Jazz Review / Commentary: Chick Corea’s “The Continents” and the Problem of the Jazz Piano Concerto

Chick Corea’s The Continents: Concerto for Jazz Quintet and Chamber Orchestra is filled with tuneful melody, shows off some superb playing by the soloists, breaks new ground in a number of ways, and achieves nearly all of its ambitions.

The Continents: Concerto for Jazz Quintet and Chamber Orchestra by Chick Corea. Deutsche Grammophon.

By Steve Elman.

Here is the second part of this series on the jazz piano concerto.

Chick Corea — his “concerto,” which is more a “serenade” in the Mozartean sense, brings forward for another look the thorny issues that divide and unite jazz people and classical people.

As a Platonic ideal, the jazz piano concerto should have everything going for it. It seems as though it could enrich a “classical” form more logically than anything else in jazz could—after all, the piano concerto spotlights the one instrument that has bona fide superstar status in both classical music and jazz; it’s a vehicle for virtuoso display, at which jazz musicians excel; it’s all about conversation between soloist and ensemble, an essential element in great jazz performance; and it generously forgives the occasional over-the-top display of exuberance or sentiment, of which jazz players are unfortunately as guilty as classical divas or maestros.

So why aren’t there more jazz piano concerti?

That question, with which I’ve been wrestling for more than a year now, deserves some in-depth answers, and I promise that you’ll get them in future posts. As a matter of fact, I plan to provide you with a four-part series on the issue, of which this is the first part.

The release of Chick Corea’s new work for jazz ensemble and orchestra provides exactly the right catalyst for this discussion. Corea’s “concerto”—which is more a “serenade” in the Mozartean sense—brings forward for another look the thorny issues that divide and unite jazz people and classical people, two groups who are among the world’s most passionate artistic partisans.

I’m glad to say that Corea’s The Continents: Concerto for Jazz Quintet and Chamber Orchestra makes one of the best cases ever for conversation across this DMZ. It’s filled with tuneful melody, shows off some superb playing by the soloists, breaks new ground in a number of ways, and achieves nearly all of its ambitions.

The piece was first noised about in the early 2000s, after Corea toured behind his first piano concerto (released on CD in 1999). The folks at Mozartjahr Wien commissioned him to write a “piano concerto in the spirit of Mozart” to be premiered in 2006 during the Viennese celebration of Mozart’s 250th birthday. Whether they noted Corea’s written homages to Mozart, his long friendship with the late Friedrich Gulda, or his recordings of Mozart concerti with Gulda (1984) and Bobby McFerrin (1996), it was nonetheless a bold stroke to give a jazz musician such a big tract of land in the heart of Mozart country.

The piece was first announced as Corea’s “second piano concerto,” and then became a “concerto for small jazz group and chamber orchestra,” and finally took the form it has on the new CD, an expansive (six movements, 72 minutes long) semi-programmatic serenade concertante for piano and chamber orchestra, with significant statements from other instruments. The other soloists are mostly the jazz players of Corea’s band: reedman Tim Garland (playing flute, soprano saxophone, and bass clarinet); trombonist Steve Davis; bassist Hans Glawischnig; and drummer Marcus Gilmore. There are also some notable solo parts for the classical players, about which more later.

I think it might be best to start with the general. There are almost 90 years of experiments in music for piano and orchestra combining elements of jazz and classical, and there are about 20 notable pieces of music that have emerged from this experimentation. Some of them extend a hand from classical to jazz and some go in the other direction. Almost nothing about these experiments can be said to resolve into “conventions” or “standard practices.” This gives a composer of the jazz piano concerto an advantage: nearly anything he or she might decide to do is above the potential criticism that it is unconventional. This also means that there is no coasting: every jazz piano concerto must make its own case to an audience from first note to last.

Regrettably, there are almost no cases where a composer who’s tried the form once has returned to it again. There are several cases of revisions and rethinkings of a single piece, but a “second jazz piano concerto” is almost unheard of. There have been so many failures, false starts, and unwarranted criticisms of the very idea that those who have tried it probably were understandably gun shy. So this is the first great thing about The Continents: Corea has courageously returned to a form he’s tried before, and he’s written a piece that shows how much he learned from his previous experience. The Continents is better in nearly every way than his first piano concerto, and it gives future composers a model for development rather than just an interesting dead end.

