Jazz giant Chick Corea displays virtuosity, mischievousness

I saw in-person — as a teen and young buck — most of the jazz greats during their heyday.

Chick Corea illustrates his mischievous side.

In tobacco smoke- and weed-filled Manhattan clubs.

Legends like Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan, Sonny Rollins, Charlie Mingus, Art Blakey, Jimmy Giuffre and Charlie Parker.

Somehow, though, I never got to see and hear Chick Corea.

Over the weekend, at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco, I plugged that hole.

And the 78-year-old pianist, whom I’d heard scores of times on the radio, outdid himself in the San Francisco Symphony-calendared program.

His extraordinary recital (his only solo performance this year) emphasized his lighter side and his mischievousness as well as his virtuosity (with a left hand that underscored counterpoint and a right that raced through countless arpeggios like a lab rat trying to find its way out of a maze).

The concert was split into segments, with the first half dedicated to unique pairings of classical artists with hall-of-fame jazz composers: Mozart and George Gershwin (conjecturing that “they would have enjoyed each other” before focusing on the former’s sonata and the latter’s “Someone to Watch Over Me”); a Scriabin prelude and jazz pianist/composer Bill Evans’ “Waltz for Debby,” a piece penned for Evan’s niece; and a Scarlatti sonata and Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Desafinado.”

Rather than merging each of the two parts into a medley, however, he paused between them — confusing his fans enough to draw scattered applause midway.

Corea, whose music resonated majestically in the large hall because he’d placed three microphones on the edge of the piano, used sheet music for the classical stuff and his memory and inventiveness for the jazz.

Perhaps most entertaining was his rhythmic pounding on the piano’s wood frame and his plucking its strings like a bass.

He’d warmed up the audience, not incidentally, by “tuning up” the assemblage by, in call-and-response fashion, playing a few notes and having the crowd hum them back to him in unison.

The second set started with Corea’s “The Yellow Nimbus,” which he’d recorded half a century ago and which featured a percussive left hand and lyrical right.

He then moved into his innovative versions of audience participation.

First came dual musical portraits he improvised with a female and male volunteer; the second, which he dubbed “another game,” featured improv piano duets with another male and female from the throng.

The artist ended the concert with 7 of the 20 children’s songs he’d written in the ‘70s (all, he said, depicting “the spirit” of kids, particularly their consistent “open attitudes about life”).

The tunes were jaunty, mainly in the upper register (with his left hand pounding out repetitive chords), playful and simple yet complex enough to require him to look at his musical charts.

And then he topped everything off with a crowd-pleasing encore of his best-known tune, “Spain,” which brought him a second standing ovation.

Parenthetically, despite the two-hour recital being subtitled “From Mozart to Monk,” unless I missed a passage or two that he snuck in somewhere, Monk’s between-the-keys refrains were absent.

Ever-present, though, was a lot of laughter from the nearly sold-out audience due to his generous sprinkling of humor throughout.

I personally was amused not only by the jazz giant’s bright demeanor but by the pre-concert shenanigans of a squatter couple who moved out of seats reserved for me and my wife when we arrived and then went on to sit three more times in places assigned to others before finally retreating to their lower-priced slots.

Corea, the fourth-most nominated artist in Grammy history (he’s won 22 times out of 63 nods), has a wide-ranging history that includes straight jazz and the kind of jazz-rock fusion he spearheaded with Davis in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, be-bop, kid songs, chamber and symphonic works.

But he apparently revels in being a non-conformist — like forgoing a Steinway or Bösendorfer and tinkling the Yamaha concert grand 88s instead. And by trading in the usually staid San Francisco Symphony garb for dark jeans and jacket, white socks and bright sneakers, and an even brighter T-shirt with colorful horizontal lines.

Corea, who noted that his given name is Armando Anthony Corea, reportedly acquired his nickname after an aunt called him Cheeky while pinching his face, the moniker eventually morphing into Chick.

He started the evening, by the way, recalling previous gigs — one in San Francisco in the ‘60s with Davis and another with Bobby McFerrin that was Corea’s first time on stage playing Mozart.

He failed, however, to reference the fact that some folks didn’t like his avant-garde music back when — or the fact that he, like Tom Cruise, used his celebrity to promote Scientology.

But he did tell us that it was “a pleasure playing for you — and with you.”

Upcoming performances of the San Francisco Symphony at Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco, include three with films,“Ghostbusters” Nov. 29 and 30, “It’s a Wonderful Life” Dec. 3 and 6, and “Love Actually” on Dec. 17 and 18. Information: (415) 864-6400 or www.sfsymphony.org.

Contact Woody Weingarten, a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, at www.vitalitypress.com/ or voodee@sbcglobal.net.

About the Author

Woody WeingartenWoody Weingarten, who can be reached at www.vitalitypress.com/ or voodee@sbcglobal.net, can’t remember when he couldn’t talk — or play with words. His first poem was published in high school but when his hormones announced the arrival of adulthood, he figured he’d rather eat than rhyme. So he switched to journalism. And whadda ya know, the bearded, bespectacled fella has used big, small and hyphenated words professionally since jumpstarting his career in New Yawk City more than 60 years ago. Today the author of the book “Rollercoaster: How a man can survive his partner’s breast cancer” is also a reviewer-critic, blogger and publisher — despite allegedly being retired. During his better-paid years as a wage slave he was an executive editor and writer for daily and weekly publications in California, Florida, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York. He won writing awards for public service and investigation, features, columns, editorials and news. Woody also has published weekly and monthly newspapers, and written a national column for “Audio” magazine. A graduate of Colgate University, he owned a public relations/ad agency and managed an advertising publication. The father of two and grandfather of three, he and his wife, Nancy Fox, have lived in San Anselmo in Marin County for three decades. He figures they'll stay.View all posts by Woody Weingarten →