It’s hard to find a jazz idiom in which pianist Chick Corea has not only dabbled, but mastered. Whether playing straight ahead ensemble jazz, soloing with his own piano compositions and improvisations, helping lead the 1970s fusion movement, heading up avant-jazz groups or collaborating with any number of world-class musicians to produce his own and group recordings, Corea has rightfully earned a reputation as one of jazz’s most potent artists.
Yet even with 12 Grammy Awards to his name, Corea has never rested on his laurels or locked into one style for extended periods of time. His philosophy seems to be to always move forward, to always explore, to always innovate. That philosophy comes out in his latest release, The Ultimate Adventure. Joined by such stalwarts as Brazilian percussionist Airto Moreira, drummer Steve Gadd and flutist Hubert Laws (to name a few), the album is the second of Corea’s inspired by the fiction of L. Ron Hubbard. (Yes, if you must ask, Corea is a Scientologist.)
Two years ago, Corea brought back together his Elektric Band and recorded To The Stars, for which Hubbard’s science fiction novel of the same name served as Corea’s inspiration. The Ultimate Adventure is Corea’s musical interpretation of an early fantasy work of Hubbard’s about a young man magically transported to a world with backdrops similar to The Arabian Nights. Corea categorizes these works — and several of his others — as a “tone poem,” his favorite form of musical expression. He describes a tone poem as “an extended piece of music that is based on a literary, artistic, or ideological theme, for example, a folk tale or landscape.”
The Ultimate Adventure fits that billing. The recording, with several pieces that are multi-part works, explores a variety of ideas and themes with a myriad of musical expression. The music is also full of polyrhythms and, in addition to the artists named above, features some standout work by bassist Carles Benavent, a member of Corea’s current band, Touchstone. Because the underlying story has a southern Spain-northern Africa/Arabian background, Corea freely infuses many of the pieces with a Middle Eastern or Spanish flavor, both stylistically and percussively. These added shades bolster the recording’s feel as a musical rendition of the book’s themes.
The Latin textures and the flute work of Laws and Jorge Pardo also remind the listener of some of Corea’s work in the 1970s, particularly 1972’s Light as a Feather, Corea’s best-selling album with an early incarnation of the band Return to Forever, and Corea’s own 1976 release, My Spanish Heart. Yet these flashes of reminiscence don’t render this work derivative or duplicative. Corea and his collaborators are not locked into one style or idiom. You can find slices of Brazilian flair, a bop-like sound on tenor sax work by Tim Garland, some flamenco and even a touch of electronica. Some might find such diversity off putting. But whether you want to call in world jazz or something of your own invention, the fact is that in Corea’s adept hands it flows and it works.
The Ultimate Adventure may not rank as Corea’s foremost recording of the last decade or so. Still, the fact it brings to mind some of his highly popular earlier work may make it more accessible to the jazz fan and average listener than To The Stars. Moreover, it again confirms the breadth and depth of Corea’s talent as a composer, a group leader and a performer.