Chick Corea has often been a frustrating artist. Immensely talented as both a composer and pianist, he has often frittered away those gifts on fusion-by-numbers and quasi-classical exercises. When he finds the right context, however, he can be as exciting a jazz musician as we have.
He found just such a setting when he introduced his all-acoustic Origin sextet in 1998 with a live album. The three-horn-and-rhythm-section lineup recalled the early-'60s hard-bop outfits of Art Blakey and Cannonball Adderley and encouraged Corea to revisit the jazz fundamentals of that era.
Corea has been so energized by Origin that he has now written a full album of new material for the group's first studio album, "Change." It features some of his most satisfying compositions since the '70s. "Armando's Tango" and "Little Flamenco" are welcome reminders of how well Corea can write for Latin dance rhythms, and his harmonies are exquisite, especially on slower tunes such as "Before Your Eyes" and "Home." "Early Afternoon Blues" is a mellow nod to late-'50s Miles Davis, while "Awakening" is a romp through crashing, cascading chord changes.
To play these pieces, Corea has assembled a superb unit of younger players. Steve Wilson and Bob Sheppard both play several reed instruments, and Corea uses their flute playing to stretch the harmonies upward, while he uses Steve Davis' trombone to stretch them downward. Bassist Avishai Cohen and drummer Jeff Ballard are up to the challenge of Corea's tricky, ever-shifting rhythm patterns, and the leader himself plays a bit of marimba on the opening track, "Wigwam."
This same sextet joins the London Philharmonic Orchestra and conductor Steven Mercurio for "Corea.Concerto," the pianist's latest foray into classical music. Having collaborated with Bobby McFerrin on "The Mozart Sessions," Corea decided to try his hand at his own Mozartean piano concerto; he also rearranged his classic 1972 composition, "Spain," for sextet and orchestra.
As one might expect, the sextet arrangements are quite enthralling, but the string charts are hum-drum, failing to distinguish themselves as either big-band jazz or as serious art music. Instead the orchestral sections surrounding the jazz solos are the sort of classical-lite that plagues so much public radio today. Even the solos aren't that impressive on Piano Concerto No. 1, which is arranged for jazz trio and orchestra. Corea indulges his worst tendencies toward over-playing, and the orchestra merely echoes his Spanish-tinged themes.
Appearing Thursday at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater. To hear a free Sound Bite from Chick Corea & Origin, call Post-Haste at 202/334-9000 and press 8125. (Prince William residents, call 690-4110.)