Moving forward is something at which Chick Corea is well adept. This musical visionary founded the fusion supergroup Return to Forever in the '70s, the high profile Elektric Band and Akoustic Band in the '80s. Most recently he founded the group Origin - an all acoustic sextet comprised of yet another cast of simpatico players destined to exert a significant influence on the jazz world. Chick Corea & Origin's simply titled new release Change (SCD-9023-2) exemplifies a super-band's continual exploration of its identity within the live, natural context. Change is their third release on Stretch Records and their debut studio recording.
Their first release Origin (SCD-9018-2) has its roots in a series of particularly inspired jam sessions. The sextet, comprised of bassist Avishai Cohen, trombonist Steve Davis, saxophonists Steve Wilson and Bob Sheppard and drummer Adam Cruz, rehearsed in the fall of 1998 in Schenectady, N.Y., before playing a series of gigs at the Blue Note in New York City during the last week of the year. "It was sort of an opportunity that life presented to me right in my face," Corea told Jazziz in a recent interview. "The thing jelled."
Those shows generated so much enthusiasm that the veteran bandleader took another leap, choosing a representative sampling of the music recorded at the Blue Note to release as a live document for their self-titled release Origin. The disc -- with elongated renditions of new Corea tunes "Double Image," "Soul Mates," "Molecules" and "Dreamless," - juxtaposed with such standards as Van Heusen-Burke's "It Could Happen to You," -- arrived in June to a chorus of critical kudos. The recording landed on several critics' Top 10 lists in the pages of Jazziz and Jazz Times.
In November of 1998, Corea joined forces with vibraphonist Gary Burton for the Concord release Like Minds (CCD-4803-2), a superstar collaboration teaming the longtime duo mates with guitarist Pat Metheny, bassist Dave Holland and drummer Roy Haynes. That project also wound up on several end-of-the-year lists of 1998's best CDs. Like Minds -- fresh interpretations of Corea's "Windows," "Straight Up and Down," his new "Futures" composition -- was released on the same day as an even more audacious package, the six-disc A Week at the Blue Note (SCD-6-9020-2). The boxed set, featuring music played during three of the four evenings that heralded the debut of Origin, caught the band in all its spontaneously combustible glory. The sextet took on Miles Davis's "Four," Thelonious Monk's "Blue Monk," "Straight, No Chaser" and "Four in One," Bud Powell's "Tempus Fugit," Charlie Parker's "Bird Feathers," the Rodgers-Hart standard "Bewitched, Bothered & Bewildered" and Corea's "Matrix," "Hand Me Down" and "Sifu," not to mention alternate versions of tunes heard on the first album.
"It's got all of the jagged edges that a new project might have," Corea told Jazziz. "But to me, there' s a certain beauty about that, and a certain rawness and directness, if for no other reason than it's missing from every other recording that comes out, usually, unless it was some live tape that was found by someone. We're doing it now. It's a thing I didn't want to wait until after I'm dead to do. Every set had such a creativity and brightness to it. Certainly not a perfection, but it had a kind of spirit and emotion that captured that group as it was that week, which was guys coming together, finding each other, and having an absolute ball playing."
That was then, this is now. Flash forward to early 1999, following a string of Origin road shows, Cruz's departure and the addition of drummer Jeff Ballard to the lineup. The music for the new Change was rehearsed at Yoshi's in Oakland and the Blue Note, and recorded within the relaxed confines of the home Corea shares with singer and wife Gayle Moran. Corea and company went to work on a set of material written specifically for Origin since the release of the debut.
"The first record was a mishmash of all kind of stuff; old tunes, standards, jam-session tunes and new written music, whereas Change is focused on music specifically written for a known group that has become an entity. With this record, I wanted to try more through-writing with the band. Everyone responded to it very well.
"It was an experiment," Corea says about the sessions. "There were no headphones, and the band was situated real tightly together, playing very closely. It sounds very live like the Blue Note recording, except better. We had learned more about internal band balance. It's been a problem I've created for myself of trying to get the live-est kind of playing done and get it to appear on a recording and get the recording to sound rich as well. The band was playing with such a good natural balance in and of itself that I didn't want to give up that intimacy that we have."
The first notes of "Wigwam," the invigorating leadoff track on Change, are sounded by the marimba, Corea's latest instrumental passion. He telescopes the theme of the song, comping behind Wilson's flurries of alto notes and then switching to piano for Davis's trombone solo. The tune's riff later re-emerges as a kind of fanfare, and Corea's inventive improvisation pushes the piece in new directions. "'Wigwam' has generally a lot of the elements of what the new band is sounding like, with some marimba in there and really good solos, and a blues form to it that's real comfortable to improvise on," he says. "Musically, the first gain from the marimba is the change of texture, which is always welcome, the fact that the piano sound stops for a while and this other sound starts to be injected into the band. In live performance, marimba leads us off into other rhythmic, airy territory, since there's no thick chords happening."
