The Melbourne International Jazz Festival began in 1998, co-incidentally the year that the Ms Connection/Vinyl Connection international festival kicked off too. Seventeen years on, both are still going strong though artists in both arenas seem to be a touch more, er, mature. Seasoned. Venerable. Ah shit. We’re all older.
Nevertheless, when we noticed that the opening night of the 2015 Festival featured the twin-legend attack of pianists Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea we wasted no time in tottering off to the local Pawn Broker to mortgage the family jewels and thus secure two tickets to this once in a lifetime event. That the curtain-raiser concert was exactly one day after the anniversary of the first Connection connection and two days after the birth date of Miles Davis confirmed that all the portents were good. And so were the seats. Five rows from the front in the massive and acoustically pristine Hamer Hall.
Just a few minutes after the advertised starting time, a trim, casually dressed Chick Corea ambled on stage smiling genially at the audience from under a frizz of curly silver-grey hair. He was followed at a more measured pace by Herbie Hancock, whose black polo-neck shirt uncannily evoked a retired man-of-the-cloth. Given that Mr Corea is 73 and Mr Hancock 75, both could be forgiven for preferring to put their feet up on the piano stool at home rather than braving the chilly Melbourne evening, but here they were, welcoming a packed house and settling themselves down for an evening of keyboard exploration.
The two Yamaha grand pianos were arranged in a yin-yang configuration so that the pianists were facing each other and offering us a profile view. At right-angles to each grand was an electronic keyboard. Herbie’s was a Korg Kronos, supported by an Apple laptop; the branding on Chick’s synth was not visible.
I used the word ‘exploration’ and that is certainly how the concert began, with questing, ethereal music reaching out into the vast concert-hall globe. Herbie fired some off-kilter electronic percussion from his synth, Chick some glass-shard tinkles from his; both men slid between electronic and acoustic instruments as the music moved them, though always returning to the pianos as home base. I’m afraid I cannot report the earlier titles as the first piece I recognised was the beautiful Hancock composition “Maiden Voyage”. From the audience response, we were not the only listeners who found that lovely repeated melodic phrase a helpful touchstone for the exploratory dual piano excursions.
This was followed by an extended version of “Solar”, a Miles Davis piece that has been around since the mid-50s. Taking a bow after this item, HH and CC acknowledged Miles for his influence on jazz and on them personally and pointed out the just-passed anniversary of his birth. Then Herbie suggested that it was time to find “the fruit seller”. A handful of the audience – your correspondent included, I’m afraid – applauded enthusiastically. “You’ll know this one,” I whispered to Ms C. And many people did, really digging the rolling, infectious groove of “Watermelon Man”. This two-piano version was wonderfully rhythmic and exhilarating and was justly rewarded with thunderous applause.
After a bit of somewhat hokey badinage about having “played everything” and the silly rituals of encores, the musicians returned to their stools for the extended finale of “La Fiesta”.
The audience was invoked in two quite different ways in this audience participation climax. The first was the clever and quite spine-tingling creation of a thousand voice chord. Chick divided the audience into five sections, allocating each a note which he prompted, one note at a time, to build a wonderfully rich and resonant human angel-breath. Corea used the choir-chord as delicate yet powerful punctuation for “La Fiesta”; it really was quite wonderful.
The other audience bit was some call-and-response scat singing, where Corea played phrases and invited the audience to repeat them. Following the delicate use of people power, this didn’t work so well. It’s sort of fun/funny to hear a few hundred brave souls try to replicate an intricate piano run but the entertainment palls pretty quickly; this sort of jazz isn’t sing-a-long and it wasn’t that sort of concert. Though I’ll concede that as a “leave ’em laughing” gambit it seemed to pay off; there was plenty of love in the standing ovation HH and CC received after the final chords faded, applause we gladly participated in.
As the artists ambled along the stage apron, grinning and shaking a few hands, there was that dual experience of having enjoyed witnessing two master musicians able to conjure synchronistic magic from their keyboards, tempered ever-so-slightly by the not-quite-avoidable sense that you’ve been show-bizzed. Still, that didn’t stop me edging forwards to shake the hands of Herbie and Chick. Thanks chaps. It was a fine anniversary.
Since the concert I’ve been spinning the double LP An Evening With Herbie Hancock & Chick Corea In Concert, 1978, released on CBS. This works pretty well as both and indication and souvenir of the concert we enjoyed. There is the extraordinary empathy between the pianists, there are sections alternately rhythmic and soaring. The percussive sounds elicited by Corea from the strings of his piano are the only non-keyboard rhythms, but it’s none the worse for eschewing electronic sounds. The final side, comprising “Maiden Voyage” and “La Fiesta”, is perhaps the most satisfying (and generous too – a massive 25+ minutes) but it is all fine, from the standard “Someday My Prince Will Come” and a vampish “Liza” (a Gershwin tune) to the extended Herbie solo outing “February Moment”. Tellingly, the “La Fiesta” version here does not include any audience singing and is probably more likely to get repeat spins because of that. Somewhere, I’m sure I do have a recording where Chick does his audience singing thing on this piece, but I’m damned if I can find it. Must be getting old.