Chick Corea: The Vigil

Hey, Chick, 1973 called, and it wants its rejected prog-rock album cover art back. OK, maybe that was a bit harsh, but the cover for Chick Corea’s The Vigil is the easy winner for most ridiculous of 2013: Corea depicted as a knight astride a horse, eyes cast toward a celestial unicorn, looking like the hero in some bargain-bin sci-fi novel. (In fact, the album is customarily dedicated in part to Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.)

But on to the music. The Vigil is a case study in not judging an album by its cover. This is, in fact, the most exciting music Corea has released in many years, and it features the most virile new writing that Corea has offered in a quarter-century (or more).

The Vigil is the name of both the album and the pianist’s new band, a young quintet featuring multireedist Tim Garland, guitarist Charles Altura, bassist Hadrien Feraud and much-ballyhooed drummer Marcus Gilmore. Corea says this music was written specifically for these musicians and it feels that way, particularly with regard to the rhythms, which shift often and traverse a range of styles, from bop to funk. (The album opens with six clacks of Gilmore’s sticks, as if to underscore his importance.)

The cover art pays heed, of course, to Romantic Warrior, the 1976 album by Corea’s band Return to Forever, but The Vigil is not simply RTF2. In fact, it seems to draw from most of the disciplines in which Corea has dabbled: fusion and bop, electric and acoustic. On some tunes he plays a grand piano; elsewhere he uses a Yamaha Motif keyboard to imitate a Fender Rhodes or a vintage Moog Voyager to evoke the sounds of the ’70s. After a dozen years of looking back-albums of standards, a reunion with Gary Burton, a retread of Return to Forever, a Bill Evans project, etc.-Corea is once again looking forward, and that progression means synthesizing all he has done in the past.

“Galaxy 32 Star 4” is full-on prog-jazz, with audacious changes, pounding chords and all the twists and turns and compositional intricacies of Yes’ Tales From Topographic Oceans. But “Royalty” (dedicated to Roy Haynes, Gilmore’s grandfather) is measured acoustic postbop, and “Legacy,” with its thump-thump-thumping bass groove and electric piano, is very Bitches Brew. Corea’s dazzling technical facility is fully displayed on “Pledge for Peace,” which pays obvious tribute to John Coltrane and hints, through the sheets-of-sound rumbles, at Corea’s affinity for Spanish music. Return to Forever’s ghost appears clearly on “Portals to Forever,” a 16-minute tour de force with tricky rhythms, overlapping themes and grand ambitions-it must have been near-impossible to perfect.