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April 25, 2000

Modern ComposersCorea.concerto. Spain for Sextet and Orchestra; Piano Concerto No. 1. London Philharmonic Orchestra, Chick Corea, conductor and piano. (Sony classical, CD # SK 61799) 1999.

Anthony Armando Corea (b. 1941), universally known as Chick, was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts into a musical family. His father was a professional pianist, and young Chick started playing piano at age four. As a teenager, Corea played with jazz groups in Boston and New York, and was strongly influenced by the great jazz artists of that era. He began touring in 1962 with Mongo Santamaria, then played with some of the top jazz groups in the country, including Herbie Mann, Stan Getz, and Miles Davis. Corea and Davis influenced each other as Davis moved several light-years ahead of what his contemporaries were doing, into the areas of electronic music tinged with Latin and other influences that became known as fusion. Corea formed his own group, Return To Forever (actually a number of groups with the same name -- not just different membership, but completely different groups). His successful recording career includes eight Grammy awards out of 25 nominations.

As broad and deep as Corea's education in jazz was, he never studied classical music. He says that his first encounter with Mozart was entirely accidental. In 1982 at the Munich Piano Summer music festival, Corea agreed to an informal performance of entirely improvised duets with the Austrian pianist Friedrich Gulda. During one of their duets, Gulda shifted from improvisation to "a beautiful melodic section, which was obviously a composed piece of music." Corea was completely overwhelmed by the melody, and when he asked Gulda later where it came from, Gulda told him it was Mozart. Corea was immediately hooked, and with Gulda's help, he began a serious study not only of Mozart but of the classical concerto form. The Piano Concerto No. 1 on this new album from Sony is Corea's homage to Mozart. In a sense, Corea's fusion of jazz and classical elements is of a piece with his earlier experiments in fusing be-bop and Cuban music.

Corea says that he "chose almost the exact instrumentation as the Mozart piano concerto orchestrations" because "I figured that I could perform the Mozart and my own piece with the same size orchestra." Though the concerto is an explicit imitation of some elements of classical concerto form in general, and Mozart in particular, no one would mistake Corea's concerto for an eighteenth-century work. Much of the concerto is improvised, for one thing, and then there's the matter of a jazz drum group (a trap) to provide percussion. Also, as in small-group jazz, the pizzicato bass is featured prominently as a grounding element. One enormous difference in this quasi-improvisational technique and classical concert music is that Corea's concerto will never sound more than approximately the same in any two performances, even by the same person. This is not inherently good or bad, but it makes for a type of concert experience.

The other piece on the present album is Spain for Sextet and Orchestra. Spain is probably Corea's best-known song from the various Return To Forever groups. Originally written in 1971, the piece evolved through performance, then was "reharmonized" and given a brand-new arrangement in 1988. This recording, Corea says, "is a final visit to Spain' in grand fashion and with a tip of the hap to the art cultures of Spain, Cuba, Brazil, Argentina, and New York."

You can hear Piano Concerto No. 1 by Chick Corea on WHIL-FM (91.3) Thursday, April 27 at 7:00 pm as part of their weekly series of music from after 1950.

--- J. Green

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