The Sydney Morning Herald, Tue 18 Jan 2000 - Features


Master of lateral movement finds freedom in expression

Chick Corea ... legendary pianist.


On paper it should never have worked. The pianist whose playful agility and precision of execution have sometimes been allied to a sense of melodrama was teaming up with a vibraphone master whose art had often been more decorative than inquiring.

When the bubbling Latin influences in the genes of Chick Corea collided with the country twang of the mid-western vibraphonist Gary Burton, the results could have been insufferably twee and pretty. Yet when they recorded the aptly titled Crystal Silence (ECM) in a single November day back in 1972, the two happened upon one of those mysteries of musical and personal chemistry.

Like that album's successors, including the recent Native Sense (Stretch), the music was mostly light and very elegant, but it tended to lack bite. Nonetheless, it was impeccably performed, intimate and had an intricacy worthy of close scrutiny. Above all, it has proved to be remarkably timeless.

"When we come together, it never really seems like a reunion," said Corea on the telephone from a Tokyo hotel room. "It just always seems like a continuance of what we've been doing."

Most of their repertoire has come from the pen of Corea, often revisiting - and revitalising - pieces originally written for other aggregations and albums. These have been augmented of late by works from sources as diverse as Thelonious Monk and Bela Bartok.

It is a breadth which reflects the range of musical activities in which Corea has always dabbled. His commitments include the presentation of his first piano concerto, about to be released on Sony Classical in a performance with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted from the piano by the composer.

"Preparing the recording and preparing the several performances that we've given is quite a bit of work for me," he says. "Especially since, included in the [live] program, was a performance of a Mozart piano concerto. So that has taken quite a bit of attention. And on this tour I've actually spent about a week and a half where I played solo piano concerts, mainly in Scandinavia. So that was another repertoire to deal with. But at the moment, what's on my plate for the immediate future is mainly concentrating on a new set of music for [current band] Origin, some solo piano work, and there always seems to be a thread of continuance with myself and Burton.

"No matter what either of us is doing, there always manages to be a couple of concerts during the course of a year, and the duet simply has a life of its own."

Only two years apart in age, their careers developed in parallel during the 1960s. Burton sprang to prominence playing with saxophonist Stan Getz, and was soon leading his own bands, advancing accepted levels of virtuosity on the vibraphone by playing with four mallets rather than two. Corea, meanwhile, had already made an impact as a leader and composer before he joined Miles Davis in 1968. Since that time, he has spread himself across the gamut of jazz-related music and beyond, often finding great popularity with rock audiences. The seemingly inevitable corollary had been the alienation of jazz critics, of whom he is dismissive.

"It became a kind of popular controversy to have anything that was popular be considered less quality - which in a lot of cases is true, from my viewpoint as well. But not in all cases.

"I live in a happy world where everybody can have whatever opinion they want: even the ones that are very critical, and even the ones that are very slandering. I think what they do is they end up stringing themselves up, and I just kind of laugh it off."

A Scientologist for more than 30 years, Corea's effervescent outlook (and playing) might perhaps be traced in some part to the teachings of Scientology's founder, L. Ron Hubbard. Recently, however, his perception of this association has taken a different turn.

"I grew up in Boston in the United States, never thinking too much about this whole idea of freedoms - like the kind of freedoms that are written in the United States' Bill of Rights and Constitution: freedom of speech, and freedom to pursue one's own religion, freedom to gather, freedom to communicate - until I began to be cancelled [from] concerts in Europe every now and again, because of being a Scientologist.

"And then I started looking into the fact that these freedoms have to be maintained ... and it just got me interested in what it means to live in this day and age, and keep one's mind free from any kind of suppression."

Chick Corea and Gary Burton play the Concert Hall of the Opera House tomorrow and Thursday.

[Press articles on Scientology]