By Mike Katz
An orange moon broke through the smoky skies above the Hollywood Bowl Wednesday night, casting a surreal light over what turned out to be a stirring retrospective of one of jazz’s most enduring artists, composer and keyboardist Chick Corea, capped off by a surprise appearance by Stevie Wonder. Let me say upfront that any event Stevie Wonder graces ratchets up the Coolness Factor by about 1000 % — not that I’m in awe or anything. But let’s digress and review the evening’s events, as if we didn’t know that Stevie was going to show up, since things were going pretty well to that point anyway.
Guitarist John Scofield opened up the show with his Piety Street Band, a New Orleans/gospel tinged quartet that featured singer/keyboardist Jon Cleary. Scofield has a clearly distinctive, if hard to precisely describe sound – a hard-edged, though muted, slightly acidic tone that seems perfectly suited to his style, which has often operated on the blues/rock side of the jazz spectrum. The soulful New Orleans gig isn’t new to him, having teamed up previously with Mose Allison, among others, but the teaming with Cleary, British born but a longtime resident of the Big Easy as well as a collaborator with Bonnie Raitt, made for a tasty musical jambalaya.
After an opening bluesy vocal with Cleary on piano, the grouped moved to the familiar “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child,” with Cleary switching to organ. The combination of Cleary’s organ riffs dancing around Scofield’s guitar licks was appealing, and Cleary’s voice, with a hint of Brit blues and a dash of Dr. John’s soulfulness, was especially effective. On “Something’s Got A Hold On Me,” another Cleary vocal, Scofield added a wah-wah guitar rhythm, aided by fine bass work from Roland Guerin and the percussion and supporting vocals of Shannon Powell. Scofield began “Walk With Me” with a bluesy guitar solo, and Cleary followed up with a honky-tonk piano solo. It was here that you could sense this group winning over the Bowl crowd, not an easy task when most of the audience has come for the headliner.
“It’s a Big Army,” was a raucous closer, with Shannon Powell offering up a dynamic percussion solo featuring his tambourine and supplying additional vocals, a slapping bass solo by Porter, and terrific up front work by Cleary and Scofield. When Cleary sang “I’m a soldier in the army of love,” he had, by that time, a bowlful of recruits.
Chick Corea has such a rich library of compositions — his tunes have been covered by such diverse musicians as Woody Herman and Al Jarreau, and everyone in between – that it was anyone’s guess as to where he would begin this reunion with Return To Forever alumni Stanley Clarke and Lennie White. He kicked off with pure trio music, beginning with “500 Miles High”, from the album Light As A Feather. Clarke provided a robust bass accompaniment and White a graceful rhythm. Chick then switched to electric piano for “Captain Marvel” from the same album. Both songs, incidentally, were also on Stan Getz’ 1972 Captain Marvel album with Chick on electric piano and Clarke on bass, which for many was the introduction to these tunes.
Violinist Jean-Luc Ponty followed with what might have been the evening’s highlights, were it not for you-know-who. Ponty played Corea’s composition “Armando’s Rhumba,” capturing the lilting rhythms perfectly, then engaging in a wonderful counterpoint with bassist Clarke. He continued with his own composition, “Renaissance,” beginning with some staccato plucking and branching out into a lovely melody, Clarke following with a brief but emphatic bass solo, Corea and Ponty continuing by trading riffs, leading to a beautiful conclusion. You had to search your memory for a moment and wonder where Jean-Luc Ponty has been lately (France would be a good guess). In any event, he was in rare form.
From that point, the concert went up in volume with the entrance of guitarist Billy Connors. Clarke switched to electric bass, Corea to electric piano for a rendition of Corea’s “Senor Mouse.” Ponty, who had left the stage, came back with an electric blue violin that might have been arrested for cruising on Sunset Blvd. The quintet played a rousing up tempo “Mouse,” with Connors guitar riffs dominating the number and Lenny White keeping a steady percussive presence.
White next introduced vocalist Chaka Khan, who had played with him, Corea, Clarke, Joe Henderson and Freddie Hubbard on the 2005 CD Echoes of An Era. The group was now back in acoustic trio mode. The first of two numbers, “High Wire,” was a Corea composition with a melody that would challenge anyone’s vocal range, and Ms. Khan seemed tentative in searching for the high notes. She appeared more comfortable settling into “I Loves You Porgy,” but this is when jaws dropped as an unannounced guest was escorted onto the stage. As the first notes of his harmonica floated through the air, the crowd buzzed in recognition of Stevie Wonder. He topped off his harp solo by joining Chaka Khan in duet, singing the lyrics in the third person, his voice sweet and strong, clearly familiar with the classic Gershwin material.
Not surprisingly, the audience was in the mood for more. After the nominal end of the program — Chaka Khan’s “Through The Fire” aided by her backup vocalists — the crowd brought everyone back for an encore and, to the delight of all, Stevie Wonder joined them. He sat behind the electric keyboard, Chick Corea at acoustic piano; the two did the opening bridge adaptation of “Concierto De Aranjuez” leading to a rousing version of Corea’s “Spain”. Corea was obviously thrilled, trading riffs with Wonder. And, in case anybody doubted it, Stevie Wonder has plenty of jazz chops. Connors and Ponty joined in, and Clarke and White were stellar. But it was Stevie Wonder’s joyful presence that turned an already memorable evening into a night no one who was there will soon forget.