November 22, 2004

Jazz in the Space Age

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A highly accomplished, world-renowned jazz pianist decides, for the moment, to forego any of his more classical inclinations and reunite with his mid-1980s clique of neo-fusion, space-age bandmates. The occasion: a new record based on Church of Scientology founder and sci-fi god L. Ron Hubbard’s 1950 novel To the Stars. The venue: where else but Ithaca, hotbed of alternative music, alternative religion and everything that is both hippie and hipster in upstate New York.

Playing to a not-quite-sold-out-maybe-2/3-full crowd at the halfway-renovated and it’ll-look-stately-when-it’s-really-finished State Theatre on Wednesday night, Chick Corea was entrancing with his Elektric Band’s neon riffs and space-derived hypersanity.

As the bandmaster and ringleader of the quintet, Corea was surprisingly subdued. Yet despite all the controlled chaos that the Elektric Band was navigating through, it was clear that Corea was captain. He was its supreme deity, as one might define such a being from the science fiction of his literary hero. He was the all-powerful master, yet his influence was hard to quantify: Both the Yamaha grand and the twin synthesizers were angled just precisely so that no one could see beneath his emperor’s clothes.

Yet he was clearly not naked; the precise 1/64 notes and junior jumbles emanating from his invisible fingers echoed like clockwork through the theater, mesmerizing the audience. Anyone familiar with his early work alongside some of the most well-known luminaries of jazz could easily see the decades of study and practice behind the night’s show. But Corea himself has long passed the point of not being able to suspend (or transcend) his more traditional influences. It was enthralling and amusing at the same time to follow the ricochets and echoes of Corea’s keyboards and their intertwining with the pulsating bass riffs of Ric Fierabracci, the shockingly eclectic drums of Dave Weckl, the exhausted, drowning cries of Eric Marienthal and his rusted saxophone, and the effortless guitar of Frank Gambale. Corea and his band routinely incorporate Latin-derived melodies as they continuously redefine jazz as electromotive redemption.

But in this case, they’re striving for a higher plane of being in which the band and the audience are one — in which there is no war, everyone can love each other and Battlefield Earth is #1 on the Sight and Sound Top 10. The trancelike state of most of the audience was a reflection of the music as well as the trippy, star-decked lighting setup which encouraged dreamy reflections of the Elektric Band’s scatterbrained yet utterly focused performance.

“You know what I do with critics?” Corea recently said in an interview. “Not just professional ones but amateur ones, like my aunt. I ignore them.” Very well, sir: It’s worked for you this far. If there was one thing that was crystal clear in Mr. Corea’s Wednesday night show, it was that he cares about his music above all — perhaps to the point of leaving the audience behind.

Many of them seemed to think the show was over at intermission. Had it been, it would have been almost perfect, a rippling of space-time that defies the excessive length of jazz performances. Alas, of all the conventions Corea has broken, length is not one of them, and for any audience members who lost their way in the second half, he was content to keep reaching for his stars without them.

Archived article by Andy Guess
Sun Editor-in-Chief