The jazz world was stunned and saddened by the unexpected passing of legendary pianist Chick Corea on February 9, 2021, from a rare form of cancer. In a posthumous statement released on his Facebook page, Corea bid farewell to his compatriots and fans in the same joyous spirit with which he always approached the keyboard: “I want to thank all of those along my journey who have helped keep the music fires burning bright. It is my hope that those who have an inkling to play, write, perform or otherwise, do so. If not for yourself then for the rest of us. It’s not only that the world needs more artists, it’s also just a lot of fun.”
Two of the gifted musicians who’d helped Chick keep those fires burning so brightly were bassist John Patitucci and drummer Dave Weckl, the pianist’s bandmates in his storied Akoustic Band. Corea worked hard making sure everything was just right for this first release by the trio in over two decades. Straightforwardly titled Chick Corea Akoustic Band LIVE, the 2-CD set was recorded January 13, 2018 at SPC Music Hall in St. Petersburg, Florida. Due out September 24, 2021 via Concord Jazz, the release serves as a celebratory reminder of Corea’s singular genius, with more than two hours of inspired playing and spirited camaraderie.
The Akoustic Band made its debut with 1987’s Summer Night Live, documenting a concert in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. The trio was an outgrowth of Corea’s revered Elektric Band, for which Patitucci and Weckl formed the rhythmic core. The trio remained active through the 1990s, garnering a Grammy for Best Jazz Instrumental Performance for their 1989 self-titled studio debut, but then fell silent.
As Robin D.G. Kelley writes in his album notes, the reconvening of the Akoustic Band was a very welcome return, but not exactly a “reunion” in the traditional sense. Corea, Patitucci and Weckl have crossed paths on plenty of occasions over the past two decades, most significantly through the continuing work of the Elektric Band that brought them together in the first place.
“Our Elektric band vibe is never far away,” Corea asserted late last year. “There’s a special relationship that exists from the very beginning of our trio, which was the original nucleus of the Elektric band. We felt it was a good time to re-explore our musical friendship.”
That friendship began in 1985, when Corea enlisted Patitucci and Weckl, both 25 years old and nearly 20 years younger than the renowned keyboardist, for his new project – and electric ensemble to follow on and evolve the innovations sparked by Corea’s ground-breaking Return To Forever. Two years later, the bandleader felt the itch to return to a more traditional jazz setting and surprisingly, instead of recruiting a pair of more acoustically-oriented players, he simply repurposed the rhythm section from the Elektric Band – which spectacular and vaunted results.
With Chick Corea Akoustic Band LIVE, the longstanding rapport forged in the Elektric Band setting is obvious, only bolstered by two further decades of evolution and experience garnered by all three men. “Having made so much music together with the Elektric band,” Corea pointed out, “our rapport had grown deep and there was a lot of riches waiting to be mined after all these years of joyful experience had been had.”
“Playing with Chick and Dave again is really a joy,” said Patitucci prior to Corea’s passing. “The connection we have is very special and stronger than ever.”
Weckl added, “To be able to sit and communicate through the music with Chick and John, two of the most gifted and talented gentlemen to ever touch their respective instruments, is an honor and always a completely gratifying experience.”
The concert begins with a reach back into the vintage Akoustic Band songbook, reprising Corea’s own “Morning Sprite” from the self-titled album. From the get-go, the trio easily picks up where it left off, navigating the tune’s tricky quirks and shifts with an obvious joy at being back together again. It’s followed by the deft elegance of another Corea original, “A Japanese Waltz.”
A shimmering take on the standard “That Old Feeling” gets into the spirit of the lyric, the melody passed among the band members like a memory shared and rehashed between old friends. Duke Ellington’s immortal “In a Sentimental Mood” shifts into a more stately tone, introduced by a mesmerizing Corea solo turn before the full trio essays the familiar composition with a graceful strength. “Rhumba Flamenco,” tapping into the composer’s well-known love for Spanish music, sees the bandmates swept up in an intricate and impassioned triangular dance over its breathless 14-minute span.
Patitucci eloquently introduces another Akoustic Band favorite, Al Dubin and Harry Warren’s “Summer Night,” here a bristling and lush waltz. The first set ends with “Humpty Dumpty,” originally recorded by Corea on 1978’s Alice in Wonderland-themed album The Mad Hatter and by the Akoustic Band on 1991’s Alive. The tune is featured here in two renditions, each bursting with invention and dynamic energy, the second just that much more blistering than the first (and highlighted by a raucous solo intro that finds Corea thundering the strings inside the piano).
Corea also opens the trio’s version of “On Green Dolphin Street” alone, this time twisting the beloved melody through a series of richly layered variations. “Eternal Child,” originally recorded by the Elektric Band on 1988’s Eye of the Beholder, begins with a captivating bowed bass solo by Patitucci, setting an elegiac, aching tone for the poignant ballad. Following with “You and the Night and the Music” would seem to imply a continuation of this wistful tone, but the trio’s twist on the tune takes it into a more brisk, smoldering tempo driven by Weckl’s rifle-crack rhythms.
The music of Thelonious Monk has been a constant inspiration to Corea throughout his career, and he digs deeply into the ruminative “Monk’s Mood” with lush harmonies and eruptive dissonances. Finally, the evening closes with a very special guest appearance by the pianist’s wife, vocalist Gayle Moran Corea, for the demanding ballad “You’re Everything,” originally performed by Flora Purim with the original Return To Forever on 1973’s Light As a Feather.
Gayle’s appearance only underscores the family reunion feel of this long overdue return by the much-missed Akoustic Band. Corea emphasized the collegial nature of so many of his collaborations as he concludes, “I’m blessed with a lifetime of great musical relationships. My best friends are the musicians I’ve worked with. A great part of the joy is the uniqueness of each one of my friends. With each group the musicians‘ creative touch goes way beyond the definition of the instrument that they’re playing. The music of any group I’ve ever played with is defined exactly by the musicians who are a part of it. This applies especially to our trio music, which is created in a very intimate setting.”
Under any circumstances, these thrilling live recordings would be a welcome addition to Corea’s prodigious discography. With the news of his passing still so fresh in listeners’ minds, its release comes as an opportunity for fans to bid farewell while cherishing the communal energy and playful vigor that made the pianist a favorite of jazz lovers around the world for nearly 60 years. And the reunion of the Akoustic Band is emblematic of the esteem in which Corea held his fellow musicians, as he made sure to express in his final statement.
“[To] my amazing musician friends who have been like family to me as long as I’ve known you,” he wrote. “It has been a blessing and an honor learning from and playing with all of you. My mission has always been to bring the joy of creating anywhere I could, and to have done so with all the artists that I admire so dearly—this has been the richness of my life.”