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Chick Corea Sizzles in Acoustic Trio Format at UCLA

October 6, 2019

Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA

At the exalted age of 78, the seemingly ageless Chick Corea continues his lifelong habit of zigzagging between several musical formats — though always, as Mae West used to say, one at a time.

This fall and winter, with the exception of a couple of November symphony dates in Seattle and Portland, Oregon, Corea is touring North America and Europe with just the basics — himself on concert grand piano, and a pair of formidable co-virtuosos, Christian McBride on standup bass, and Brian Blade on drums. It was all Chick needed to produce a ceaselessly inventive, hour-and-a-half-long outpouring of state-of-the-art acoustic jazz at UCLA’s Royce Hall Thursday night (Oct. 3).

This Corea trio has been labeled as the “Trilogy” band since the 2014 release of an expansive three-CD set, Trilogy (Concord Jazz), that was quickly (as Chick puts it) assembled from a series of live concerts all over the world. A sequel, Trilogy 2, was released in Japan last year, and finally came out in the U.S. on Friday.

Thursday’s concert at Royce, the second on the band’s current tour, took off from where the two Trilogy albums left off, mostly tributes to their jazz heroes with a handful of Corea tunes mixed in. That’s the short description, but it doesn’t begin to hint at what Corea and his colleagues were able to do with the material.

Corea would improvise lengthy solo piano introductions, producing big, tolling Rachmaninoff-like chords before the tune of Duke Ellington’s “In A Sentimental Mood” finally crept in along with the rest of the band. He could dance around “Alice in Wonderland” (the Bill Evans tribute) barely outlining the tune, but his melodic inventions were so rich that one didn’t feel anything was missing. The third hero that the three feted was Thelonious Monk, represented by “Crepuscule With Nellie” — taken at a fractured, lurching pace — “Work” — anchored by a repeated four-note motif from McBride — and as an encore, “Blue Monk.” And there was “Fingerprints,” the band’s “answer” to Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints,” that didn’t seem to reference the latter’s tune — just the spirit of the thing, I imagine.

Only once did the trio extend themselves somewhat beyond these parameters. In a throwback to his free-jazz band Circle nearly a half-century ago, Corea led off a number with some jangling prepared piano and atonal musings, then settled into a beautifully articulated performance of a familiar Domenico Scarlatti keyboard sonata. This morphed into an improvisation and then back into Scarlatti, followed by “A Spanish Song.” Corea still has the technique, imagination, and taste to carry off this fusion without a hitch.

The interplay between the three was constant, an even match of virtuosos listening to each other intently and never forgetting to swing. McBride as always laid down that big, booming tone on the double bass, creating elaborate solos while still managing to maintain the strong walking-bass pulse on “Blue Monk.” Blade scattered cooking drum breaks and disruptions throughout the set, his best moment coming in “Fingerprints,” with an opening solo using mallets on the drum kit with a feather-light touch.  

Hardly the stereotype of a serious, self-absorbed jazz musician, Corea acted as a genial host and twice revived a crowd-pleasing stunt heard on the Trilogy recordings — playing brief melodic or convoluted snippets on the piano and having the audience repeat them. Finally, at concert’s end, he whipped out his mobile phone and took photos of the audience and selfies of his band.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, Musical America.com, Classical Voice North America, and American Record Guide.  He has also contributed to Gramophone and The Strad, among many other publications. In another lifetime, he was chief music critic of the Los Angeles Daily News.