XRIJF Day 5 – Chick Corea “Trilogy” with Joey Alexander
Well alright, OK, you win, and I’ll say it. I was late to the Joey Alexander party.
Sure, I had about him before the XRIJF last year, and every jazz musician I’ve talked to has had something to say about him. I even had a chance to ask Larry Grenadier who played on Alexander’s (he writes, fighting mostly every instinct to just call him “Joey”) debut album “My Favorite Things” about the young man, and he replied, “he’s a freak.” I’ve played his album many times on Jazz 90.1. But I wasn’t there when he played live last year, so that makes me late.
It was a weird sight; two grown men in bassist Dan “Shimmy” Chmielinski and respected and prolific drummer Ulysses Owens Jr. come out with a very skinny, awkward teenager. In almost every way, he looks like every middle schooler ever. His clothes don’t quite fit, hasn’t grown into his proportions yet, his hair is somewhere between messy and straightened up. Outside of his big hands, he looks pretty normal. He sounds normal too. Addressing the crowd, he was clearly tight and sometimes hard to understand. Then he plays some hard bebop, and you realize he’s not put together like us mere mortals.
Opening his set up with John Coltrane’s “Resolution” and Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints,” Alexander and company kicked into high gear right away. Mixed meters, fast and pounding bebop lines and licks, we heard some great things from the band. Alexander’s emotional intelligence, Chmielinski’s impressive thumping on the gut strings of his bass, and Owens’ thunderous toms and tasteful cymbals.
After that, they played an original composition by Alexander, “City Lights,” which received quite and ovation when he announced it as such afterwards. Starting with a bass rubato opening, we heard grooves, licks, clearly stated melodies, and excellent solos by Alexander and Owens, who plays with the intensity and the face of Buddy Rich.
Next came another original “Sunday Walks” (or I would assume; it was difficult to hear understand him at times, and I heard “Sandy Whales” before my common sense kicked in). Alexander opened with a lush variation and orchestration of the melody, frequently using Romantic-era chords and Impressionist planing before the piece picked up into another bebop-riff driven cooker. To end it off, the guys played what I guess was “It Might As Well Be Spring” from “My Favorite Things,” in a ten minute finale. They a bow, embracing and surrounding Alexander, which was a cute sight, seeing a kid enveloped by two adults.
Alexander is a indeed a “freak.” His emotional intelligence for someone so young, and his clear knowledge and understanding of the work that came before him is amazing. Improvisation is difficult for young players (heck, most adults), but his lack of inhibition combined with his technique is eyebrow-raising and jaw dropping. But I also heard something that I didn’t hear from a recording: he’s still a kid.
As amazing and talented as he is, one thing is clear: He doesn’t sound like “Joey” yet. Hearing him play, a careful listener can pick out when he starts playing rag, or Gershwin’s wit, or the blues’ scowling, or gospel’s shouts, bebop’s driving licks, and the Great American Songbook’s lyricism. He has absorbed so much, and he understands what he’s doing, but it hasn’t come together to a synthesized, defined sound. Therefore, he is at his best when he’s playing solo, as he can weave them together and combine them in unique ways.
You could hear the band members trying to keep up, trying to adapt, and trying to support him; there were absolutely moments you could sense that Chmielinski and Owens had to stop an idea and start another one to work with Alexander, particularly in the opening bop tunes and during the solos. They found their stride in the original compositions, when Alexander was most centered. It was truly eye-opening to hear the contrast between him and Chick Corea.
Alexander has talent, and obviously does Corea, but Corea’s legendary intellect and prowess carried the show, and combined with bassist Christian McBride (the man, the myth, the legend, and who is dripping with swagger) and drummer Brian Blade, two masters on their instruments, they made some incredible contemporary jazz.
Chick and the guys came out in casual attire, loose as ever. Corea came out (in neon Nikes) and immediately took a picture of the crowd, no doubt for his awesome Instagram page.
“Nice to see you all,” Corea, now 75, said with his trademark grin. He complimented Joey, and said it was an “honor and privilege” to work with McBride and Blade. After he tuned McBride, he tuned the audience. After we nailed that first concert A, he played little melodic bits, and we sang them back to him. It was charming and fun, and we wouldn’t see the last of this. Playing his original “500 Miles High,” we heard why these guys are masters. Corea’s touch, intelligence, and absolute taste, Blade’s incredibly crisp and creative patterns (we also saw his ability to recover after having a stick fly out of his hand), and McBride being an absolute monster.
As bassist myself, I want to take a moment to express how amazing McBride is. His ability to combine everything a bassist can do — riffs, catchy grooves, melodies, licks, runs — in a way that is crafted but not pretentious is extraordinary. His fast playing is truly non-sensical. I’m pretty sure he can play as fast as most pianists, and he doesn’t lose any articulation when he does it. The first couple fast runs he did made me laugh because of their absurdity.
The “Trilogy” trio next played two tunes paying homage to his mentors, Bill Evans and Bud Powell, “Alice in Wonderland” and “Tempus Fugit.” Bop tunes with no shortage of melody, Corea opened both with solo introductions. The former featured more Romanticism and Impressionist ideas, while the latter used dissonant touches while Corea plucked, swiped, and used the strings inside the piano to add effects and colors. “Alice” featured exceptional interplay and communication between Blade and Corea with a very well-developed and melodic solo from McBride, and “Tempus” we heard more great bop, including a blistering solo from McBride, in which Corea got up from the piano to let him work.
Following that, they played a modal/ bluesy selection from Stevie Wonder’s “Songs In the Key of Life,” in which we heard the least bebop tune so far. With blues, R&B, and gospel touches, the trio used a rocking riff to set up most of the song. Corea’s playing was filled with blues flavors, and McBride let out his inner funk and R&B player, and we heard some things from his James Brown days before he broke out his bow for part of his solo.
Next came a tune that made the bassists in the audience fangirl a bit. Corea asked McBride to grace us with his version of Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady,” and man, did he deliver. With everything a bassist can do, McBride uncorked this tune with taste and virtuosity. The swinging tune preceded their final thumping number, Corea’s own “Spain.” They exited, only to be treated to one to an exceptionally long standing ovation. They came back out for an encore… With Joey Alexander in tow. Then the magic happened.
For maybe ten minutes, Corea and Alexander sat down at the piano together, in the words of Corea “this is improv, ya dig?” and cut it loose. They were a little tense at first, but it blossomed into a surreal moment, when two generations met. Going back and forth, they were eventually joined by McBride and Blade simply vamping simple chords and rhythms behind them. If you listened hard enough, you could see Alexander grow up musically before your eyes. Corea came back and had the audience sing lines to back to us, using tonal, blues, and modal ideas, and Alexander tried his hand at it to with stuff that was a bit harder.
It was an absolute joy to see two amazing shows in one night, especially seeing the torch passed down from one generation to the next.