Music News & Reviews

Critic's picks: Return to Forever, Chick Corea and John McLaughlin, and Chick and Hiromi

In the notes to Five Peace Band, one of Chick Corea's three new collaborative concert recordings, he writes that the music within is "humbly offered (but not so humbly played)." What a telling phrase for such an ageless musical thrill seeker.

On Returns, Corea reunites with the acclaimed quartet version of Return to Forever, a defining ensemble voice for '70s fusion music. With Corea back alongside bassist Stanley Clarke, guitarist Al DiMeola and drummer Lenny White last summer, RTF became a jazz reunion of arena-rock proportions. That seemed only fitting, as much of the playing on Returns is driving and spacious enough to fill the largest music rooms.

Though there is an overall leaner band sound on Returns than on RTF's seminal mid-'70s records, a luxuriant electricity dominates the music, as on the dark synthesized hum of Duel of the Jester and the Tyrant and the muscular funk of Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy. But Returns is best when it pulls free of the past, as in the way DiMeola's acoustic guitar medley is bookended by bright duets with Corea on piano, or when White's Sorceress breaks down into a slow blues and boogie grind. It all makes for a fusion reunion that defuses weighty nostalgia to stand more as an electric communion among old friends.

Five Peace Band, which hits stores next week, is essentially a project pairing Corea with another fusion forefather, guitarist John McLaughlin. But this concert compilation of an inaugural European tour last fall isn't as indulgent as such an alliance might suggest.

McLaughlin fires off warp speed guitar runs during the opening Raju to remind you he is still the colossus that led the Mahavishnu Orchestra during the early '70s. But the ferocity soon spreads out. Once the fire reaches saxophonist Kenny Garrett, the fusion fades and a torrent of hard bop ensues. Corea is the commando here, though. His new 27-minute opus Hymn to Andromeda unfolds with dark piano rumbles and the colors of all-star bassist Christian McBride before all of the Peace-makers get to stretch out.

The spirit of Miles Davis — an employer of Corea and McLaughlin in the '60s and of Garrett starting in the late '80s — is summoned for the swing and bounce of Jackie McLean's Dr. Jackle. But on the mix of the pastoral In a Silent Way and the groove-laden It's About That Time, with McLaughlin finally in the driver's seat, the Five Peace Band reaches for the riot gear with a jam that is loose, jagged and wildly soulful.

The mood lightens for Duet, a piano summit between Corea and Japanese keyboard sensation Hiromi Uehara, billed here as Chick and Hiromi, and recorded at the Blue Note in Tokyo. Uehara isn't as industrious a foil as McLaughlin or the rest of RTF. But she unlocks a lighter yet still intuitive spark in Corea's playing, whether the duo is tackling standards by Bill Evans and Antonio Carlos Jobim or neglected Corea works, especially the gorgeously impressionistic glimpses of Old Castle.

Within this often contemplative piano dialogue sits a few delicious imperfections — namely, the tinkling of glasses in the background that reminds you Duet was cut not in concert hall like Returns and Five Peace Band, but in a jazz club. And that is indeed a humbling accent for an epic piano sound.