Chick Corea – The Continents: Concerto for Jazz Quintet and Ch. Orch. – DGG (2 CDs)

by | Mar 5, 2012 | Jazz CD Reviews

Chick Corea – The Continents: Concerto for Jazz Quintet and Chamber Orchestra – DGG B0016441-02, (2 CDs) 71:42; 67:32 ***1/2:
(Chick Corea – piano; Tim Garland – flute, soprano saxophone, bass clarinet; Hans Glawischnig – bass; Marcus Gilmore – drums; Steve Davis – trombone; Chamber Orchestra, Steven Mercurio conductor, Fred Sherry, concertmaster (CD1: all tracks); Corea, Garland, Glawischnig, Gilmore, Davis (CD 2: tracks 1-4); Corea (CD 2: tracks 5-15)
Chick Corea’s double-disc project, The Continents, is subtitled as a concerto for jazz quintet and chamber orchestra. By that implication listeners can expect something different from the norm. But Corea’s album is also not what it appears. First, by true classical usage, Corea’s opus is not precisely a concerto, although the first disc is essentially a concerto grosso (which consists of a small group of instruments with an orchestra). Secondly, this is definitely is not jazz with strings. The hand-picked orchestra (with members of the Harlem String Quintet and Imani Winds) is a vital ingredient: the orchestra is an integral element in the compositional symmetry and several players also contribute notable solo sections. Also, the recording is more than a Third Stream effort. The first disc, which comprises six separate but thematically connected pieces related to geographical designations, combines or fuses classical and jazz influences. But the bonus second disc is a mixture of four standards performed only by Corea’s quintet (Corea on piano; Tim Garland on flute, soprano sax and bass clarinet; trombonist Steve Davis; bassist Hans Glawischnig; and drummer Marcus Gilmore), and ten solo piano exercises by Corea.
The seeds for this endeavor were planted when Corea was commissioned by the Mozartjahr Wien to write a piano concerto in the spirit of Mozart to be premiered in 2006 during the Viennese celebration of Mozart’s 250th birthday. Corea responded to the invitation by interpreting the challenge in a broader sense and designed a work instilled with “the joy of making music.” Thus, The Continents is not Mozart with swing; it has universal characteristics and by and large has more wide-ranging aspects.
Although the 72-minute, six-part first disc has a lot to absorb, Corea’s concerto can be appreciated as autonomous tracks, since Corea crafted each component (“Africa,” “Europe,” “Australia,” “America,” “Asia” and “Antarctica”) to be heard or performed outside the context of the other parts, although they should be considered as a whole. At almost 21 minutes in length, “Europe” is the longest track and is an extended, melody-marked suite which presents much to enjoy for those ready to spend time hearing what Corea has to offer. Although “Europe” has a continental disposition, it does not pull inspiration from the total region, although there hints of Spanish and French influences. “Europe” opens with the full orchestra, then the quintet and single orchestra instruments rise and fall, surrounded by an ostinato, or repeating theme, which is effectively passed around via piano, bass, drums (Gilmore adds a memorable solo ignited by verve and drive) and various other solo instruments. Corea’s assurance in this style of long-form writing sparkles throughout. On this (as well as the other movements), the input of conductor Steven Mercurio and concertmaster Fred Sherry (who selected the orchestra members) are also impactful and apparent. It is appropriate “America” is the jazziest tune, since jazz originated stateside. There are allusions to jazz history which come to the fore (Ellington, the Gershwin’s and others can be sensed even if they are not directly quoted) and Corea and the quintet make the most of Corea’s swinging composition. Garland’s sweet soprano sax solo is a highlight as well as Davis’ bop-inclined trombone improvisation.  There is an expert modal construction and fine textual logic to “Asia,” which does not have an explicit Asian imprint. The moody opening may not appeal to some; however, the piece builds up to a persuasive structure heightened by Corea’s keyboard efforts, Garland’s horn and the superb rhythm accompaniment.
Jazz fans will find the second disc more compelling, since the material pares down to a straightforward quintet segment with four  tunes (Billy Strayhorn’s “Lotus Blossom,” Kenny Dorham’s “Blue Bossa,” John Klenner’s 1930s pop hit “Just Friends,” which has also become a well-recorded jazz standard, and Corea’s “What’s This?”), and then ten solo piano interludes. Corea and his quintet stretch out on a nearly 15-minute rendition of “Lotus Blossom,” a brightly-hued jam session kindled by a quick tempo and plenty of soloing. The group then delivers a new interpretation of “Blue Bossa” (which Corea did as a duet with Bobby McFerrin in 1990). The quintet brings a warm light touch to Dorham’s enduring classic, emphasizing the Latin American flavor but minimizing bop elements. “Just Friends” has as comparable quality, where the quintet puts a lively and lovely spin on the famed melody. Corea’s post-bop cut, “What’s This?,” has a modernist tonality which suggests McCoy Tyner’s chordal voicings. The second disc’s second half consists of 30 minutes of mostly short unaccompanied piano extemporizations. The first five were evidently made without knowing the tapes were rolling and so it is not surprising the initial batch has an unfinished mannerism, neither engrossing nor prominent. After Corea discovered he was being recorded, his impressionistic material becomes more interesting and explorative, and has a sensitive and reflective timbre similar to the brief sketches which populated his 1971 Piano Improvisations outings.
The Continents is not Corea’s best work but far from his worst. Listeners may not find the music as engaging as other entries in Corea’s discography, but this undertaking is worthy of investigation: not essential, but it should not be ignored. As a starting point, check out a 5:43 making-of video, where Corea explains the genesis for his project. There are also musical excerpts filmed during the Manhattan sessions and interview segments with concertmaster Fred Sherry and conductor Steve Mercurio.
CD1: Africa; Europe; Australia; America; Asia; Antarctica.
CD2: Lotus Blossom; Blue Bossa; What’s This?; Just Friends; Solo Continuum 31; Solo Continuum 42; Solo Continuum 53; Solo Continuum 64; Solo Continuum 75; Solo Continuum 86; Solo Continuum 97; Solo Continuum 108; Solo Continuum 119; Solo Continuum 1310; Solo Continuum 1411.
–Doug Simpson

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