Corea, Blanchard Soar at Cleveland’s Tri-C Jazz Fest


Chick Corea (left), Christian McBride and Brian Blade perform during the Tri-C Jazz Festival in Cleveland on June 24.

(Photo: Stephanie Shacter)

“Let’s get one thing out of the way,” pianist Chick Corea said before his trio’s performance at Cleveland’s Tri-C Jazz Festival on June 24. “Congratulations on the championship!”

There are certainly subtler ways to elicit cheers from an audience. But in this sports-crazed town, Corea’s reference to the Cleveland Cavaliers (this year’s NBA Champions) was all it took to whip the crowd into a frenzy.

After the applause had subdued, Corea began his next order of business, which was to help his bassist, the Grammy Award-winning Christian McBride, tune his instrument. Corea casually played an E on his piano, and McBride, finessing his tuning peg, brought his lowest string into pitch. It is usually a simple, routine task. That evening, however, it was anything but.

Almost as soon as Corea had played his single note on the keyboard, an audience member, perhaps still giddy from the post-championship high, repeated the note out loud. The pianist’s ears perked. With an impish grin he played another note, and this time, even more audience members sang the note back to him.

The exercise soon became a contest: Corea would play a multi-note phrase, and the audience would gamely repeat it. The phrases continued to grow in complexity, becoming longer and more familiar until, on the wings of even louder applause, the trio launched into its first number, a soft, swinging jaunt through Kurt Weill’s “This Is New.”

Through the impressionistic wash of Corea’s piano solo it became clear that the three musicians—drummer Brian Blade is the trio’s third member—had locked into a telepathic accord. Blade was closely attuned to his partners’ whims and impulses, underlining melodic nuances in Corea’s solo and adding depth to McBride’s bass lines.

The trio quickly connected with the audience, impressing with an ability to create and sustain moods throughout the duration of a song. That aptitude would come in handy for the remainder of the group’s set, which Corea announced would follow a theme of “songs written by pianist-composers.”

On an interpretation of a Scriabin prelude—Corea joked that it had been “de-preluded” by the band—the trio began in an atmosphere of billowy elegance and grace, a nod, perhaps, to the song’s classical origins. That creative disposition persisted well into the tune’s solo section, during which McBride emphasized the classical pedigree of the tune with a solo full of stately linear lines and baroque embellishments.

An impressionistic version of Jimmy Van Heusen’s “It Could Happen To You” followed. Corea delivered the standard in Cubist form, full of angular melodic lines and strident intervals. Blade, one of the most sensitive drummers in jazz, reacted brilliantly to the song’s detours and deviations; his drumming was a punctuation that accentuated the tune’s unusual cadences and contours.

Other pianist-composers falling under Corea’s interpretive umbrella that night included Stevie Wonder, whose 1976 classic “Pastime Paradise” was conveyed with unhurried soulfulness, and Thelonious Monk, whose “Think Of One” brought the program into more cerebral territory.

Two compositions by one of our generation’s preeminent pianist-composers—Corea himself—closed out the show. The first, “You’re Everything,” from the 1979 album Light As A Feather, hit upon some of Corea’s key stylistic attributes: plumy piano lines, murmuring ostinatos and suspended chords that seem hover in air.

The final song, an encore, was a brisk rendition of “Spain” that once again found the audience and Corea embroiled in a game of “repeat after me.” Corea would play a fragment of the triumphant melody, and the audience would enthusiastically shout it back.

Though the group has Corea’s name on it, it is nonetheless a machine powered by three distinct voices (and several thousand more if you count the members of the Tri-C Jazz Festival audience). That sense of equanimity was evident during the final curtain call, as the musicians, bowing before the audience, playfully fought over who should stand in the middle.

The following day, Terence Blanchard’s E-Collective, a band of similar cohesion but different stylistic sensibility, performed at the Ohio Theater to a full house. The trumpeter and his agile young group—keyboardist Fabian Almazan, drummer Joe Grissett, bassist Josh Hari and guitarist Charles Altura—offered Bitches Brew-esque rumblings and muscular hard rock motifs, with Blanchard’s effects-laden horn cutting a jazz swath through the electrified air.

A newly composed tribute to Jimi Hendrix, on which Altura soloed poetically, complemented material from the collective’s 2015 album, Breathless (Blue Note), including “See Me As I Am,” “Confident Selflessness” and “Soldiers”—all of which were inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. The vibe was bold and provocative, but not without groove. Blanchard, a musician with an urgent and significant message, has found an ambitiously musical way to convey it.

Other artists performing during the festival—presented by Cuyahoga Community College—included trumpeter Dominick Farinacci, vocalist Somi, tenor saxophonist Melissa Aldana and pianist-vocalists Dr. John and Diana Krall, who both participated in an all-star tribute to producer Tommy LiPuma.

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