The second great thing about this recording is that the orchestra was specifically constituted for the piece. Corea called upon one of the most esteemed players of contemporary music, Fred Sherry, to help him assemble the ensemble, and he took the most unusual step of having Sherry, a cellist, serve as the concertmaster. Why are these decisions so significant? Because an orchestra created for a specific performance has a built-in commitment to its success, and because the composer can have confidence that the players have the skills needed to accomplish his or her goals.

The history here is instructive. One of the jazziest performances of Maurice Ravel’s Concerto in G is Leonard Bernstein’s 1958 recording, in which Bernstein plays the solo part and conducts the piece, and the other performers are handpicked New York studio players (named the “Columbia Symphony Orchestra” for the purposes of the LP release). You can hear, almost from the first note, that Bernstein wanted a certain kind of musician, one sympathetic to both the jazz and classical sides, to bring out the swing and the brashness of the piece. The result is a fresh, improvisatory feel throughout, even when the jazz elements have receded to the background.

Here’s a case in point from the other side: Dave Brubeck’s 1963 recording of “Elementals,” a piece that is a direct antecedent of The Continents. Regrettably, the original LP issue did not identify the orchestral players, and no subsequent reissue has rectified the omission. Nonetheless, it’s a good working hypothesis that the late Rayburn Wright, who helped Brubeck with the orchestration and conducted the piece, must have had something to say about the musicians; some of them may have been from the Eastman-Rochester School, with which Wright had a nearly 20-year association. The how is secondary, though: Wright gets the same commitment from this bespoke orchestra that Bernstein got from the “Columbia Symphony” on the Ravel.

A third great thing, related to the second, is that Corea treats the orchestra players as the equals of the jazz players, not just accompanists. He gives them a free-improv passage to conclude the first movement, and they rise to the challenge very successfully. He also spotlights a number of outstanding musicians in the orchestra by giving them short solo spots of their own. Violinist Ilmar Gavilán of the Harlem Quartet, oboist Toyin Spellman-Diaz of the Imani Winds, and superstar clarinetist Richard Stolzman all have a chance to shine. In addition, there are some short statements in the final movement by trumpeter Louis Hanzlik; hornists Jeff Scott (of the Imani Winds) and David Byrd-Marrow; clarinetist Mariam Adam; oboist Jacqueline Leclair; and bassoonist Monica Ellis (also of Imani). The graciousness of the composer and the cheery give-and-take between the jazz players and the classical ones are almost unprecedented.

The fourth great thing, and maybe the greatest of all, is the beautiful clarity of the orchestration. Even though the harmonies here are well beyond those of the Mozart-Haydn era, Corea’s admiration for the transparency and balance of the classical orchestra is obvious. The Continents celebrates the orchestra as a lithe and flexible partner for Corea and his group rather than the muscle-bound behemoths that previous composers unleashed for The Grand Effect.

With all that said, it seems to me that the jazz audience will take to this piece much more readily than the classical audience will. The long passages of jazz-soloist-over-rhythm mark the piece as “jazz interacting with the classical tradition” rather than vice-versa. Not that there’s anything wrong with that: The Continents does not seem to be on the quest for the Holy Grail of Serious Music Respectability that obsesses so many jazz piano concertos. Nonetheless, I, for one, find many beautiful things in this composition, and I would be gratified if the classical music audience could listen to the piece without looking down their noses at it.

There are some marketing considerations in play here. For decades Corea has been very savvy when it comes to understanding how his music is received and appreciated. Whether it was his decision or Deutsche Grammophon’s to include a second CD in the set, that second disk will anchor the release securely in the jazz depths—the quintet plays a very interesting arrangement of Billy Strayhorn’s “Lotus Blossom,” successfully revisits Kenny Dorham’s “Blue Bossa,” tosses off a five-minute free-improv, and then delivers a version of “Just Friends” that will be perfectly at home on any “pure jazz” radio show.

The second CD concludes with more than a half-hour of solo piano improvisations by Corea, described by him as an “exploration to find what was missing” from the recording of The Continents. Some of these pieces simply break off in mid-thought; in fact, Corea played the first five without knowing they were being recorded. Once he becomes aware that the music is being preserved, the pieces become more investigative and more carefully considered, much in the vein of his Piano Improvisations LPs recorded in 1971. “Solo Continuum 75,” “Solo Continuum 108,” and “Solo Continuum 1411” are particularly worthwhile.

