Within the last 18 months, Chick Corea has released albums with an eight-piece Latin ensemble (Antidote with the Spanish Heart Band) and a trio (Trilogy 2 with bassist Christian McBride and drummer Brian Blade). On his new album Plays, the live audience is the band. “Here I am with my piano,” he says in the opening track. “The piano’s tuned up all nice, but we have to tune up. Yeah, we.”
Corea strikes a middle A. “Ahhh,” the crowd sings back with a nervous giggle. G to A. “Aaah-aaah.” So on and so forth; he teases them with increasingly complicated phrases, then settles into a lovely medley of Mozart’s Piano Sonata in F and George Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch Over Me.” “It feels uncomfortable to just sit up on stage, play and nod at [people],” he says in the Plays press bio. “I like people to feel like they’re in my living room and we’re hanging out.”
Ever since he got his start in Miles Davis’ electric band, Corea has been a savant—an accessible savant. On Plays, which was recorded at concert halls in Europe and the United States, he both dazzles the audience and draws them in. Sometimes literally; for “Portrait: Henrietta” and “Portrait: Chris,” he plucks people from the audience and improvises tone poems about them.
These “portraits” stem from a childhood game Corea played with his family, but the meat of Plays is a different kind of game: musical comparisons. Mercifully, he doesn’t lecture the audience on the theory that binds Bill Evans (“Waltz for Debby”) and Antônio Carlos Jobim (“Desafinado”), or Domenico Scarlatti (“Sonata in D Minor”) and Jerome Kern (“Yesterdays”). “What do Mozart and Gershwin have to do with one another?” Corea asks in the bio. “That’s up to you as a listener, but they’re analogous to me.”
In the long run, Plays may prove to be a blip, a placeholder until Corea’s next studio album. But since it’s anyone’s guess when we can pack into a concert hall again, hearing this master do his thing in classy venues—not live from a basement over Zoom, which we’re all sick of by now—is comforting. Until Corea can tune us up in real life, Plays will do just fine.