Corea Assembles Supergroup for Miles Tribute at Blue Note NYC

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Chick Corea is in the midst of a lengthy residency at the Blue Note in New York.

(Photo: Courtesy of Chick Corea Productions)

Chick Corea does not think small. Try to name another figure who, in celebration of his 75th birthday, could pull off an eight-week residency comprising 14 separate events with a cast of characters spanning pre-Baby Boomer to Millennial.

The program, which ends on Dec. 11 with a Return to Forever Meets Mahavishnu project, includes 2016 versions of such iconic Corea programs as the Elektrik Band, Three Quartets, the Leprechaun Band, Origin and an acoustic edition of Return to Forever; duo performances with Herbie Hancock, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Brad Mehldau and John McLaughlin; and several new projects, including an encounter with Norway’s Trondheim Jazz Orchestra and two nights of Experiments in Electronica with Marcus Gilmore and Taylor McFerrin.

For week two, Corea presented another new project, “For Miles,” in homage to his 1969–’70 employer, with what can only be described as a “supergroup” of three fellow Miles Davis alumni (saxophonist Kenny Garrett, electric guitarist Mike Stern and electric bassist Marcus Miller), as well as trumpeter Wallace Roney, through whom Miles speaks in the modern day, and drummer Brian Blade, who was born too late to have an opportunity to intersect with the master, but whose pan-stylistic ebullience, spontaneity, high craft and comprehensive knowledge would have made him a natural fit for any of Miles’ bands.

On Oct. 27, the second night, before commencing the second set, Corea responded to the multitude of raised smart-phones targeted at the bandstand by pointing his own phone at the audience. As is often the case in New York, and particularly at the Blue Note, the crowd was international (my table of eight included a woman from Turkey, a woman from Japan and two men from Argentina).

Corea sat at the piano bench and wended his way into the refrain of “All Blues.” Stern and Miller doubled the vamp, supporting Roney’s opening solo. In the first chorus, the trumpeter hewed closely to Davis’ original 1959 presentation on Kind Of Blue; then he counterstated with complex variations, creating long lines phrased to fall at odd places against the intense groove locked down by Stern, Miller and Blade.

The groove got even more intense as Garrett began his solo at a low dynamic. He toyed with the time, and then, goosed by Stern’s well-timed clusters, ratcheted to Pharoah Sanders levels of spirit-calling. Stern wore a compression glove on his right hand, with a pick glued between the thumb and index finger, to ameliorate the effects of nerve damage suffered in the aftermath of an accident in August.

He put to rest any concerns that his chops might in any way be compromised with a fleet solo, tracked by Blade’s soft, percolating swing beats; he transitioned to full-bore rock, exploring blues variations with guitar-hero flair and skronking out with the pedals.

There was no need for further pyrotechnics, so Corea opened with tensile, delicate lines, evocative of Bill Evans’ playing on the original recording, then entered a Wynton Kelly mode, supported by Miller’s Paul Chambers-esque refractions and Blade’s serious sticking.

Corea wasn’t providing song titles, so I couldn’t identify the second piece, a tune from the ’80s (perhaps it was “Splatch”) that Miller launched with a signature intro that prompted several audience members to shout, “Funky-funky!”

As Blade locked down the groove with a staunch backbeat, Corea soloed with Rhodes-like sound on his Yamaha Motif keyboard, ending with a wild run that set up another blues-drenched solo by Stern that, in turn, set up a funky Garrett solo.

Miller entered a more ambient, mysterious space, complemented by Stern’s pedaled timbre and Blade’s “funk-with-a-limp” beats. Roney’s solo featured a long section during which he and Miller played rhythms back and forth to each other. Miller’s long concluding solo began with an uber-funky section that prompted Stern to holler an expletive at its climax, and ended with crisply articulated 16th-note lines.

Corea remained at the keyboard bench. He put forth a long, organ-like tone, before hinting at the melody of Gershwin’s “My Man’s Gone Now,” as reimagined by Miles and Gil Evans on their 1958 Porgy And Bess album. Roney stated the theme with achingly poignant tonality, cosigned by Stern’s spiky commentary. When it was time for him to improvise, the flow shifted to a brisker pace, underpinning Roney’s master class in creating artful melodic variations.

Garrett’s fierce, praiseful soprano saxophone solo was a foil to Roney’s smoldering ambiance in the manner of Dave Liebman and Gary Bartz during their early ’70s stints with Davis.

After Corea took a few choruses of long, crisp, horn-like lines, Stern crossed the stage and faced the leader directly as he soloed over a groove that had assumed a swampy, Gulf Coast flavor. Roney intoned the refrain again with stately focus, then offered a further round of informed, keening melody-making, supported by Garrett’s subtone riffs.

It was a hard act to follow, but Corea turned to Garrett, asking, “OK, do you want to try that tune?” There followed a piano-alto saxophone melody statement on “My Foolish Heart,” which is not in Davis’ canon. Corea commenced his solo in a Herbie Hancock mode, complemented by Blade’s delicate yet forceful brushstrokes, then transitioned to Red Garland-esque lines over a medium bounce on which Blade switched to sticks. He concluded by launching an orchestral passage entirely in his own argot.

The group remained in Miles First Quintet territory at the top of a medium-groove treatment of “If I Were A Bell,” highlighted by another efflorescent, horn-like solo by Corea, on which Blade switched between sticks and brushes. Later, Corea stood before the piano to play the melody of “Jean-Pierre,” triggering another stretched-out, high-energy solo by Stern with the feel of Indian music, an effect reinforced by Garrett’s long, drone-like commentary on soprano sax.

Garrett focused on tone and melody in his solo, which included an interpolated quote of “Oh! Susanna,” which inspired Corea to comment with harp-like synth sounds, to which Garrett responded with a “St. Thomas” motif, to which Corea responded with “Surrey With The Fringe On Top” intimations.

After Corea had said his piece, Garrett, Miller and Blade explored the Indian threads at greater length.

When they were done, Corea, smiling broadly, approached each musician for a handshake. It seemed like a completely spontaneous gesture of respect and admiration for the artistry and team-first orientation of his partners, in keeping with his decision—a Milesian decision—to function almost entirely as a co-equal participant rather than to feature himself, as he could easily have done.

(Note: To read a review of Robert Glasper’s performance at the 2016 Blue Note Festival, which took place at the venue in June, click here.)

—Ted Panken




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