It’s not often that a man just shy of 80 has the energy of a twenty-something. It’s especially rare for that man, famed jazz pianist Chick Corea, to have continued touring through his later years, just as excited to perform as he was at the beginning of his career. In fact, when I sat in Hill Auditorium Saturday night to hear him perform with bassist Christian McBride and percussionist Brian Bladee, I couldn’t quite put my finger on his age at all.
Corea seemed to transcend any expectations the audience may have had for him, bounding out onto the stage in jeans, sneakers and a striped t-shirt that I swear my 14-year-old brother also owns. For the legendary musician, it was clear that age, looks and anything else superficial doesn’t actually matter in the long run — for him, it’s the music that really makes the difference.
They began with a typical tune-up of their instruments, until Corea began to riff around with the audience. “We’re just gonna tune our instruments up real quick,” he chuckled, “then we’ll tune you all up, too.” The quip led to a burble from the audience, and as soon as the three musicians finished perfecting their respective instruments, Corea turned to them, mischievous smile across his face. He played a riff on the piano, then waited patiently for those seated in the auditorium to repeat it. They did, and on and on until we were all buckled over with laughter. It wasn’t until then that I realized how full Hill was that night, as the voices of everyone from the front row to the back of the balcony echoed into the space.
The concert was a special performance to support the trilogy’s newest album, Trilogy 2, which follows a 2014 collaboration between the three that won two Grammys that year. The title of that one? You guessed it: Trilogy. All three of the musicians have a penchant for finding beauty in simplicity, but also in a contained chaos that jazz thrives on. There is power in restraint with modern jazz improvisation, and Corea, McBride and Blade know this all too well.
Despite that fact, they seem to make the craziest riffs seem simple in their own right, moving from chord to chord with a cascade of notes that seem to appear out of thin air, much less produced by human hands. But that’s the magic of their collaboration: Though the group is listed as the Chick Corea Trio, they could easily be the Christian McBride Trio, or very believably the Brian Blade Trio. They are all musicians at the top of their game and the second act of their careers, resting comfortably in their status as jazz greats.
Beginning with classic Corea composition “La Fiesta” and moving between renditions of other songs like Duke Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood” and Thelonious Monk’s “Work,” the performance was widely varied in its creative choices. It seemed like the three were close enough to not even have a tracklist, as Corea stood up from his grand piano to murmur with the other two before each song was decided. But that spirit of off-the-cuff ingenuity is what made the trio stand out on the stage, as each of them held up their part with a nearly effortless talent.
To put it simply, the trio are all monsters of jazz, imbued the creativity that comes from years of practice with the best of the best. Beyond that irreproachable savvy for music, they’re some of the coolest guys you could ever be in the same room with. I was stunned by everything they mentioned in between songs, the intention that every word came with, and also Brian Blade’s incredible baritone voice. The same goes for McBride’s skills with the bow, a special, almost classical interlude in a sea of straight jazz.
The shimmering cymbals and undulating bass tones of the group flowed freely through the auditorium’s rapt audience, and at one point Corea even played the strings inside the piano to complete a composition’s otherworldly sound. When the three came out for an unexpected encore, my heart lifted with delight. They played a Coltrane composition, the simplest, most classic sound to round out the night. From the craziness of the last two hours, it was a beautiful example of their love for jazz in all its forms, especially those that put them where they are today. The night was a perfect example of what can happen when friendship and genius come together, creating a partnership in which innovation can flourish.