Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock Improvise on Blank Slate at Umbria Jazz Festival
Posted 7/24/2013

One intriguing subplot of the 40th edition of Umbria Jazz in Perugia, Italy, was the decision by Carlo Pagnotta, the festival’s artistic director, to invite pianists from three of Miles Davis’ seminal ensembles to perform in different contexts.

The account of Keith Jarrett’s implosion in response to a couple of non-flash cameras being used during his trio’s July 7 concert at the Santa Giuliana Arena—he played in the dark for the first half, and waved a towel, toreador-style, to taunt the crowd at the conclusion—had gone viral through the jazz community via the Internet (see the DownBeat review here). In the aftermath, each artist performing at the arena seemed to work extra hard to convey respect for Pagnotta’s achievement in sustaining the festival, and to communicate to their fans.

This context backdropped a transcendent duo performance by Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea on July 12 at which the piano legends, in their only 2013 appearance together, presented a master class in musical conversation and tabula rasa improvisation.

After an introduction by Italian piano maestro Stefano Bollani, Hancock sat stage left and Corea stage right at their Fazioli grand pianos. For the first five minutes or so, they sussed each other out with off-the-cuff soliloquies on extended harmonic material, as though demonstrating ideas they’d been working with recently.

They then began a long passage of open-ended improvising, as they tossed complex ideas back and forth like big leaguers playing pepper, instantly responding to each other with elegant resolutions and generating fresh pathways from a seemingly endless well. Fragmentary refractions of “Footprints” emerged and gradually knit together into a more recognizable abstraction of the familiar refrain. Corea played skipping lines with brisk precision; Hancock was more orchestrational, creating instant voicings in response to Corea’s postulations. After about 23 minutes, they transitioned to a more ruminative section and decided to end this line of inquiry.

Corea stated a repetitive rhythm; Hancock responded with tumbaos on the keys and washes on the strings before turning his attention to the Fazioli’s deep, resonant bass register. Addressing their keyboards with immaculate technique, they bounced rhythms back and forth like a pair of drummers, Corea responding to Hancock’s rumbly declamations with treble-register melodies before creating his own statements on the strings.

After each had said his piece, Hancock played a spacy rubato intro that had the feel of ambient music. Corea developed a counter motif. Within that context, they co-evolved an abstracted “Some Day My Prince Will Come,” eventually coalescing the tempo and addressing the Miles-associated chestnut as a four-handed waltz, keeping the time solid throughout the variation. They decrescendoed and returned to the rubato feel at the end.

After 50 minutes, it was time for a break, some banter and a toast to Pagnotta with agua minerale. Then Hancock asked the rhetorical question: “Shall we continue?” The “yea” vote was unanimous.

Hancock opened with an abstract, bordering-on-atonal motif. Strains of “Green Dolphin Street” popped up, but they soon went to work on the soulful melody of “Dolphin Dance,” improvising on rhythmic, harmonic, textural and melodic levels. The giant video screens on each side of the stage revealed their intense focus as one idea developed into another, execuuted with mutual intuition and savoir faire. Another long, abstract introduction evolved into Corea’s “Spain,” on which the composer played sparkling percussive lines, while Hancock voiced and orchestrated, grafting his own rhythmic ideas into the flow. On the next piece, hints of “Oleo” and “52nd Street Theme” (played idiomatically, no licks) suddenly morphed into “All Blues,” which was transformed into a chromatic fantasia.

For their first encore, Hancock and Corea found a path into “Saeta” from Davis’ Sketches Of Spain, fully reinventing the iconic Gil Evans arrangement. The flow turned rhythmic, and they exchanged ideas on subdividing the time before moving again into “Spain,” one of the most recognizable jazz songs composed after 1959. As it wound down, Corea elicited an audience singalong; Hancock did the same.

At the top of the second encore, Hancock uncorked lines of Cecil Taylor-esque atonality and force, then made a snap transition to a deeply funky “Watermelon Man.” If the arena hadn’t reached closing time, the old masters could have continued indefinitely, or so it seemed, performing in a completely unmediated manner, functioning at the highest levels of intellect while not neglecting imperatives of the heart, taking care of the audience and each other.

For more of DownBeat’s coverage of Umbria, including a review of saxophonist Jan Garbarek’s performance, click here.

Ted Panken


Herbie Hancock (left) and Chick Corea (Photo: Giancarlo Belfiore/Umbria Jazz)

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