Subscribe to JazzTimes magazine and receive reviews, news, profiles and more!
Shortly after arriving in New York, in the early 1960s, Chick Corea had the opportunity to attend “Thelonious Monk University” for three weeks, as he explained to a packed house at Philadelphia’s Academy of Music on Sunday night.
Actually, it was a three-week stint at Harlem’s Apollo Theater as part of Mongo Santamaría’s band, sharing a bill with Monk’s quartet and the Maynard Ferguson Big Band. Corea spent most nights during the run hidden behind the backdrop curtain, peering through an eye-level hole just feet away from the iconic pianist. One night, he recalled, the quartet stretched out on a dazzling, 15-minute version of “Rhythm-a-Ning,” after which Monk paused, thought a moment and played the same melody again.
After another extended run through the same tune, Monk considered again and, yes, a third, completely different version of “Rhythm-a-Ning” followed. This is a prime example, Corea concluded before beginning the melody himself, of the in-the-moment spirit that jazz embodies.
That kind of eccentricity isn’t exactly the m.o. of Wynton Marsalis’ Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, who had invited Corea to guest star in its centennial tribute to Monk. In striving to represent the Platonic ideal of the jazz big band, the ensemble can at times smother spontaneity with sheer virtuosity. Monk’s offbeat sensibility did manage to penetrate that perfectionist armor, however; in Philly, the band played bold variations on 10 of the composer’s classic tunes, bursting forth with the vigorous and urgent soloing of which the Orchestra’s individual members are certainly capable.
It didn’t hurt that Corea was the guest of honor. At this stage in his career—just past the benchmark 75th birthday that he celebrated so memorably at the Blue Note in late 2016—Corea seems to be having more fun than ever onstage. At times that, too, can have its drawbacks: The last time he appeared at this Philly room, in a duo performance with Herbie Hancock, the pair was playful to the point of flippancy, seeming more like two old friends having a bit of a laugh than two jazz masters finding inspiration in one another’s artistry.
Sunday’s tribute struck the perfect balance. Dressed casually in a black jacket with a dragon embroidered on the back, Corea opened the show with a sprightly solo to lead into “Four in One.” In Chuck Israels’ arrangement, the melody rippled through the band, traded from voice to voice in tight spirals. Marsalis took the first solo with a combination of relaxed swing and blistering flurries that seemed both effortless and exacting, parrying Corea’s sharp comping with sudden stabs and recoiling slurs.
More interaction between the two giants would have been welcome, though Marsalis, as always, was judicious with his own solo time. The only other example came during the second-set opener, Vincent Gardner’s anthemic treatment of “Trinkle, Tinkle,” during which the trumpeter’s precise, darting lines were taken up by the pianist, a thrilling call-and-response game accented by the pop of Marion Felder’s drumming.
The Orchestra members’ arrangements placed these familiar tunes in a wide variety of settings. Ted Nash kicked off “Think of One” with a touch of New Orleans shuffle before breaking loose into bracing swing, launching trombonist Chris Crenshaw into a brisk turn in the spotlight, after which Corea nimbly navigated the tune’s acute curves.
Employing the dynamic range of muted horns and piercing flutes, Gardner gave “Light Blue” an evocative, Bernstein-esque treatment. Nash’s brilliant alto solo took that idea to further extremes, veering between honking lows and fluttering highs with tightrope-walking agility. The arrangement left space for Corea to dance with the melody, his balletic lines taking cues from the piping flutes.
Marsalis recalled Rudy Van Gelder’s white gloves by way of introduction to Crenshaw’s arrangement of “Hackensack,” which captured the Jersey vibe with brusque brass and blaring horns suggesting a melodious traffic jam. Kenny Rampton’s clarion trumpet broke through the muscular din, urged forward by Corea’s insistent pulse. The pianist’s penchant for Latin rhythms was brought out in Carlos Henriquez’s rendition of “Bye-Ya,” during which the bassist also embarked on an eloquent solo.
Corea contributed a newly minted version of the lesser-known “Work.” While he apologized for the “skimpy arrangement,” a product of the time crunch demanded by life on the road, placing unadorned melodies as memorable as Monk’s in the hands of such a skilled band is never a bad idea. Gardner rode the tune into a swaggering solo that played off of Corea’s clever dissonances, while the pianist took the opportunity to engage in a sly back-and-forth with Henriquez.
Following the last-call sway of Walter Blanding’s “Ask Me Now,” the evening closed with the aforementioned “Rhythm-a-Ning.” Alto saxophonist Alexa Tarantino used a quote from “Get Happy” to build her solo, before a slap-tonguing Victor Goines strolled over and engaged her in an electrifying duel. It may not have been quite as unexpected as a Monk three-peat, but it got the crowd riled in a way that the centenarian of honor would surely have enjoyed.