Thursday, April 13, 2006

At the Blue Note, Chick Corea Returns to a Familiar Sound


When Chick Corea formed Return to Forever in 1971, it was a bright and airy proposition. His Fender Rhodes piano chimed and chirruped over Latin American rhythms; female vocals commingled with the soothing flutter of a flute. Then the ensemble muscled up and morphed into a hyperactive fusion band, establishing pop-chart presence and a fan base to match. To the extent that there is a Return to Forever legacy, it encompasses both these dynamic extremes, each a facet of Mr. Corea's personality.

The band that Mr. Corea is leading this week at the Blue Note signals a return to Return to Forever, though not in the strictest sense. It features Airto Moreira, the percussionist on those springy early albums, and Eddie Gomez, an acoustic bassist whose bond with Mr. Corea began just after the band's demise. Mr. Gomez fills the role that originally belonged to Stanley Clarke, the only musician besides Mr. Corea to last through every Return to Forever permutation. That central involvement explains one consequence of Mr. Clarke's nonparticipation here: the Blue Note is billing the trio, coyly, as Forever Returns.

Another consequence plays out in the music, which bypasses fusion altogether. Tuesday night's late set had a Brazilian thrust, something that typifies Mr. Corea's history with both Mr. Gomez and Mr. Moreira. Less expectedly, the set included as many standards as original compositions: one by Antonio Carlos Jobim and a consecutive pair by Richard Rodgers. Of course, the Jobim tune, "Desafinado," was a bossa nova; one of the Rodgers songs, "With a Song In My Heart," was recast as a samba.

Mr. Corea has always been a percussionist at heart, and he indulged that affinity with a cowbell, some shakers and a Brazilian hand drum. At the piano, his articulation was flinty, almost metallic, conveying a palpable sense of hammers striking strings. On the Fender Rhodes, which he used for most of the set, his playing was softer-edged but still fundamentally rhythmic, even when he tweaked a knob on a console to wobble the pitch of a phrase.

There was naturally just as much rhythm in the twitchy virtuosity of Mr. Gomez, whose strongest solo was on "But Beautiful," the second Rodgers tune; and in the drumming of Mr. Moreira, which embodied the sort of earthy imprecision that rarely has occasion to flourish in Mr. Corea's working bands.

Mr. Moreira occasionally grabbed a microphone to issue guttural chants and straining cries, an effect as often grating as it was involving. But his connection with Mr. Corea is still a joyous mystery; wheeling through the vintage Corea compositions "La Fiesta" and "500 Miles High," they offered a hint of what made Return to Forever feel special in the first place.

Chick Corea continues through Sunday at the Blue Note, 131 West Third Street, Greenwich Village; (212) 475-8592.

By NATE CHINEN - nytimes.com

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