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Chick Corea and Origin: A Week at the Bluenote

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One of the most heartening sounds heard around the jazz piano world in the last few years was that of Chick Corea unplugging. Not to say anything of his electric (or, in his own vernacular, “electric”) forays, but he seemed to have reclaimed some artistic rapport with the grand piano, with a little help from Mozart and Bud Powell, to whom Corea devoted himself to pay tribute. Of course, Corea played acoustic all along, in the nooks of his musical life, but sometimes his approach to the unplugged instrument, the attack, the attitude, seemed influenced by his frequent contact with tools programmed by extra-human “touch sensitivity.”

Now, arriving like a sort of manifesto of newly attained organic feeling, comes the paradoxically epic and relaxed 6-CD set, A Week at the Blue Note, by his invigorating new post-mainstream sextet, Origin. In a way, this project represents a reversed polarity of keyboard influence, allowing his acoustic, natural preferences to affect his notions of programming and recording techniques.

Jazz listeners will immediately rewind two years to what might seem like a precedent, the 1996 box set by Keith Jarrett’s trio, also six CDs and also recorded at the Blue Note. There are key differences, of course: the Jarrett album is an expansive document of probably the finest piano trio on the planet, in a ripened, 12-year-old state. Corea’s six-pack is something else, a statement of purpose right out of the box, a sink-or-swim proposition for his new sextet, recorded on their first gig, at a stint in the literal beginning of 1998. An inherent drama, a devotion to the concept of presenting things “as is,” is interwoven into the design.

There was a better than good chance that the stuff on tape would work, given the caliber of musicians on hand. In the sax department, tenor player Bob Sheppard and alto saxist Steve Wilson are capable of tight ensemble matriculations and engaging solos, as is trombonist Steve Davis, sailing smoothly over chord changes or scuffling artfully through modal passages. Corea himself is in fine form, playing with a mature dynamism and his characteristically crisp articulation mixed with liberally expressive detours, while bassist Avishai Cohen and drummer Adam Cruz keep the organism surging or floating, according to task.

The material includes a handful of Corea his romantic yet muscular lang-uage on charts like “Double Image” and “Matrix.” Significantly, they also run through a selective roster of covers, tastefully arranged by Corea, including Powell’s skittering “Tempis Fugit,” Miles’ “Four” and Monk’s “Four in One,” new musings on “It Could Happen to You,” and softer, introspective sonorities on “Bewitched.”

That ballad, a feature in the set, appears three times on the album, which begs the question: Are six CDs critical to the musical integrity of the project? Could the point have been made, and the musical impact delivered, on half as many? Probably. But it doesn’t hurt, except in the wallet, hearing a hot new band truly stretching (that it appears on Corea’s revived label Stretch is a stroke of poetic marketing). It’s as much a statement as a product. Corea has gone raw, but, on the evidence here, the emperor decidedly has clothes.