Monday, November 11, 2019

Chick Corea in Davies Symphony Hall

Chick Corea at his Yamaha piano (from the event page on the SFS Web site)

Last night in Davies Symphony Hall the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) Great Performers Series presented a solo recital by Chick Corea. It would be easy (and not that inaccurate) to call Corea a jazz pianist. However, in 1995 he made his SFS debut, playing Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 466 piano concerto in D minor with Bobby McFerrin conducting. Corea’s repertoire extends over a variety of jazz genres, but it is clearly not limited to those genres.

Indeed, the breadth of that repertoire was captured in the title for last night’s program, From Mozart to Monk. This turned out to be a bit inaccurate; and, for my part, I would have preferred that he had appropriated the title of the second volume of memoirs by the great actress Ruth Gordon, Myself Among Others. The second half of the program was all Corea (the “myself” section), divided between compositions and improvisations. The first half covered the “others,” presented in the musical equivalent of wine pairings, each of which coupled a classical composer with a jazz selection.

Now 78 years old, Corea still commands a solid piano technique. Like any jazz pianist, he has his knapsack of tropes; and, over the course of a full-evening performance, the attentive listener will come to recognize what many of those tropes are. As a result, while there was considerable diversity in both halves of last night’s program, it was not difficult to ascertain how Corea put his personal stamp on everything he played.

On the other hand, last night he took approaches to improvisation that offered some potential of moving beyond those tropes. Two of those improvisations amounted to portraits. He placed a chair beside the piano and invited members of the audience to sit while he improvised his impressions of the sitter. The first of these was a woman (“Carol”) and the second a man (“Adrian,” who happened to be sitting across the aisle from me). This recalled Virgil Thomson’s interest in composing portraits, short pieces that would capture the spirit of friends and colleagues, realized, over the years, through a diversity of approaches to instrumentation.

Corea’s approach turned out to be an interesting one. It did, indeed, provide a means for him to get beyond his business-as-usual tropes. By focusing on the visual, mind could direct the hands into less familiar regions. Mind you, the resulting portraits were not necessarily “representational;” but the same could be said of Thomson’s compositions. The exercise also may have reflected aspects of Corea’s work practices that might not have been evident from his less spontaneous work.

The portraits were then followed by two brief duo improvisations involving volunteers from the audience. Again, one of these was male and the other female, although this time Corea did not ask their first names. Both of them had, at the very least, a solid foundation in keyboard technique; but they also rose to the occasion with give-and-take exchanges of motifs that would then merge into four-hand playing as each pianist knew what to expect of the other.

Corea’s original composition included excerpts from his Children’s Songs collection and “The Yellow Nimbus.” He saved “Spain” for his encore. He explained that he had been drawn to the music through Gil Evans’ arrangements for Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain album (I liked his mentioning Evans before Davis), particularly the setting of the second (Adagio) movement of Joaquín Rodrigo’s guitar concerto, “Concierto de Aranjuez.” He confessed that he only got to know the Rodrigo original after becoming very familiar with the Evans arrangement, but last night he told the audience that he would pay more attention to Rodrigo!

That conclusion reflected back on the composers he had explored during the first half. Those aforementioned “couplings” were more reflections of personal taste than explorations of similarities or differences across the classical and jazz domains. The first of the three paired Mozart with George Gershwin, beginning with the second movement of the K. 332 piano sonata in F major and sliding into “Someone to Watch Over Me.” Corea did not focus on playing Mozart “by the book;” but, then, it is hard to imagine that, after Mozart had committed K. 332 to writing, he would not have continued to tweak the music in imaginative ways while playing it. Suffice it to say that the two composers on his “pairing” met on playfully imaginative ground.

The second pairing was a bit more adventurous. The classical composer was Alexander Scriabin, represented by the fourth (E minor) prelude from the Opus 11 collection of 24 covering all major and minor keys. He was paired with Bill Evans’ “Waltz for Debbie.” This was more of a “free association” coupling, using both compositions as points of departure. (It did not take long to recognize that the Evans selection was not being played with a waltz rhythm!) Those who thought that Scriabin may have been a bit too arcane for this exercise would do well to recall that the C-sharp minor prelude from the Opus 9 collection of pieces for the left hand was given a thoroughly engaging interpretation by the Art Farmer Quintet on their You Make Me Smile album.

The final pairing coupled Domenico Scarlatti’s K. 9 sonata in D minor with “Desafinado” by Antônio Carlos Jobim. This might seem a bit unlikely. However, while Scarlatti was born in Italy, much of his professional life (probably including his work on his 555 keyboard sonatas) was spent in Portugal and Spain. Corea made a somewhat cryptic observation that he could not believe that Scarlatti had written his sonatas for harpsichord, but he was probably just being playful. (I have no idea what Jobim’s preferences were in pianos.)

As the reader is probably aware by now, Corea’s concert turned out to be a long evening. Also, the sprit of Thelonious Monk never arrived. Nevertheless, the program was thoroughly engaging; and I doubt that anyone was checking the clock as Corea’s imaginative performances unfolded.

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