It may be worth some space here to engage the question that Corea himself asked. Not many artists have the courage to admit dissatisfaction with their own work in the liner notes of a new release, and fewer would admit it in the afterglow of realizing a very ambitious, large-scale work. (“I felt there was still something incomplete about The Continents recording.”)

I hear something incomplete about The Continents, but it isn’t addressed by the material on the second CD. That music stands by itself and fully realizes its internal mandates (although I can’t really understand why Corea chose to include the studio chatter between tracks). The Continents, on the other hand, is a push forward for Corea, and it would almost inevitably have shortcomings. What’s remarkable to me is that my quibbles about it are so small.

First, if Corea has any hopes of a second complete concert performance of The Continents, he’s going to have an uphill battle. The first performance, given in the Vienna Staatsoper on July 1, 2006, almost doesn’t count, since the work was a commission, and only an unmitigated disaster would have prevented it from being premiered. For any future performance, an orchestra would have to commit a huge portion of a concert program to the work, and I can’t think of any major music director willing to take such a risk with an unknown “jazz piece”—not to mention the difficulties of coordinating a performance with Corea’s own active concert schedule.

Corea understands this. In his notes on the piece on the Boosey & Hawkes website, he says, “It’s possible to perform any part [that is, any movement] independently, as well as any combination of parts in any order.” Maybe from his experience with his first concerto he learned that individual movements had better stand alone; a notable concert performance of the first movement of the first concerto is available for listening and viewing on the web, but this was in the context of a Boston Pops concert, and only one movement was performed. I’m not aware of any other performance, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Corea had to break up the first concerto in order to make it programmable.

So he must have decided to make his second effort more marketable by causing each movement to be complete and programmable by itself—in a concert, or on radio, or in a download—without doing violence to the overall impact. For appreciation of the work on a piecemeal basis, this idea works perfectly well, but it’s resulted in a piece that seems too long for listening in a single setting. Incidentally, this decision may also have contributed to the fact that “The Continents” has no slow movement, the lack of which tends to deform its dramatic shape.

Chick Corea at the recording session for THE CONTINENTS.

So might The Continents best be approached as a suite of tone poems? Not really. You may have wondered why I’ve failed to talk about the programmatic aspects of the piece, and that’s because, in my opinion, they don’t matter. (Again, there’s nothing wrong with that. George Russell once told me that his program for The African Game was unimportant, and anyone could approach the music without any extra-musical framework.) I don’t hear anything in any of the movements that requires the listener to appreciate it as a reflection of a particular place, or even as Corea’s own personal impressions of the place. Yes, “The Americas” is perhaps the jazziest movement and includes a quote from “Autumn in New York.” Yes, “Asia” has a strong modal feeling, and there’s even a whiff of temple meditation. But “Africa” seems too short to do justice to the vast musical riches there, and “Europe” seems to consist mostly of Spain and France. My advice is to forget about the program. This is a “serenade” in the best sense—a long-form, melody-filled suite that asks only to be listened to and enjoyed, and each one of the six pieces here is deeply satisfying without the need for mental pictures accompanying it.

Here are just some of the satisfactions:

Corea adapts the jazz idea of the “break”—an exchange of thoughts between soloists—to this context right away, in the first few minutes of the first movement. Piano, trombone, and soprano sax are each introduced by short, conversational interchanges with the orchestra. The clarity of the orchestration and the cogency of the soloists make this a complete success.

After Tim Garland’s flute solo in the second movement, Corea introduces an ostinato figure in the piano and Marcus Gilmore lays a drum improv over it. But Corea isn’t satisfied with a single-note ostinato line. He enriches it with chords and doubling from the bass and finds ways to bring in mirroring effects from the orchestra without turning things into “Bolero.” His piano drops out and comes back again, and then the ostinato is passed around through the orchestra. The confidence in the writing and the intelligence of the ideas here are admirable.

Almost all the “piano trio” sections are beautifully played, but the one in the fifth movement takes the prize for me. Up to this point in the concerto, these statements seem to me to draw primarily from the moods of Corea’s more recent acoustic work. In this movement, he seems to be drawing on an earlier period—it strikes me as reminiscent of “Now He Sings, Now He Sobs” and “Tones for Joan’s Bones,” recordings that I return to regularly with great pleasure.

