing out chords and creating jangly contrasts before returning to the dance groove.

Corea, up next, also opened his solo segment with an Ellington standard—a clean, cool rendition of “In A Sentimental Mood” from his recent trio work with bassist Christian McBride and drummer Brian Blade. Like Valdés, Corea approached his first tune by leaning into rubato phrases and colorful re-harmonizations, feeling his way through it; later, he would briefly assert an aggressive rhythmic pattern before falling back into the richly conjoined textures of the melody and changes.

These variations in temperament lent excitement to Corea’s performance and stemmed, perhaps, from his compositional approach to improvisation. As he moved into his next number, he expressed a fondness for pianists like Ellington who “were composers first”—and the type of musician he tries to emulate.

In this category, he also places composer-pianist Bill Evans, who wrote “Waltz For Debby,” Corea’s second (and final) solo piece. As Corea caromed through the introductory improvisation, plucking the piano strings and arpeggiating odd chords, he would reference the melody here and there without settling into it; the tune almost seemed lovelier sculpted in bas relief like this.

When Valdés returned to the stage, the two agreed to start with Valdés’ playful composition “Mambo Influenciado,” which he first recorded in 1964. Throughout, they traded off playing the groove-setting vamp, allowing the other to stretch out freely; they skittered through scales together up and down the keyboard; and they lobbed friendly musical challenges across the two instruments. The script, if there was one, was loose. The wordless communication, however, was tight.

From Corea’s prodigious opus, the two presented “Remembrance,” a relatively new original that derives from an old Spanish song form. Smoky and seductive, the tune proved to be the most melodic of the evening, with fewer improvised sections, as well as deceptively complicated synchronized passages between the players.

The two displayed a similar synchronization on Valdés’ “Conga Loca,” with its forceful pulse and offbeat tunefulness. It was on tunes like this that the shades of difference between the players became apparent, with Valdés opting for the florid and dramatic and Corea for the sleek and straightforward.

These contrasts in style were intriguing, certainly, but no less so than the onstage rapport that renders them inconsequential. On the closing number of their combined set, Thelonious Monk’s “Blue Monk,” Valdés and Corea charged through the familiar blues lines, catching each other’s eye to telegraph what’s coming next, lost in the sounds they were co-creating. Just two friends—jazz greats each—squaring off across two grand pianos. DB