It’s not clear whether Art Blakey was intoning his famous dictum, “Music washes away the dust of everyday life,” when Chick Corea, 76, played with the Jazz Messengers midway through the 1960s. But on a day in New York City when apocalyptic events—a Caribbean hurricane, a Mexican earthquake and a Strangelovean speech by the U.S. President at the United Nations—dominated the headlines, Corea applied that principle at the Blue Note on the first night of a two-week run with the new band that he co-leads with drummer Steve Gadd. The two have been good friends since 1966, when Corea, just off the road with Blakey, played a month-long gig in Rochester, Gadd’s hometown, at the invitation of his Blakey bandmate Chuck Mangione.
Having reconvened after an end-of-August sojourn in Japan, the band—Lionel Loueke, guitar and vocals; Steve Wilson, alto and soprano saxophones and flute; Carlitos Del Puerto, acoustic and upright bass; and Luisito Quintero on an array of percussion instruments—would move on to a two-month sojourn through the States, South America and Europe.
Each of the Blue Note’s 200 seats was occupied. This writer sat at a cramped table stage right, behind Gadd’s drums, joined by four male drummers of a certain age (and the younger date of one) who were glad to pay the $85 cover to observe Gadd, whom they had previously seen only in arenas, at close range. These attendees had been fans of both musicians since the early 1970s, when Corea and Gadd played together in the first electric edition of Return To Forever, and recorded such breakthrough Corea albums as My Spanish Heart, The Leprechaun, The Mad Hatter and Friends.
“We’re going to rehearse for you now,” Corea said, before launching the opening fanfare of “Night Streets,” which first appeared on My Spanish Heart. As they would do for the next 90 minutes, Gadd and Quintero created inexorable drum chants, complemented by Del Puerto and Loueke, shifting the grooves from section to section as the solos progressed—first Corea, melodic on the keyboard; then Wilson with a caterwauling soprano solo; then Loueke with much skronk; then Corea recapitulating at a more moderate level, before he picked up a cowbell to accompany the final chant.
More rehearsal seemed needed for “Serenity”—a Bill Evans-esque ballad from a forthcoming Corea/Gadd album—on which the composer switched to acoustic piano (Del Puerto played upright), as Gadd on brushes and Quintero on several instruments sound-painted a mellow samba flow that complemented Wilson on flute, a vocal by Loueke, and Del Puerto’s solo.
Also in the set list (and from the forthcoming album) was a John McLaughlin piece called “Chick’s Chums,” which the iconic guitarist performed with Corea last November during his two-month 75th birthday celebration at the Blue Note, in which he performed with 15 different bands. On this night, Gadd set up a N’awlins parade beat to frame Corea’s funky keyboard groove, each stroke so pristinely, clearly articulated that you could focus just on him, if you wanted to. But it would have been a shame not to soak in the catchy hook, which inspired a multi-hued synth solo by Corea, a deeply soulful soprano solo by Wilson and some fiery shredding by Loueke in duo with Gadd.
“The time zips by real quick,” Corea said, acknowledging that an hour had already passed. “We’re going to conclude with this piece.” A collective groan arose. “It’s a really long piece,” Corea joked.
Attending to his synth, he uncorked an ominously sci-fi opening to the song “Return To Forever,” complemented by aleatoric sounds from Loueke and from Wilson on flute, abstract expressionist rhythm timbre from Quintero, and whispering brushwork by Gadd, who code-switched to deep funk as Corea triggered a percolating vamp. Loueke sang to his line as he crescendoed and decrescendoed. There followed another fanfare, then a luminous soprano sax solo goosed by Corea’s Monkish interpolations. After another buildup, Corea danced through a kinetic keyboard solo, fueled by 71-year-old Gadd’s unrelenting energy.
Corea acknowledged the hollers for an encore. Gadd (brushes) and Quintero established a rolling samba feel as Corea developed an abstract overture on the acoustic piano, gradually dropping hints of “Spain” before stating the theme about five minutes in. Wilson soloed ebulliently on alto sax, traded ideas with Loueke, then gave way for exchanges between the co-leaders. After a few moments of call-and-response with the crowd, the first of the fortnight’s 24 sets was done.
The Chick Corea/Steve Gadd Band’s residency at the Blue Note continues through Sept. 30. For information, visit the Blue Note website. DB