Chick Corea has said that the “vigil” referenced in the title of his latest album is about guarding the “precious communication line between artist and audience.” At his New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival performance on May 4, he paid homage to that ideal with tenacious exuberance, using every faculty at his disposal to engage his listeners and pull them into music that was at once brilliant and straight-up fun.
The set drew mostly from the epic, often difficult material on The Vigil (Stretch/Concord Jazz), which was released in August 2013. But from the outset, Corea’s playful energy and buoyant touch imbued even the most complex passages with a lightheartedness unique to his live performance.
In the hour-long set, Corea alternately grinned, clapped, bounced around the stage and at one point appeared to applaud Tim Garland’s sax solo, all while ushering the group through a wild yet seamless miscellany of Latin and Caribbean rhythms, post-bop, classical figures and fusion-y nods to his ’80s-era Elektric Band. Or, as Corea said onstage, describing the range of material: “a potpourri of stuff.”
The show began with an acoustic piano-based rendition of Bud Powell’s “Tempus Fugit” (“Tempus Fugue-It”) that maintained the relaxed Latin flavor of the tune’s introduction well into its intense tempo climaxes. The piece also introduced percussionist Luisito Quintero and drummer Marcus Gilmore’s interplay with the first of what would be multiple scorching solos the pair performed almost in tandem.
Given Corea’s stage setup included acoustic piano and two electric keyboards, he could have taken the opener into more experimental territory (à la rock group Yes’ 1980 version). But Corea kept things relatively light and bop-centric at the start, which made for an inviting welcome instead.
As the set progressed, Corea explored his more mischievous side, toying with electronic sustains and samples, as guitarist Charles Altura provided swirls of color over a deeply woven blanket of bass funk. The pianist left his station when the rhythm heated up, grabbing a cowbell while Garland drove the melody forward. Later, Corea got back behind the keys, ushering the ensemble’s kinetic improvisations to a chord-punctuated close.
One of the more evocative moments came during “Planet Chia,” which Corea dedicated to the late guitarist Paco de Lucía (1947–2014), whom he called “one of the most beautiful musicians of all time.” Moving back to his acoustic piano, Corea paired a series of nimble right-hand flourishes with an elongated figure of steady warmth from the bottom register before Altura took over with the tune’s groove-rooted flamenco lines. As bassist Carlitos Del Puerto offered up soft, graceful accents that transformed into a gorgeous solo, Corea found his way out from behind his keyboards again, this time clapping softly alongside Del Puerto, bouncing his knees to the beat and beaming at the crowd.
“We’re gonna do one more tune,” Corea announced, then added the endearing understatement: “Our tunes are kinda long.” (The tracks on The Vigil range from about eight to 18 minutes each.)
He called “Galaxy 32, Star 4,” coyly introducing the whimsical cosmic kook-out that opens the new album. “It’s a particular location. See, this is a solar system. You got a lot of them. After a while, there’s a bunch of planets in there, too.”
A handful of effects-driven space beeps and buzzes followed as an impish Corea toyed with his instrument, flashing the occasional “stay with me” look at the sea of grinning faces before him. Once the roar of Gilmore’s kit kicked in, Corea took off, zigzagging through the drum part’s open spaces then breaking things down with a series of controlled chordal bursts. As the tune moved into a melodic groove, Corea returned to feeding his drum-and-percussion duo angular, electronic riffs. Things soon turned much darker, with Garland, Altura and Corea coming together to issue unison waves of rock in a frenzy of prog that compelled virtually every audience member to rise and cheer.
It was no surprise later when the group exchanged call-and-response vocals with the music; at that point the “line between artist and audience” had been completely redefined.