"Armando's Tango," something of a sequel to Corea favorite "Armando's Rhumba" (also dedicated to Corea's father, and heard on 1976's My Spanish Heart) was written in the air, en route to the group's first concerts in South America. A playful piano introduction segues into Wilson's clarinet calls, answered by the band and Cohen's quick bass melody line before the beginning of the solos, including Sheppard's earthy workout on bass clarinet. "I hadn't had time to compose anything special for our trip to Buenos Aires," Corea remarks. "You can't go to Argentina without thinking about the tango and getting the feeling of it. I decided to challenge myself and write something on the plane. I usually sleep or read."
Handclaps propel the fluttering rhythms of "Little Flamenco," another Latin piece, built on a form with which Corea has become quite proficient. This flamenco, once temporarily titled "Flamencillo" and "Pocito Flamenco," was penned in about 20 minutes. It's an exotic blend of Latin textures, familiar Corean colors and neo-symphonic touches. "We got the flute up high and some low trombone notes," Corea says. "It's an unusual orchestration, with the alto kind of tucked in the middle range. It's the big new challenge for me, with not only the sextet but writing more for orchestras, placing my attention more on writing and composing and orchestrating and getting particular sounds to come from different groupings of instruments. With Wilson, Sheppard and Davis, it's very easy to get what I have in mind. I feel like I've just scratched the surface of the surface."
The laid-back cool of "Early Afternoon Blues" is a nod to the music of Miles Davis, most pointedly circa "Kind of Blue," his masterpiece of 40 years ago. Corea served an important residency with the trumpeter-composer for three years beginning in 1968, playing on the classic platters "Filles de Kilimanjaro," "In a Silent Way," "Bitches Brew" and "At the Fillmore." He wanted to salute his old boss. "That's definitely a nod to Miles," Corea says. "Blues is a place everyone can sit down and relax to. I see it more emotionally as a relaxing point." The tune, too, might make a particularly accessible open door for non-jazz listeners. "It can be, because it is so familiar."
The equally complex and beguiling "Before Your Eyes" and "L.A. Scenes," the latter a reference to Franklin Avenue in Corea's former longtime home base, are practically cinematic. A variety of eclectic themes successively compete for attention, with one segment readily morphing to the next. "They both had an element of me wanting to write something that never returned to the theme previously," he explains. "Which then reminded me of something like a walk down the street where there's no composition to the walk other than you going from one point to another and what you see before you is always changing. Life looks like that to me sometimes.
"I don't think there are any rules of composition that are really valid anywhere except in the composer's mind. One composer that comes to mind that I think seems to write like that naturally sometimes, if not all the time, is Bela Bartok. I think his string quartets are kind of like that. In the classical world they call it a fantasy, an extemporization where you move from one mood to another as you desire, rather than trying to make one descriptive statement. And then in the end, the piece ends up making a statement."
Contemplative piano chording, a brass choir and bowed bass resonate through the start of the somber "Home," inspired by a Booker Little tune that uses a similar figure. Home is a state of mind, a portable contentment contained within one's own heart. "You are talking to me at home -- the never-ending road," Corea says from London. "The Spinner," with its dissonance and increasingly frantic meter mixing, is rooted in the concept of rhymed patterns repeated until they blur.
"Compassion," an impressionistic redesign of "It Could Happen to You," is played by the piano trio, sans horns. The tune was recorded several months prior to the other tracks. "I invited Avishai and Jeff down to the house," he says. "I recorded the rehearsals, basically just to listen back. Several things came out so nice and relaxed, that one in particular. I decided that it was really a good addition to the record. Maybe sometime in the future we'll do a trio record. Origin is my real passion now."
Change brings Origin one step closer to Corea's conception of a dream ensemble, a group of musicians unusually attuned to each other's playing, united under the like-minded goal of bringing to life the music of a leader able to compose and arrange challenging material with specific instrumental voices in mind.
"Basically, Origin began in a certain way," he says. "That was a start to things. Now we're in a mode of trial and error, trying different ways of playing music, working with symphonies and playing in concert halls. I'm always looking for some kind of balance between just playing freely and improvising freely and approaching music very loosely, and also composition. I love to write and structure things. Some of it in performance is very free and loose, some of it is very structured and written. It seems in constant flux, the idea of it constantly evolving.
"Everyone in the band is continually finding things that we can do with one another, finding parts of ourselves that we can offer up into the scene," he adds. "I can hear it every night when we play the material, with territory that's being tried out improvisationally with the programming of the tunes, how we use the dynamics of the tunes, the sound. Every bit of ground that the band gains we've managed to retain."