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An incredibly eclectic and prolific performer and composer, the late Chick Corea recorded albums on the Blue Note, Polydor, ECM, Elektra, Deutsche Grammophon, GRP, Atlantic, and Sony Classical labels – to name the most familiar – in a much-lauded and decorated career that spanned more than 50 years. With that kind of achievement and recognition, tributes to Corea's jazz, classical, Latin, fusion, or new-age compositions would have been appropriate during the keyboard artist's lifetime, long before his death in early February 2021 at the age of 79. After a year of pandemic lockdown and quarantine, tributes to Corea are even more appropriate now, since he was one of the preeminent musical figures that we lost during these extended doldrums of performance inactivity. It hasn't taken long for the Jazz at the Bechtler concert series to take their cue, and saxophonist Ziad Rabie found a worthy keyboard artist in Martin Bejerano to fill out his quartet and evoke Corea's magic.
Inevitably, the full range of Corea's legacy could hardly be sampled in the space of six selections in 75 minutes or by musicians savvy enough to play to their own strengths. Corea's classical and new-age exploits were left for other hands to pick up on, while Rabie's combo concentrated on the composer's jazz, fusion, and Latin pieces, with interludes from Bejerano that echoed Chick's solo recordings. Fortunately, Bejerano's Nord Stage 2 EX keyboard included acoustic, electric, and organ among its effects, helping him to shuttle through Corea's varied voices. I remember seeing Corea in Savannah back in 2009, equipped with both acoustic and electric instruments onstage. Kobie Watkins on drums and Ron Brendle on acoustic bass completed Rabie's quartet, with Bejerano starting off in electric mode in "Matrix," a Corea original first recorded in 1966.
Originally released in 1968 in a piano trio format on Now He Sings, Now He Sobs (where Corea appears on the cover photo behind a grand piano), "Matrix" obviously sounded different in its Ziad Jazz Quartet relaunch, but the performance definitely had an electrified Corea tang to it as Rabie brought his soprano sax to this gig, an instrument championed by John Coltrane and frequent Corea bandmate Joe Farrell during that era. Everyone in the quartet had his chance to shine, beginning with an extended wail from Rabie, continuing with an electric piano excursion from Bejerano, and a further cool-down from Brendle plucking his upright. Rabie stormed back in briefly to initiate a more raucous section where Watkins at the drums exchanged eight-bar salvos with the sax and piano.
"Tones for Joan's Bones" originated at the same recording session as "Matrix," signaling that Rabie and friends would continue to find their comfort zone within the first quarter of Corea's career. Bejerano redialed to an acoustic timbre on this rather cool and abstract composition, but Rabie made it burn before subsiding to a slower tempo. The next piece, "Armando's Rhumba," first appeared on one of my favorite Corea albums, My Spanish Heart, in 1976. Rabie and Bejerano obviously relished the piece as much as I do, immersing themselves repeatedly in the tango-like reset at the end of the melody, but Brendle also came by for a couple of quiescent interludes to vary the rollicking mood, and Bejerano opened with an extended unaccompanied "acoustic" solo to further balance the performance.
Tongue firmly in cheek, Rabie promised us a quiet respite before giving way to a smashing intro by Watkins to a frantic uptempo piece whose title was never announced – I'm guessing "Straight Up and Down," a great name to lie about. Rabie reverted to his usual tenor sax for his roaring, and Bejerano was back in electric mode, only slightly less insanely fast. Nor did the piano seem as loud as the sax, for Watkins worked himself into a lather behind him, fully roused at the drums. We lingered in the '60s for "Windows," another piece Corea recorded before he gravitated toward electric piano when he appeared so memorably on Miles Davis' landmark Bitches Brew. Bejerano was able to showcase more of his acoustic lyricism opening this performance, sprinkling in some of the Latin tinges that often make Corea's work so distinctive. In between Bejerano's dreamy tapestries, Rabie blazed anew on soprano, yielding to Brendle before the saxophonist ignited once again. The ebb and flow between Rabie and Bejerano, between fire and dream, made this the richest of the quartet's efforts. Even Rabie straddled the two moods and tempos closing this tune out.
"Humpty Dumpty," from The Mad Hatter album of 1978, was as far forward in Corea's oeuvre as Rabie and Bejerano cared to go. Or maybe not, since this was another early Corea piece recorded on acoustic piano that Bejerano put into electric mode while Rabie returned to tenor, the instrument that Farrell played on this date. Rabie showed to better advantage here, for when Bejerano lingered in the treble, the sound muddied through the loudspeaker near me. Brendle emerged from a sublime haze for his brilliant solo after the keyboardist surreptitiously switched to an organ timbre for the transition, so that the bassist sounded as much on a par with the original recording as Rabie.
The most heartily welcomed piece, with plenty of space for rhythmic handclaps from the audience, was Corea's "Spain," often co-credited with Joaquín Rodrigo, the Spanish composer most famous for his Concierto de Aranjuez. Though the connection between the Adagio of Rodrigo's guitar concerto and Corea's friskier piece was immediately apparent in 1972 when it appeared on his Light as a Feather release, the connection between the two pieces continued to evolve, as demonstrated on his Rendezvous in New York album in 2003. Here Bejerano leaned closer to an acoustic mode than Corea's original recording, but he kept the tincture of Rodrigo's Adagio in his gorgeous intro before giving way to Rabie and Watkins, who were all about Chick's friskiness and triggering the audience handclaps. From peak intensity behind Rabie, Watkins subsided into a rumbling railroad-train insistence as Bejerano cooked and frolicked over him. Rabie brought us back briefly to Corea's jumpy melody before releasing us into Watkins' hands, which were fast, jubilant, and irrepressible before the whole ensemble raced to a sudden finish.