The Musician is a triple-CD epic (and epoch) summary of Chick Corea’s work. And yet it’s not a greatest-hits album, or even a greatest-hits-live album (though it does include “Light as a Feather,” “Silver Temple” and “Spain”). Taken entirely from Corea’s 2011 70th-birthday residency at the Blue Note in New York, The Musician’s “hits” are his various bands and collaborations over a 50-year career. Among the appearances here are an unplugged version of Return to Forever; duos with Gary Burton, Herbie Hancock, Bobby McFerrin and Marcus Roberts; an assemblage of fellow Miles Davis veterans; a flamenco-jazz ensemble; and Corea’s Five Peace and Elektric bands. His Now He Sings, Now He Sobs trio seems the only standout group that isn’t present.
It isn’t missed, however, simply because there’s so much quality material on hand, as well as a surprising amount of new information. Corea doing acoustic renditions of “Feather” and “Captain Marvel” with bassist Stanley Clarke and drummer Lenny White (and guitarist Frank Gambale, a longtime Elektric Band member) is a genuine revelation: These songs, written in a very specific and much-maligned context, work as straight-ahead jazz. More important, the band has a great time with them; each instrument oozes joy. Ditto his duet with Roberts on “Caravan,” on which both pianists find remarkable levels of detail to portray—and again, have a ball doing it.
But one of the most intriguing insights comes when the Miles tribute band—with trumpeter Wallace Roney, saxophonist Gary Bartz, bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Jack DeJohnette—tackles the Great ’50s Quintet’s arrangement of “If I Were a Bell.” Over the course of 22 minutes they stretch it this way and that, each player having a go (notably, it’s Roney, not Bartz, who takes it furthest out). But Corea, even when his solo is at its most aggressive and harmonically confounding, never lets go of a certain dulcitude in his touch; yet he also never lets go of his crystalline clarity. To employ a visual metaphor, he uses a soft-focus lens without the blur.
Some of these summits carry more history than others. Corea, at least on record, has never worked with Roberts (or Wynton Marsalis, who guests with the pianists on “CC’s Birthday Blues”); Burton and Corea’s collaborations have never included the Harlem String Quartet. Yet the long associations don’t feel like nostalgia trips, perhaps because they’re largely not regurgitating their old warhorses. (The Five Peace Band presents a new John McLaughlin tune, “Special Beings,” that’s one of the guitarist’s strongest in years.) Nor do the newer meetings come off as novelties. The strings sound as though they’ve always belonged behind the storied vibes-piano duo, as does Corea’s vocalist wife Gayle, who sings her “Your Eyes Speak to Me” with them.
Whether by accident or by design, The Musician’s finest moments arrive at the end of each disc. The two long tunes with the Elektric Band demonstrate that for all the pleasures of acoustic RTF, Corea hasn’t lost his fusion muse; his playing on “Ritual” is fire, and even pyrotechnicians like bassist John Patitucci and drummer Dave Weckl stay out of his way. The “Flamenco Heart” ensemble does beautiful work, with Corea at least equaling the chops of guitarist Niño Josele. But best of all is Bobby McFerrin’s wordless falsetto on “Spain,” his chest-tapping virtuosity creating astonishing new contours in the pianist’s well-worn signature tune. (Corea finds new contours as well, especially in the thrumming basslines he puts under McFerrin.) The Musician may not be an ideal first purchase for Corea questors—there’s too much recontextualization for that—but it is an essential one.