One of Corea’s best moments as soloist comes in the unaccompanied cadenza in the last movement. This piece is more adventurous than the other five, recalling Corea’s days as a free-improviser with Anthony Braxton in “Circle.” The cadenza is a great capper, not at all the “pretty” Chick Corea of “Spain” or “Return to Forever.” This is the muscular, smart Chick Corea, darkening his thoughts with dissonance, an atonal ostinato, and finally a very atmospheric mist.

The use of bass clarinet in this movement, and Tim Garland’s execution of the bass clarinet solo, is inspired. The instrument is a full-fledged member of the orchestral ranks, but it’s never played in a classical context the way it’s played here, with lovely chalumeau stuff giving way to a near-homage to Eric Dolphy, set up and supported by some outstanding non-tonal orchestral writing. In the other movements, Garland is strong in his soprano solos, and he finds a distinctive sound on flute as well—but this bass clarinet solo is a gem.

Steve Davis, always a soloist worth paying attention to, is so good throughout this recording that one wishes for a jazz trombone concerto to give him a full-bore showcase. His tone strikes a perfect balance between jazz personality and classical purity. Just when you think he can’t top his solo in the second movement, back he comes with an even better one in the fourth. (Not to mention his beautiful solos on disk two, especially on “Blue Bossa” and “Just Friends,” where he extends the harmonies fearlessly.)

Certainly not the least member of the band is Marcus Gilmore. Too often percussionists are thought of last in these jazz piano concerti, but Corea works him into nearly every conceivable context, and his support goes far beyond jazz drumming. He fills the jazz role superbly when he’s supporting the soloists in their improvisations, but he adds color and power to the written ensembles as well.

Bassist Hans Glawischnig gets something of a raw deal here. He sounds fine in the ensembles, but the producers made the decision to hold a “natural” balance between bass and orchestra in his solos, and that means that he just can’t be heard clearly enough when he’s called to step out in the first and second movements. A little violation of the natural balance wouldn’t have hurt these passages at all.

Is Corea right? Is there something incomplete, something unfinished, about The Continents? For me, there definitely is something, but it may not be in Corea’s nature to supply it. Too often, I’m struck by a quality in his music that seems a bit complacent, and I’m left with some of that feeling here—not as much as in some past recordings, I readily admit. It would be oversimplifying to say that Corea conveys a sense that the world is a marvelous place despite its flaws and that all problems are ultimately surmountable. But I’m something of a pessimist, and too much optimism leaves me feeling that an artwork is incomplete. So much of Chick Corea’s work is enormously appealing, but, nonetheless, I keep hoping he will leave a few questions open, that he will admit the possibility of chance and tragedy.

That may be the subject for a third jazz piano concerto. Let’s hope he gets the chance.

Part 2 of this series will look at some of the other jazz piano concertos created by jazzpeople, from Ellington’s New World A-Coming to Donal Fox’s Peace Out.

Part 3 will examine the great flowering of experiments from the classical side in the early part of the twentieth century—music by Erwin Schulhoff, George Antheil, George Gershwin, and Maurice Ravel.

Part 4 will address some of the overall issues and grapple with the realities of the marketplace that get in the way of musical experimentation.

Works and recordings discussed in this part of the series:

Armando Anthony Corea [Chick Corea]: The Continents: Concerto for Jazz Quintet and Chamber Orchestra (2006; rev. 2011) [originally called “Piano Concerto No. 2,” and later “The Continents: Concerto for Small Jazz Group and Chamber Orchestra”] – Corea, p; Tim Garland, ss, fl, bcl; Steve Davis, tb; Hans Glawischnig, b; Marcus Gilmore, dm; studio orchestra of New York City-based musicians, including Fred Sherry, cel, cmstr; Richard Stolzman, cl; The Harlem Quartet [Ilmar Gavilán & Melissa White, v; Juan Miguel Hernandez, vla; Paul Wiancko, cel] Imani Winds [Valerie Coleman, fl; Toyin Spellman-Diaz, ob; Mariam Adam, cl; Jeff Scott, Frh; Monica Ellis, bsn]; Louis Hanzlik, tp; David Byrd-Marrow, Frh; Mariam Madam, cl; Jacqueline Leclair, ob; Steven Mercurio, cond [Rec. 2011, New York City; issued as part of “Chick Corea: The Continents,” Deutsche Grammophon CD set, 2012, which also includes solo piano improvisations and performances by Corea’s quintet of Billy Strayhorn’s “Lotus Blossom,” Kenny Dorham’s “Blue Bossa,” etc.]

