Live Jazz: Chick Corea and Gary Burton at Royce Hall

By Michael Katz

Chick Corea and Gary Burton are two exquisite musicians, who in their duets have found a way to channel their talents into a performance both unified by their sensibilities and singular in their contributions. Saturday night, in a UCLA Live presentation before an appreciative audience at Royce Hall, they brought out some familiar material from past albums, interlaced with material they are developing for a new collection of standards, though not in the sense you might suspect.

Chick Corea and Gary Burton

The first two numbers, “Love Castle” and “Native Sense,” were a reminder that both piano and vibes are nominally placed in the rhythm section. They featured Corea and Burton exploring rhythmic patterns, ebbing and flowing into each other’s leads. The sound of Burton’s vibraharp, clear,  crisp and amplified in a way unlike the piano, can appear to lead the way when the two are in harmony; Corea, implicitly acknowledging this, offered more chordal support, waiting for Burton to step back before offering his own solos.

Chick Corea

Both men took turns introducing numbers with self-deprecating humor, Corea unfolding voluminous charts of new arrangements, as if to belie the supposition that all jazz  is improvised. The so-called standards for the upcoming CD were less old chestnuts than nods to their musical antecedents,  from Mozart to Bud Powell to Lennon/McCartney. “Can’t We Be Friends” was a tune performed by Art Tatum and, while not familiar to the audience, gave Corea an opportunity to demonstrate his chops, which at age 70 are not in the slightest bit diminished.

It was the next number, Jobim’s “Chega De Saudade” (aka “No More Blues”), with its more familiar melody, that really garnered an appreciation of their approach. Corea and Burton both played with Stan Getz early in their careers, Burton on several of the seminal bossa nova records and Corea later, in a more contemporary setting that featured many of his own compositions. Their approach was a reflection of both periods: a counterintuitive introduction, setting off a percussive line and backing into the melody, the samba insinuating itself into the performance. Burton is a visual wonder as well, wielding two double mallets, their blue tips a blur. Unlike the pianist whose fingertips never leave the keyboard, Burton seems more the acrobat, albeit with little time for the audience to contemplate the daring, or to wonder how the mallets never miss their targets.

Gary Burton

It was interesting to note their different relationship to Beatles music, Corea explaining that he was barely aware of them, ensonced in Trane and Bird and Miles in the ‘60s, while Burton attended the Beatles’ famous 1965 Shea Stadium concert. When Corea announced the next tune as a Lennon/McCartney number, you could sense the anticipation as they worked their way through an opening bridge, which revealed the familiar chords to “Eleanor Rigby.” Burton led the way with a sometimes jarring line that still managed to retain the essential theme of loneliness, implicit even without the lyrics.

“No Mystery,” though originally recorded by Corea’s Return To Forever band, seemed ideal for the duo, its clear and simple melodic line intoned perfectly by Burton, with Corea intricately weaving in a counter melodic backing.

The second set was an equally enthralling musical journey, beginning with Corea’s homage entitled “Bud Powell,”  and continuing with “Alegria,” a flamenco style tune that began with Burton and Corea tapping rhythms on opposite ends of the piano and continuing in the Spanish tinged harmonies that have been a staple of Chick’s work. That was followed by Bill Evans “Time Remembered” and one of Monk’s lesser known tunes, “Light Blue.”  But the highlight of the second set was “Mozart Goes Dancing,” in which Corea imagined  Mozart confronting African rhythms and dancers. There were snatches of classical phrasing from Chick, interspersed with Burton’s lilting rhythms, weaving the jazz and classical forms with panache.

The perfect coda to the evening was the encore,  this time devoid of charts. Corea and Burton fell easily into a joyous version of “Blue Monk.”  There were no intricate arrangements here, just the two of them riffing as if it was a late night jam session. And it was late, at least in the sense of a concert venue.  But the UCLA crowd, which often dissipates early to beat the parking jam, stayed around until the final note.  Had there been a third set few people would have left, but instead it was emblematic that this musical pairing of virtuosos can still leave an audience asking for more.

Photos by Andrew Elliott courtesy of UCLA Live.

To read more reviews and posts by Michael Katz click HERE.

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