Armando Anthony ‘Chick’ Corea and Gary Burton have been playing together for 43 years. This latest tour which just finished taking in Melbourne and Brisbane included a one-night-stand in the Concert Hall of the Opera House on Tuesday. It’s not an intimate venue, but efforts were made to warm it up a little, acoustically and aesthetically with a heavy, blue velvet curtain (and folds of black cloth hung overhead. The houselights were left up, which Chick professed to like, but which killed the mood somewhat for me.
Both men took turns introducing pieces and proved, if not exactly ebullient raconteurs, intelligent and gently amusing patterers. But the real business was music and there isn’t another duo in jazz that sounds like this: the tonal colours generated by this particular nexus of instruments, informed all the more by the style, proficiency and panache of the players, is a sublime intrusion into the ‘crystal silence’ that titled one of their albums and one of the pieces played.
The starting point was Chick’s Love Castle, recorded for his 1976 album, My Spanish Heart. The recorded version is funkier and more upbeat: the live rendition emphasised the more plaintive, or at least introspective, qualities of the melody, beginning with Burton’s burbling runs and augmented by Corea’s tinkling accompaniment. Something Celtic, something classical, but with an underlying, latent Latin urge that’s deeply romantic.
Can’t We Be Friends? was written way back in 1929, by Paul James & Kay Swift. It was a chance for each instrumentalist to shine, but it was the tight harmonies between the two that really regaled. Stylistically, here’s Scott Joplin, George Gershwin and Duke Ellington (whose distinctive pianistic talent is too often overshadowed, albeit understandably, by his compositional gifts) rolled into one. There’s homage to the blues and even the odd phrase that gives a nod and a wink to free jazz. It was probably the finger-snappingest tune of the evening.
In 1959 Dave Brubeck (or, more properly The Dave Brubeck Quartet) released Time Out, an album immortalised in broader popular culture by the pulsating Take Five, distinguished so memorably by Joe Morello’s kickdrum punctuation. But Corea and Burton opted for Strange Meadowlark, a sweet, conventional song in common time that could comfortably fit in any self-respecting singer’s catalogue (it went into Carmen McRae’s), but one which holds a sly secret: the opening pain solo knows no time signature. Historically, this was revolutionary: Brubeck was the first to venture outside 4/4 & 3/4. C & B channel this free spirit, but tantalisingly countertpoint with moments of deliberately strident, almost honky tonk rhythm. It’s a charming and engaging arrangement of what is an exceptionally pretty tune, which this dynamic duo imbues with urbanity.
Hot House by Tadd Dameron is a tune Corea and Burton refer to so deeply they named an album after it. It was released only a year or two ago. Dameron was the most important of all the bebop arranger s that had a tragically short life. C & B, however, make this tune live, breathe and thrive all over again, not least by way of Burton’s immaculate arpeggios, while the gentlemanly tit-for-tat between the two is nostalgic for that between Bird & Dizzy. The interplay is nothing short of breathtakingly exquisite.
After interval, these seemingly ageless septuagenarians rallied with Corea explaining he first learned about flamenco from the late Paco de Lucia. Alegria, which has twelve beats, was written by Corea and begins with he and Burton beating out rhythms with hands and feet. Unfortunately, back in row X, from where I was squinting to make out any detail, given the acoustic insufficiency of the cavernous Concert Hall, this didn’t have the dynamic impact it might have. But they soon settled down to their instruments, eking out a spiky yet mellifluous melody that definitely speaks of Spain.
Crystal Silence goes back a long way to the beginnings of Corea and Burton’s collaborations in 1972. It was easily the highest point of the entire evening, for me. It’s a tearful, heartrending composition, as moving as the finest minor key symphonies, but without the epic drama; just over nine minutes or so of flawless, fragile beauty and jaw-dropping musicianship (but, above this and all, musicality), distinguished by Corea’s burning passion, which repeatedly threatens to break loose of the melody, but, just when you think it’s becoming unsafe and on the brink of anarchy, settles down to rediscover its original premise of introspection.
Chega de Saudade is by one of Corea’s favourite composers, Antonio Carlos Jobim, the legendary Brazilian composer. Corea introduces it with sublime sensitivity, with Burton slyly insinuating the melodic motif. Their tone is as warm as a Salvadoran sunset and the entire piece played out with such subtlety it tickles, as delicately as a butterfly kiss.
An encore of Monk’s Blue Monk, followed by a seemingly spontaneous duet on vibes was the icing on the cake; a cake made for taste, rather than decorated with the vacuous accoutrement and gimmicky distractions that too often characterise musical presentation. Certainly no-one could accuse either Corea or Burton, for example, of being a snappy dresser: Burton in the all-black uniform of the working musician, Corea looking as if he just threw on his Saturday morning clobber. But you hardly need electric boots or glam makeup when you can play like they do. Long may they reign.