Armando Anthony Corea [Chick Corea]: Piano Concerto No. 1 (1983? – 1995; rev. 1999) – Corea, p & cond; Avishai Cohen, b; Jeff Ballard, dm; London Philharmonic Orchestra [Rec. 4/3/99, Hampstead, England; issued as part of “Corea.concerto,” Sony CD, 1999, which also includes “Spain, for Sextet & Orchestra”]

Mozart: Double Concerto [Concerto for two Pianos and Orchestra in E-flat, KV. 365] /Armando Anthony Corea – Friedrich Gulda: Compositions [for two pianos, “Fantasy” & “Ping Pong”] – Chick Corea, p; Gulda, p; Concertgebouw Orchestra; Nikolaus Harnoncourt, cond [Teldec CD, 1984]

Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 23 in A, KV. 488; Piano Concerto No. 20 in d minor, KV. 466; Armando Anthony Corea – Bobby McFerrin: Song for Amadeus [improvisation on Adagio from Mozart: Piano Sonata No. 2 F, KV. 280 / 189e] – Chick Corea, p; Bobby McFerrin, vo & cond; St. Paul Chamber Orchestra [Rec. 1996; released as “The Mozart Sessions,” Sony CD, 1996]

Maurice Ravel: Concerto in G (1929 – 1931) – Leonard Bernstein, p & cond; “Columbia Symphony Orchestra,” a studio ensemble of New York-based musicians selected by Bernstein [Rec. 4/7/58, New York City; originally issued (with Shostakovich Piano Concerto No. 2) on Columbia LP, 1958; reissued (with Liszt Piano Concerto No. 1 and Rachmaninoff Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini) on Sony CD, 1992]

Dave Brubeck (ed. Rayburn Wright): Elementals (1963) – Brubeck, p; Paul Desmond, as; Eugene Wright, b; Joe Morello, dm; studio orchestra of unidentified New York-based musicians; Rayburn Wright, cond [Rec. 12/12/63, New York City; Columbia LP, 1964; re-issued on Columbia / Legacy CD, c. 2004, with previously unreleased, three-minute quartet version of theme from the larger work]


  1. Hendrik Broekman on March 21, 2012 at 9:22 am

    Your point about the jazz piano concerto not being pursued twice by most people who make the first attempt is spot on. To an extent this can be explained by the critic-controlled market for the pieces, as you do. I think it is also partially to be explained by composers’ reluctance to type themselves.

    My father, David Broekman, wrote such a piece and managed to arrange a public performance just prior to his death in 1958. At that time he was starting a second, non-jazz concerto for a pianist friend. His bona fides for the jazz concerto were his career in commercial music, his conservatory training and his keen ear. He had already composed two symphonies, a violin concerto (damned by a critic as being in the vein of Bartok) and a string quartet in which jazz is not much evident. Except in using Bartok as a pejorative, the critic was quite correct in placing that music correctly within the styles then current. The jazz concerto was far more pop with some very current references. For instance, I grew up in the 50s within a block of Spanish Harlem and on summer nights I heard long bongo jams wafting up from the streets below. I’m certain those sounds were included among more conventional Cuban riffs in the 1st movement cadenza which is scored for piano and percussion. It’s tempting to think he was attempting to drag his career into the concert venue and maybe even validate it. In any case it’s strikingly different than the ‘longhair’ pieces (yes, they have their own beauties, too).

    His diary suggests he was unfulfilled by his ability to use popular music to put bread on the table and wanted to be regarded as the really serious musician he had trained to be. Though an immigrant who fully and enthusiastically embraced the democratic ideals of his adopted country, he was unable to shake this elitist longing. The opportunity to reinvent his persona in this way largely eluded him, perhaps due to typecasting, perhaps due to needing to grind out the paychecks. He came to the US to escape the European guild-infused system, so that he could be whatever he could manage to become, as soon as possible. What he found is that society gives you one or two bites at that apple after which, America or no, you may be free but are not invited to break type or confound expectations. You can’t be a dessert topping And a floor polish, at least not easily. It would have been interesting to see, had he lived a more normal span, what games any success with the jazz concerto would have played with his mind and his attempts to leave the commercial ghetto.

  2. Yuval Shay-El on April 19, 2013 at 4:55 am

    It’s not Billy Strayhorn’s “Lotus Blossom” but Kenny Dorham’s version.

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