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Corea, Clarke & White

Hollywood Bowl, Los Angeles, Calif.; Sept. 2, 2009

Chick Corea

After decades of moving ever-forward and conjuring up new bands and projects, jazz keyboard great Chick Corea has been retracting into the past of late. Last year, he revived the long-dormant, mid-’70s version of Return to Forever, the rockier and more widely popular-and critically questioned-model with guitarist Al Di Meola, bassist Stanly Clarke and drummer Lenny White. That hot-selling RTF ticket was quickly followed (and overlapped) with a long-awaited teaming-up with fellow fusion pioneer John McLaughlin, in the Five Peace Band, for a tour and an album.

What a multi-thousand-strong audience at the Hollywood Bowl caught recently in the Bowl’s “Jazz at the Bowl” series was a time-tripping extravaganza that ran deeper into history than both of these recent revamp projects. The rambling program called, with deceptive simplicity, “Corea, Clarke & White,” found Corea going back to even earlier incarnations of the RTF machine, with notable visits from old friends.

Fittingly, Corea’s archival sampler plate of a program kicked off with “500 Miles High,” from his first, subtler 1972 Return to Forever album on ECM. Old Corea ally and ’70s fusioneer Jean-Luc Ponty showed up to dispense his silken chops on Corea’s “Armando’s Rumba” and then Ponty’s own catchy instrumental “hit,” “Renaissance.”

For many, the real star guest of this show was guitarist Bill Connors, the original player in RTF, and an intriguing instrumental voice on the themes of Corea’s “Señor Mouse” and “Space Circus.” Whereas Di Meola brings more machismo to his playing, stating his riffs with brash, declarative panache, Connors-even when playing with a distorted tone-comes from the opposite, more introspective school. He asks questions with his playing rather than stating his case with exclamation points. The ever-flexible and chameleonic virtuoso Corea can go both ways, towards introspection and hubris, but Connors’ presence here seemed to bring out the more sensitive side. They’ve got to go on meeting like this.

Chaka Khan showed up for a few songs towards the set’s end, reprising her role as a vocalist of mostly jazz-standards fare on the 1982 Echoes of an Era album, organized by Lenny White and featuring Freddie Hubbard and Joe Henderson. At the Bowl, she started out by navigating the serpentine lines of Corea’s “High Wire-The Aerialist,” faring fluidly on jazz turf.

By most casual accounts, the most tingle-inducing surprise guest of the evening was Corea-admirer Stevie Wonder, who played harmonica and sang in duet on “I Loves You, Porgy” with Khan. Wonder then returned for an obligatory encore of Corea’s “Spain,” sounding fine on keyboards and happily swapping riffs with Corea.

Oddly, the main section of the concert closed with a tune from Khan’s songbook, “Through the Fire,” diffusing the already pushed-and-pulled sense of musical identity of the evening. The song did remind us of the hearty doses of jazz vocabulary Khan has always managed to shoehorn into her R&B songbook, from Rufus onward.

If Corea’s memory lane-hugging jaunt had a smorgasbord effect, opener John Scofield’s set was all about a focused idea. The guitarist is presently in the thick of his fascinating special project with a New Orleans focus, grounded in the soulful album Piety Street (Emarcy). Scofield’s current band, featuring the multi-talented singer-pianist Jon Cleary (a Crescent City-obsessed Englishman), sounded righteously good and gospel-y in the mass outdoor sanctuary of the Hollywood Bowl.

As Scofield projects go, this one-a product of his sideline fascination with rootsy corners of American music-has little “jazz content,” per se. Cleary, bassist Roland Guerin and drummer-vocalist Shannon Powell laid down N’Awlins and gospel sounds with minimal “crossover” colorations attached. Even so, Scofield is a sneaky jazzer in whatever context we find him in, going deep down the middle while simultaneously circling around the edges with harmonic detours flavored by his jazz ethos.

Originally Published