This ambitious two-CD set showcases the remarkably prolific Chick Corea in three seemingly disparate settings. Disc one is a globally inspired six-movement concerto for jazz quintet and chamber orchestra, depicting six continents. “Africa” is underscored midway through by a surging 12/8 groove from the rhythmically astute drummer Marcus Gilmore, while a handpicked chamber group plays contrapuntally against Corea’s authoritative piano. (The chamber ensemble, composed of members of the Harlem Quartet and Imani Winds, is conducted by Steven Mercurio, who conducted the London Symphony Orchestra on Corea’s 2000 collaboration with that organization.) Soprano saxophonist Tim Garland, trombonist Steve Davis and Corea also turn in some stimulating solo passages in the brief improv section of this mainly through-composed piece, which bears some Bartók-ian influences along with allusions to Corea’s own “No Mystery” and his early chamber writing on 1976’s The Leprechaun.
The 20-minute “Europe” unfolds at a deliberate pace, eventually segueing to a spirited section with a flamenco tinge that is buoyed by Gilmore’s crisp, inventive drumming and showcases Garland’s agile flute work against the fabric of Corea’s involved composition. A bracing piano trio interlude with bassist Hans Glawischnig and Gilmore alternately on brushes and sticks is a high point of this lengthy movement. Other involved chamber works on disc one are the intricate “Australia,” the buoyantly swinging “America” (shades of “La Fiesta” and “Love Castle”) and the somber “Asia,” which shifts from a piano and strings meditation to a quintet vehicle with Garland leading the way on soprano. But it’s the provocative final movement, “Antarctica,” featuring Garland on bass clarinet, that best integrates the chamber orchestra and jazz quintet. Corea also has a lengthy solo turn at the end of that impressive set-closer that serves as a precursor to his 11 “Solo Continuum” pieces on disc two.
Those freewheeling unaccompanied piano improvs, in most cases just a minute or two long, run the emotional and stylistic gamut: They can be lyrical and classically influenced (#31, #42, #119); sparsely introspective (#53); even pointillistic and avant-garde, evoking Corea’s Circle days (#86, #97, #1411). There’s also one segment (#64) that sounds like the scalar piano exercises Corea might run through backstage.
Elsewhere on disc two, the quintet is featured (sans orchestra) on a bristling rendition of “Just Friends,” a churning 12/8 take on Billy Strayhorn’s wistful “Lotus Blossom” that morphs into a 4/4 blowing section, a refreshing interpretation of Kenny Dorham’s “Blue Bossa” that is underscored by Gilmore’s “Poinciana” beat, and Corea’s edgy “What’s This?,” which also harkens back to his Circle days. There’s enough rewarding listening here to challenge and intrigue Corea fans for hours.