By Michael Katz
Let’s start with this: Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke, an acoustic jazz trio, a nightclub appearance. Fill out the trio with an energetic young drummer, Marcus Gilmore, grandson of Roy Haynes, no less.
Hardly. Make it a quartet with Hubert Laws sitting in on flute. Jam an appreciative overflow crowd into the sprawl of Catalina Bar & Grill on a Tuesday night. Sprinkle in good vibes from all the players. Shake, stir, and Voila! One of those nights you won’t soon forget.
Chick Corea has cut such a wide swath in his career that it rightly took him several weeks and ten concerts to celebrate his 70th birthday in New York in 2011. For the opening of a weeklong gig here in LA, he presented a mini-tour of his acoustic work, in the splendid company of Clarke and Gilmore (to begin with), touching on his early trio work with the opening Steve Swallow tune, “Eiderdown.” Corea made it a point a few times during the show to thank the audience for attending a “rehearsal,” and although the players know each other quite well, there are always some bugs to be worked out in an opening show. I thought the piano sounded a tad muffled during the early going, though that may have come from sitting in the extended wing that reaches behind the piano and towards the bar area. On the other hand, it presented an excellent perspective for Clarke’s lithe bass work – at 61, he looks like he could step in and play defensive back somewhere.
“Bud Powell,” a Corea composition from Chick’s Remembering Bud Powell CD, had all the musical dexterity of Powell’s signature tunes: the darting ebbs and flows that fill up a space like a tidal pool, then whoosh back out, leaving Clarke and Gilmore to fill in the void, while Corea moves on, looking for musical eddies to stir up.
Hubert Laws joined the trio for the rest of the set, starting with Thelonious Monk’s “Pannonica.” For those of us who discovered jazz in the late sixties and early seventies, Laws’ playing defined the jazz flute. Re-united with Corea and Clarke he sounded every bit in his prime, full of the lilting riffs, tinged with classical arpeggios that have always characterized his playing. Following Chick’s intro, Laws entered with the Monk line crisp and clear, leaving the others room for solos in an atmosphere that was casual and cool.
And then there was “Windows.” I suppose we all have our favorite songs, but “Windows” is unabashedly one of mine. It’s not just one of Chick Corea’s best compositions, but a perfect construction for Hubert Laws’ expressive tones. From the plaintive opening notes, to the improvisational flights that follow and the dovetailing denouement, it still captivates. Simply put, hearing Laws perform it with Corea, Clarke and the young Gilmore behind him was, for me, a singular musical moment.
There was much more, in a set that stretched over ninety minutes. “Captain Marvel” is a tune from Return To Forever’s second LP, but I first heard it on Stan Getz’s album of the same name, with Corea and Clarke as sidemen. Laws introduced the theme, giving it a soulful boost, then let the rhythm section take the forefront. Stanley Clarke would be in dynamic mode the rest of the evening. Here, sandwiched between two terrific drum explorations by Gilmore, he took command of the acoustic bass, while Corea laid out harmonic layers behind him.
That was nominally the end of the set, but the crowd wasn’t ready to disperse, not by any means, and the band continued with Joe Henderson’s “Recorda-Me.” Again, Clarke was out front, perhaps most noticeable because he had laid back earlier, but by this time it was four great musicians swinging separately and together. Young Gilmore provided a verve and youthful enthusiasm that kept the others on their toes. Hubert Laws reminded us that after all this time, no one plays the flute better.
And then there’s the leader of this group, Chick Corea, who has hit every musical touchstone imaginable, getting right to the heart of the matter: a piano, a melody, the intrinsic syncopation of swing, a classic trio plus one. The Corea/Clarke Trio will play through Sunday with Hubert Laws sitting in tonight.
This is an event you don’t want to miss.
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