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Spontaneous chemistry 

Nearly 35 years since their first landmark, Chick Corea and Gary Burton return

click to enlarge Gary Burton wants you to feel the vibes.
  • Gary Burton wants you to feel the vibes.

Nearly 35 years have passed since Chick Corea and Gary Burton retreated to an Oslo studio to record Crystal Silence, their 1972 jazz landmark. Playing highly melodic duos over complex chord changes on piano and vibraphone, Corea and Burton created an introspective but fiery masterpiece that spoke intensely and coherently to a generation dealing with Vietnam and social protest.

Corea and Burton are on tour again, reviving and reinterpreting their old duo material and creating new works. Before this tour, it had been over a year since they last played together and nearly 10 years since they last recorded as a duo.

But Corea and Burton's collaborative chemistry as improvisers is as unique as it is longstanding. Recently, they've transformed their mutual touchstone "Crystal Silence" from its original ballad feel into a slow waltz.

Corea has always been the primary composer, and he is busy writing new compositions for the tour and for the subsequent album, to be released to commemorate Crystal Silence's 35th anniversary. Contrary to the customary approach of touring on a finished recording, Corea and Burton will rework old material and finesse their new work on tour before recording. Corea's first new composition is "Hawaiian Allegria," based on flamenco rhythms his band Touchstone explored on its 2006 recording, The Ultimate Adventure.

Speaking en route from a tour appearance in Hawaii to the duo's European stop in Lisbon, Portugal, Corea says, "I got inspired to write it by watching some tremendous flamenco dancers." He also has two new pieces in the works for the duo's shows. "The other new pieces are building up little bit by little bit."

To understand the significance and chemistry of the Corea and Burton duo, it's essential to know its history. The partnership began spontaneously: After each had given solo performances at the Munich Jazz Festival in 1972 alongside avant soloists like German trombonist Albert Mangelsdorff and guitarist John McLaughlin, the crowd expected an encore.

"I hadn't had much experience playing in duos before that," Corea admits. "The audience wanted an encore. No one knew what to do backstage. I said to Gary, because his vibes were out on stage, 'Let's go out and play something together.' I suggested a tune of mine that was pretty simple to do. It was 'La Fiesta.' The duet just got formed because it was fun to do."

That initial spontaneity has been crucial, allowing their partnership to move quickly: ECM Records president Manfred Eicher heard the Corea/Burton encore duo and invited them to record on his label. Corea and Burton met to discuss compositions to use on the recording, eventually settling on two Steve Swallow pieces Burton suggested. His role, though, has often been that of interpreter, an improvisational ally complementing Corea, the duo's main arranger and composer. Corea supplied several of his own tunes--from "Crystal Silence" to "What Game Shall We Play Today?"--most of which had been recorded with his band, Return to Forever.

"We thought these pieces would make really good duet performances. That's how we put our very first repertoire together," says Corea. "A duet with Gary is a very easy, fluid kind of relationship, so there wasn't a lot of rehearsing that we had to do."

Burton says his relationship with Corea is about being able to read one another's mind.

"We anticipate what we're each going to do," says Burton from Lisbon. "More interesting and exciting things happen between us because we have such a comfortable rapport. It's one of life's great mysteries. There's no predicting it until you try it. With Chick, I feel a very high level of communication."

For Corea, the formula for a good duo is very simple. It's all about establishing listening habits and that invaluable communication.

"There's an intimacy and a delicacy that can be created. If both players are good soloists and good accompanists, it can turn out to be a very fulfilling experience. Gary and I have a very easy musical flow. The piano and vibes together create an enjoyable sonic atmosphere. It's two people as a kind of microcosm of existence," says Corea.

Corea says mental preparation--predicated on mutual respect between the musicians--is essential for such interaction.

"In the kind of duets that I like to make, there is a lot of improvisation," says Corea. "When you're improvising with a partner, the best attitude is to accept all offerings from your friend and take the offering that he is giving you and make something of it musically. That gives you a unique flavor. There's a very fluid, non-mechanical flow that begins to happen that can be quite magical. It's made up of very easy, very quick, almost telepathic communication."

Burton established a short history of working in duos before performing with Corea. He recorded with American pianist Keith Jarrett in 1971 and with French violinist Stephane Grappelli on Paris Encounter in 1972. Since Crystal Silence, Burton's partners have included Steve Swallow, Ralph Towner, Makoto Ozone and Paul Bley.

click to enlarge Chick Corea makes his first return to duos in forever.
  • Chick Corea makes his first return to duos in forever.

Though both Corea and Burton are known as jazz musicians, Corea's compositions have pushed their envelope into the realm of world and classical music. After Crystal Silence, seven years passed before Corea and Burton recorded Duet. They included Swallow's "Radio" and "Never." But the centerpieces of that 1979 recording became Corea's lengthy "Duet Suite" and his series of "Children's Songs."

"I wrote 'Duet Suite' as a kind of challenging piece for piano and vibes. It wasn't just improvisation. There were some written sections. That record was based more on through compositions," explains Corea.

Burton adds his own insights about recording "Duet": "It takes more concentration. You're memorizing bigger chunks of music. You have to put a lot more content in your brain. It requires more mental focus."

Corea and Burton showed their ability to create lively reinterpretations of old material on the spot on Chick Corea and Gary Burton in Concert (Zurich, Oct. 28, 1979), which paired material from the first two albums with new compositions. Their most ambitious project, though, still stands as the classically driven Lyric Suite for Sextet, recorded with a string quartet in 1982. The duo toured with a string quartet for two months prior to recording Corea's suite of written compositions.

Nearly a decade ago, Corea and Burton reunited to record Native Sense: The New Duets. During their current tour, they will reinterpret many of these compositions, including the title track, "Love Castle," "Bagatelle #6" and "Rhumbata," showing their ability to embrace old material and make it new yet again with spontaneity. These interpretations reflect Corea's growing interest in flamenco and Latin music.

"Making a new version after so much time is not a problem because it's a new moment in time," says Corea. "Each one of us has our own approach. There are old themes that you want to render in a new way."

Whatever the music project--solo, duo, small group, large ensemble--the most important thing in Corea's mind is the musicians. "The thing is each musician is a whole wide universe unto himself," he says. "Each one of my musical friends is very different. They all have different tastes; they play differently. There's a lot of individuality in life. It's that individuality that I bring my compositions to so that each musician can interpret them in their own way."

Chick Corea and Gary Burton play UNC-Chapel Hill's Memorial Hall on Saturday, Oct. 14 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $10-$60. For more information, see www.carolinaperformingarts.org.

More by Robert Hicks


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