Corea Teams with McLaughlin for Triumphant Blue Note Finale


Chick Corea (left) with John McLaughlin at the Blue Note in New York City on Dec. 11

(Photo: Dan Muse)

Speculation ran high among fusion fans as to what an encounter between Chick Corea and John McLaughlin—two prominent faces on the Mt. Rushmore of Fusion—might produce when the duo appeared to cap the pianist’s historic eight-week run at the Blue Note in New York on Dec. 11.

Would they come out of the gate with titanic fare like “The Dance Of Maya” or “Meeting Of The Spirits” from the landmark 1971 album The Inner Mounting Flame? Would they cover anything from Return To Forever’s 1975 Grammy-winning No Mystery? Would these two legendary septuagenarians still have the energy and chops to cut such blistering compositions?

The question of chops was put to rest within a few bars of the hard-charging opener, “Hymn Of The Seventh Galaxy,” as the quartet (featuring Victor Wooten on electric bass and longtime RTF member Lenny White on drums) took off like a 747 leaving the runway. With Corea on Fender Rhodes and McLaughlin brandishing a distortion-laced Paul Reed Smith guitar, the two fusion pioneers dug into that title track from Return To Forever’s 1973 album with ferocious abandon, fueled by White’s power-precision drumming and Wooten’s insistent groove.

McLaughlin, who has announced that 2017 will be his final year of touring due to a progressive arthritic condition in his hands, wailed like the guitar hero of yore. As Frank Zappa once noted, “The guy has certainly found out how to operate a guitar as if it were a machine gun.” McLaughlin’s machine gun chops were in full effect on the opener, as well as on a new original, “Chick’s Chums,” a loping blues with a chops-busting head that the guitarist had previously recorded for Tony Grey’s 2013 album, Elevation.

Corea looked like he was having fun wailing on Mini-Moog on this jaunty-funky number while McLaughlin grinned ear-to-ear after dropping in a quote from Miles Davis’ “Jean Pierre” in the middle of his blazing solo.

Between songs, McLaughlin addressed the audience: “Chick and I go back 47 years. That’s a long time. We were both 27, 28-year-old hippies back then. Nothing wrong with that. We could use more hippie values in this wacky world today.”

Corea switched to grand piano for an abstract solo intro to “Romantic Warrior” (the title track of RT’s 1976 album) that had him playing the strings inside the piano before engaging in a percussive duet with White on mallets. Wooten brought out his new Fodera electric bowable bass for this acoustic-sounding number, and he wowed the Blue Note crowd with the woody tone and versatility of this radically designed instrument. Following Wooten’s show-stopping solo, McLaughlin entered with fleet-fingered fusillades that elicited shouts from the faithful fusion fans in the packed house.

For a recreation of McLaughlin’s “A Lotus On Irish Streams,” the group turned what had been a gentle rubato number from The Inner Mounting Flame into a waltz-time ballad underscored by White’s supple brushwork. As the piece developed into a heightened crescendo, McLaughlin’s blistering solo had some in the audience shaking their heads and wondering, “What arthritis?”

Special guest Béla Fleck joined the group on banjo for a rousing version of “Captain Señor Mouse” (from Hymn Of The Seventh Galaxy). Corea switched nimbly from Fender Rhodes comping to an outrageous Mini-Moog solo during this energized number while Fleck turned in an outstanding solo full of dazzling arpeggios and signature pull-offs. McLaughlin followed with a display of speed picking that had Fleck laughing out loud in sheer amazement.

For an encore, the all-star group was joined by Corea’s wife of 45 years, Gayle Moran, who has the distinction of being the only singer to have performed and recorded with both Return To Forever and the Mahavishnu Orchestra.

Their rendition of “Smile Of The Beyond” (from Mahavishnu’s 1974 album, Apocalypse) traveled from a hush to a roar, culminating in another stunning solo from McLaughlin. After the group took its final bows and left the stage, Corea remained to run through a bit of Chopin at the piano. So charged was he by this rare engagement, it was as if the eternally youthful and restlessly creative keyboardist just couldn’t stop playing.

Corea and McLaughlin played eight sets (from Dec.8–Dec. 11) of this high-powered RTF/Mahavishnu music, but this rare collaboration actually began on Wednesday night, Dec. 7, with an intimate duet encounter that had them delivering sublime extrapolations on standards like “My Romance,” “Someday Prince Will Come,” Monk’s “Bemsha Swing,” and “‘Round Midnight,” Bill Evans’ “Walt For Debby” and Miles Davis’ “Solar.”

Though it was impossible to catch all 80 sets that Corea performed during his extraordinary eight-week run at the Blue Note in celebration of his 75th birthday, these two with McLaughlin had to be highlights. DB

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