After early years serving in bands led by Mongo Santamaria, Stan Getz and Miles Davis (to name just a few), he's partnered with a number of other jazz luminaries, including bassist Dave Holland, percussionist Airto Moreira and, most notably, vibraphonist Gary Burton in addition to leading an array of groups both acoustic and electric. To top it off, Corea has written a number of modern jazz classics and composed works for string quartets, orchestra and solo piano that wouldn't be out of place on a classical program.
Still, what drew a small but loyal audience to Artpark's Mainstage on Friday night was the potential of seeing the latest of Corea's fusion-jazz ensembles, the most recent sample of what has proven to be his most commercially successful sonic experiment. While the second coming of Return to Forever or the Elektric Band might have fulfilled the wishes of many in the crowd, the resulting product was different enough from either of those outfits to prove that Corea had once again sidestepped an artistic rut.
Rhythm was the vehicle around which everything else seemed to percolate. This was apparent from the get-go when, after introducing the band, Corea led the musicians in a complex percussive salvo where the piano, bass, drums and percussion (basically, the rhythm section) wove thickets and shards of sound around a melody before a saxophone burned its way into the process, while the guitarist riffed in sympathy.
Polyrhythmic ecstasy was the order of the day. There were chord changes galore, as the piano or synthesizers punched out flurries of notes before resting and then repeating the process, but the pulse was the thing, the living character of each tune upon which the structure of each tune rode like a boat on the water.
Bassist Christian McBride has his own solo career in addition to a resume that lists an impressive roster of master musicians that he's played with. His playing was warm and fluid even as he kept the focus on the beat. Where that beat “was” shifted between drummer Marcus Gilmore and percussionist Luisito Quintero as they played against each other, leaving holes in the song's fabric for the other to fill.
Listening to Corea (who often tapped out a clave rhythm on a cowbell) and his mates weave a percussive tapestry was the single most impressive thing about the concert.
This isn't to say that reed and wind player Tim Garland or guitarist Charles Altura were window dressing. While they seemed to be running lines in tandem much of the time, the moments when Garland grabbed hold of the melody and spun it out over the audience or when Altura, especially in the second half of the concert, took center stage with some inventive soloing, it was apparent that none of these guys was there to just take up space.
Much of the program was devoted to material taken from “The Vigil,” Corea's latest album. Songs like “Planet Chia” and “Outside of Space” may end up being key parts of his repertoire, just like “Spain” and “Romantic Warrior,” but that won't be known until a few more years down the road. Whether these tunes eventually make the grade or not, the real takeaway from this concert was that Corea and his band can create rhythm magic.