“Solo piano is lonely,” says Chick Corea, though the legendary pianist is in good company throughout the solo performances captured on this captivating new double album. On Plays, set for release on September 11, 2020 via Concord Jazz, Corea engages with several of his favorite composers, representing a wide swath of musical history – as well as with enthusiastic audiences in concert halls across Europe and the U.S., who become integral collaborators in these spirited renditions.
While Corea’s solo explorations are as exploratory and inventive as ever, the tone on Plays is decidedly communal. That comes from the jazz great’s warm and witty dialogues with his audience, but also from the way he makes connections with the iconic composers whose work he celebrates. He also places these composers in conversation with one another, pairing favorite pieces in such a way that surprising commonalities are revealed that bridge styles, genres and eras from Mozart to the moment at hand.
“I’m part of a lineage,” Corea explains. “The thing that I do is similar to what Monk did, to what Bill Evans and Duke Ellington did, and moving back into another era of music, what Bach and Mozart and Beethoven did. These were all pianists who were composers at heart, who gathered their own musicians together to play. I feel so proud to be a part of that tradition.”
The composers featured on Plays represent the wide spectrum of Corea’s keyboard influences. He delves far back into the classical repertoire for pieces by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Domenico Scarlatti, Alexander Scriabin and Frédéric Chopin that alone represent 300 years of musical history. His formative jazz influences include Bill Evans and, of course, Thelonious Monk, with the bossa nova beauty of Antônio Carlos Jobim adding the always-important Latin tinges that have long accented Corea’s music. The Great American Songbook offers the Gershwins and Jerome Kern, while Stevie Wonder appears to hint at a more modern pop sensibility.
As familiar as many of these compositions are – Corea includes well-traveled classics from “Desafinado” to “Yesterdays” to “Trinkle Tinkle” and “Pastime Paradise” – stunning new discoveries are sparked by Corea’s unexpected pairings. Like a fine wine matched with a complementary gourmet meal, subtle nuances emerge when a Mozart sonata is set alongside a Gershwin standard, or Bill Evans’ wistful “Waltz for Debby” meets a timeless Jobim melody.
“When I first played a Scarlatti sonata in front of my jazz audience, it broadened the whole scope of what I was presenting,” he says. “To me it fit so well, but I found that, to audiences, it was a little unusual for me to put together a Mozart piece with a Gershwin tune. What do Mozart and Gershwin have to do with one another? That’s up to you as a listener, but they’re analogous to me.”
One last composer who deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as these giants is Chick Corea himself. He reprises his piece “The Yellow Nimbus,” in tribute to his close friend and collaborator, the late flamenco guitar virtuoso Paco de Lucía; the two originally recorded the tune as a duet on Corea’s 1982 album Touchstone.
The set closes with eight selections from Corea’s book of “Children’s Songs” Corea first recorded the full 20-piece collection for ECM in 1984. These miniatures were written in the spirit of freedom and creativity inherent in the imagination of a young child – another way by which the sense of “play” enriches Corea’s music. “Children are free-spirited and joyful,” the composer says. “They’re still finding out about life, so they’re wide open and very communicative with their surroundings and other people. I tried to capture that sensation with the Children’s Songs.”
Plays, naturally, is rich with Corea’s unparalleled piano mastery, the latest thrilling evolution in a storied career that’s lasted more than half a century. But it also offers the rare opportunity to watch the composer at work: on a pair of “Portraits,” Corea spontaneously paints tone poems of a pair of audience volunteers. The exercise has its origins in a childhood game played by the pianist and his cousins at family gatherings. In its more refined form, the composer finds inspiration in the visages of his subjects for the lovely, elegant “Henrietta” and the sly, robust “Chris.”
Audience members help shape the music in an even more direct way on a pair of spontaneously improvised duets. Corea never knows who might turn up when he asks for volunteers to join him on the bench – he’s had mystified four-year-olds and competent middle-aged amateurs. The two duets on Plays include a pair of ringers: the conservatory-trained French classical pianist Charles Heisser, and the French-Israeli jazz pianist Yaron Herman, who has released albums on Blue Note and Decca Records. When they were chosen for these brief duets, however, both were simply audience members.
“I didn’t know they were pros,” Corea laughs. “But it’s always a lot of fun when I invite pianists to come up on stage to improvise with me.”
“Fun” is the operative word for Corea, no matter how serious the music he conceives. That is a second meaning inherent in the title Plays, which hints at the playful mood of the recordings. “The piano was a toy to me until I found out that it could be a tool for me to improvise, write and create things,” he says. “But it’s still a toy. Trios were my first love, so when I play solo piano I like to get out on stage and have some fun.”
A congenial host, Corea also makes sure that his audience has a good time as well. Almost as important as the music on Plays are his dialogues with the crowds, who take on a personality of their own. “I personally find it necessary to talk to the audience a lot,” Corea says. “Especially when I’m playing solo, it feels uncomfortable to just sit up on stage, play and nod at them. I like people to feel like they’re in my living room and we’re hanging out.”
- Chick Talks Mozart and Gershwin
- Mozart: Piano Sonata in F, KV332 (2nd Part – Adagio)
- Someone to Watch Over Me
- Improvisation on Scarlatti
- Scarlatti: Sonata in D minor K9, L413 Allegro
- Chick Talks Bill Evans and Antonio Jobim
- Waltz for Debby
- Chopin: Prelude Op. 28 #4
- Scriabin: Prelude Op.11 (Part 1) #4
- Chick Talks Monk
- Trinkle Tinkle
- Blue Monk
- Pastime Paradise
- Chick Talks Paco
- The Yellow Nimbus
- Chick Talks Portraits
- Portrait: Henrietta
- Portrait: Chris
- Chick Talks Duets
- Duet: Yaron
- Duet: Charles
- Chick Talks Children’s Songs
- Children’s Song No. 1
- Children’s Song No. 3
- Children’s Song No. 4
- Children’s Song No. 9
- Children’s Song No. 10
- Children’s Song No. 15
- Children’s Song No. 17
- Children’s Song No. 12