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Everything’s Great in Guelph — Unless You Ask Sainkho Namtchylak

Chick Corea

The crowd came to Jazz Alley early, packing the club from the end of the bar to the last table in the balcony. As twilight and drizzle fell beyond the wall of windows looking onto 6th Avenue, the patrons sat enjoying the spectacle of clearing sky, silhouettes of trees, passing umbrellas and patterns of headlights on the glistening pavement. The room tingled with the nervous energy that accompanies anticipation. For adjusting the microphone inside the nine-foot Steinway, the soundman was rewarded with applause.

Corea, bassist Avishai Cohen and drummer Jeff Ballard earned their first ovation by climbing the steps to the stage. The trio’s variety of attire gave no clue to its uniformity of musical purpose. Corea wore a sky blue shirt figured in white splashes that resembled a guayabera without pleats; Ballard a smocklike garment of shiny green stuff; Cohen black leather pants and a black jacket over a white T-shirt.

Perhaps sensing that this audience was with him unconditionally, Corea said, “We’re going to start with something we’ve never played before, so bear with us.” Neither the trio’s performance of “With a Song in My Heart” nor the succession of pieces from its new CD, Past, Present & Futures, required forbearance. As Fats Waller’s “Jitterbug Waltz” got underway, Corea conferred with the soundman and the audience about a rumble he detected in the piano’s lower reaches. “Hear that?” he said with a grimace. No one else seemed to, but he and the technician kept troubleshooting while Corea vamped through test chords in the introduction and asked his listeners’ opinions. His low-key showmanship made the incident part of the entertainment. With Corea satisfied, or reconciled, the trio launched into the arrangement. Cohen’s solo was even more spectacular than that on the recording, and the trio’s playing was full of spiky abstractions and percussive interaction. When it was over, Corea thanked Waller.

The introduction to “Cloud Candy” had Ballard experimenting with a chain on a cymbal before settling into a groove and making punctuations behind unison passages between the bass and Corea’s left hand. Cohen scuttled down the strings and fingerboard with a virtuosity as integral to the music as it was spectacular. “Ana’s Tango,” named for Corea’s 91-year-old mother, began with piano chord splashes and arpeggios based on exotic intervals before the piece settled into its minor key and classic habaneralike dotted rhythm. The tango developed into a display piece for Cohen’s astonishing bowing, which Ballard complemented with hand drumming, and then into a section of simultaneous improvisation that had the inflections, pauses and responses of a conversation.

“Life Line,” built on unison piano-bass lines and full of surprises, became a Latin-percussion symposium. Following their solos, Corea struck large and small cowbells, and Cohen smacked a polished hardwood box with resounding acoustic properties. Positioning themselves near Ballard, they also supplemented his drumming with strategically timed raps on his bass drum. The intensity of the rhythm built for chorus after chorus and continued when Corea and Cohen returned to their instruments. Cohen used the box of his bass as a drum, exquisitely timing his punctuations with those of Corea and Ballard. When the piece ended, the audience was on its feet and the musicians were hugging and bowing.

That was not the end. The encore, “an old familiar melody,” Corea said, was the famous strain from the adagio movement of Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez.” It melded into-what else?-allusions to Corea’s equally famous “Spain,” incorporating lots of bass bowing and atmospheric drum commentary. Then “Spain” emerged full-blown. During the coda, Corea improvised a phrase and someone in the audience hummed it back. He played another one and two or three people sang it back. Soon, he was playing phrases and conducting the crowd in a choral extravaganza that lasted several minutes. The audience sang in tune. There was even some harmonizing. It worked so well that it might have been rehearsed. When it ended, the crowd applauded the trio, the trio applauded the crowd and all concerned applauded themselves.

It would have been hard to find someone who walked out of Jazz Alley without a smile.

Originally Published