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At Blues Alley, piano master Chick Corea evokes many styles but has one all his own

Chick Corea. (Photo courtesy of Chick Corea Productions/Chick Corea Productions)

Musical virtuosity is a means to an end, not an end unto itself. Chick Corea, the veteran jazz artist (and inarguable virtuoso) understands this truism. Performing on solo piano at Blues Alley on Monday night, the 72-year-old Corea tackled the repertoire, along with some unusual choices, with a technical fluency that included channeling several piano styles. But in doing so, his expressions amounted to something uniquely his own.

More than anything, Corea expressed a fondness for the piano itself, in all its guises. Opening the set with a performance of Irving Berlin’s “How Deep Is the Ocean,” he began with a touch that recalled the piano works of Johann Sebastian Bach, then barreled through flourishes of jazz keyboard titans Bud Powell and Duke Ellington. Both of those giants resurfaced as composers later in the set. Corea also alluded to their respective styles while playing Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady” and a medley of Powell tunes: ringing chords and stomping swing in the former, high velocity and bebop harmony in the latter. Additionally, he performed two unreleased compositions (“Song #1” and “Very Early”) by another legendary pianist, Bill Evans, evoking his dense harmonic tangles and heavy touch in the process.

The Evans pieces, though, were surprisingly revealing of Corea himself. Even while reveling in Evans’s storm-cloud piano stylings, his own light, leaping touch could not be repressed: It shone through with small fills in between the thicker phrases, as well as the lovely, delicate cascades thrown into the turnarounds. That light touch found ultimate expression — along with lively Latin groove — in the quick rendition of Corea’s classic “Armando’s Rhumba,” played by audience request. Corea’s Powell medley betrayed another, more experimental side, as the pianist smeared the tunes with foggy dissonances and punctuated them by plucking the strings of the piano (a nine-foot grand that Blues Alley brought in just for the occasion). It created a dark atmosphere, perhaps reflective of Powell’s notorious mental fragility, but, simultaneously, a sense of play that again suggested tenderness for Corea’s instrument.

That tenderness found a new focus in the set’s encore. Corea brought out his wife, singer Gayle Moran, to perform the standard “Someday My Prince Will Come.” It amounted to a moment of publicly shared love between the couple, married since 1972. Moran’s voice showed her age; her high, flutelike sound still had great power, but a slightly coarse edge and some wavering pitch (especially on a sustained high F she held at the end of the tune), but it was nonetheless the most beautiful performance of the night.

West is a freelance writer.

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