At once like a greatest hits album of new material and a restless travelogue.
At 76, Chick Corea is an elder statesman of jazz. His new recording, Chinese Butterfly, co-led with drummer Steve Gadd, is a double-length set with thrilling highs—but unfortunately, with too-frequent lows.
Corea is not young, but he remains a restless sprite who prances behind his keyboards and bands with an incredible touch. His signature lines—rippling runs that dance with a Latin feeling and take dazzling harmonic turns regardless of context—are no less electric than they were when he was coming up in the ‘60s accompanying Miles Davis or forging his early bands with Dave Holland, Anthony Braxton, Airto Moriera and Joe Farrell.
But it has always been hard to make sense of Corea. He has ingeniously straddled serious jazz and commercial styles—from early fusion to a series of bands that flirted with overslick “smooth jazz” with a mushy center, rounded corners and unctuous saxophone lines. And because Corea is brilliant, even his “smooth” stuff was often the very best of its ilk.
Today, he still does it all, and well. But the doing it all can be almost schizophrenic. His various bands and styles are like a collection of toys in a sandbox. For his 75th birthday last year, he played for two weeks straight at New York’s Blue Note with 15 different bands. He wasn’t just a kid in a candy store—he was the candy store owner and the candy wholesaler at once, doling out musical M&Ms, truffles, bon-bons, you name it. After that? On to the next thing, thank you.
This new band recreates that sense of constant shifting within one ensemble. Though Gadd is the putative co-leader, Corea is plainly the album’s mastermind. Gadd is legendary for creating the “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” groove for Paul Simon, the titanic drumming behind Wayne Shorter on Steely Dan’s “Aja” and much other studio work, but he has history with Corea too—particularly on two strong quartet dates from decades ago, Three Quartets and Friends,
Chinese Butterfly also features Steve Wilson on flute and saxophones, guitarist Lionel Loueke, Carlitos del Puerto on bass, and Luisito Quintero on percussion. After recording eight tunes, the band embarked on a tour playing small clubs such as Washington, D.C.’s Blues Alley, where the chance to see the mighty Corea up close brought fans flocking, the room jacked on 20,000 cc’s of adrenaline just to be that close to such legends.
The recording, however, has the unnerving plusses and minuses of most recent Corea discs. Disc One contains five shorter tunes of wildly varying quality, and it opens with the most vexing. “Chick’s Chums” is an homage to Corea from the Fourth Dimension songbook of guitarist John McLaughlin, but for this band it comes off as a slight Happy Funk workout for synth, soprano sax and Loueke’s synth-guitar gizmo. This is a hyped band, jacked with talent, coming out of the gates? On the other hand “Serenity” lets the band gel: Loueke brings his breezy, wordless singing to a melody shared with Wilson’s flute that rides over a fluttering Latin groove. Chick is on acoustic piano, and after a fine solo, his playing over the return of the melody is even better and his conversation with Wilson on the out-chorus a subtle topper. Similarly, “A Spanish Song” is an old-school Corea Iberian melody for acoustic bass, piano and soprano saxophone. You think: this is probably what this band should be: a subtle blend of jazz and world music elements that blender up Chick’s penchant for Latin grooves, Loueke’s pan-African influences and a rhythm section steeped in Brazilian groove.
In his sandbox, however, Corea is unlikely to focus. “Like I was Sayin’” is a rhythmically adventurous mid-tempo fusion jam that focuses on Corea’s trademark synthesizer sound, then the title track mixes electric piano and acoustic bass in a pleasant Corea melody, letting the gang stretch out more in the mode of Friends.
Disc Two is more impressive throughout, with three long tracks that allow the group to develop real improvisational energy on themes that focus on rhythm and texture. “Return to Forever” is not a guitar-riffic fusion exercise but, rather, the extended composition from Corea’s first RTF incarnation, which featured singer Flora Purim, percussionist Airto and Joe Farrell on reeds. Alas, the recreation is marred by Philip Bailey (of Earth, Wind, and Fire) singing the Purim vocal on the first theme in a operatically off-putting falsetto. Still, this music remains gorgeous, dramatic, and an ideal showcase for Corea’s touch on Fender Rhodes, though these days he gets his electric piano sound from a digital keyboard that often allows him to morph the sound into synthesizer. It’s a small complaint, but this bit of computerized dazzle seems (again) just one click too slick.
“Gad-Zooks” (really? that’s the title?) is a discursive composition with several sections and episodes that ride of a flow of inventive drumming, and “Wake-Up Call,” co-written by Loueke and Corea, allows the band to play with rhythms and texture at the highest level, using the guitarist’s roots in Benin as an melodic and groove-centered home base. It is the most thrilling and exploratory track here, with the band getting well outside of regular tonality as Corea lets his ring-modulated keyboard duel with the percussion without fitting into a consonant harmony.
Loueke, however, plays a strange role across Chinese Butterfly. Though he plays guitar, he rarely jumps out of the mix because he plays through a digital amplifier that leaves him sounding like a limp synthesizer, a muted little brother to Corea’s athletic synth lead. At other, better times, he sounds like an acoustic guitarist. As a jazz improviser on this recording, Loueke is like a swordsman at a gunfight. Still, the three tunes of the second disc make the case: see this band live if possible. When it stretches out, good things happen.
Finally, at the end of 100 minutes of music from these great musicians, you’ll be puzzled as to what it all means. Percolating Latin tunes, samba grooves, fusion funk, percussive jams, flights of synthesize fancy, long-form composition, wordless singing, one special guest who messes up the tune. Such is Chick Corea in all his glory and excessive play and inability to focus or edit. Chinese Butterfly is at once like a greatest hits album of new material, and a restless travelogue.