Given that these two virtuoso pianists were in a jubilant, hometown mood, this was a concert that could hardly fail to please.
Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock. Presented by the Celebrity Series at Symphony Hall, Boston, MA, on February 12.
By Michael Ullman
When Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock took the stage for their two piano concert at Symphony Hall on Sunday night, the pair took pains to create an air of informality. After acknowledging the warm reception, Corea first addressed the crowd, announcing that we were on the same page as the performers — we were not sure what they going to do and neither were they. Later in the performance Corea led the audience in a chorus of “Happy Birthday” to his classmate from Chelsea High, Class of ’59, Herbie Hancock, who turned 75 that day.
There was also music. After a brief discussion the concert began when Hancock sat down at the Yamaha grand and began playing some noncommittal phrases, moving with his customary facility up and down the piano, rumbling in the bass, as if in search of a theme. Corea began adding little dollops of sound, as if to propel the music to the surface. For much of the evening those were the allotted creative roles: Corea served as a sort of counter-puncher to Hancock’s musings.
This was, Hancock explained, their fourth tour as duo pianists: the others were in 1978, 1983, and 1984. The current tour was different, he added, because now they had synthesizers on stage. As he spoke, Corea used his instrument to make some threatening sounds. “Whatever works, works,” Hancock added over this accompaniment: “Seize the moment.” They seized it once Hancock added in a funky grooving beat and the two traded electronic phrases that danced pleasantly. Then they broke the beat down, as if dissatisfied with its simplicity. Soon they were in a new kind of conversation, Corea alternating spacey sounds in the treble with bitter-toned pianistic phrases over Hancock’s less distinct colorations. Nonetheless, and despite the impressive array of electronic equipment on stage, they quickly returned to their acoustic pianos.
After the rendition of “Happy Birthday,” Corea sat down and played what turned out to be a highlight of the concert, an extended version of Hancock’s first hit “Watermelon Man,” with its instantly recognizable beat. They followed with a gradually morphing version of Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage,” and then, to give Corea his due, there came his hit “Spain” with its introduction hinting at the Gil Evans version of Joaquin Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez arranged for Miles Davis. It was joyous music, as accomplished as it was daring.
Given that these two virtuoso pianists were in a jubilant, hometown mood, this was a concert that could hardly fail to please. They communicated with each other telepathically, as Hancock hinted at one point, dazzling the audience through the power of their music and by the genial force of their personalities. But this was more than an exercise in nostalgia: the evening became a time for exploration, for freedom and risk-taking.
Michael Ullman studied classical clarinet and was educated at Harvard, the University of Chicago, and the U. of Michigan, from which he received a PhD in English. The author or co-author of two books on jazz, he has written on jazz and classical music for The Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic, High Fidelity, Stereophile, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe and other venues. His articles on Dickens, Joyce, Kipling, and others have appeared in academic journals. For over 20 years, he has written a bi-monthly jazz column for Fanfare Magazine, for which he also reviews classical music. At Tufts University, he teaches mostly modernist writers in the English Department and jazz and blues history in the Music Department. He plays piano badly.