Corea and Burton Tactfully Dazzle at Symphony Hall

When jazz started to move out of smoky nightclubs and into concert halls in the 1940s, many critics bemoaned the genre’s shift away from its “folk roots.” “[Duke Ellington] has robbed jazz of its most basic virtue and lost contact with his audience,” wrote critic and producer John Hammond in 1943 after Ellington’s Carnegie Hall debut. Yet, 70 years later, jazz is essentially a concert-hall genre: its main patrons tend to be older, stodgy connoisseurs who nod along happily to their heroes of the past.

These characteristics were fully on display last Sunday, when pianist Chick Corea and vibraphonist Gary Burton performed at Symphony Hall in Boston. “Yeah, that feels like home,” Corea said as he walked out to a warm applause from the well dressed and respectful audience. For the next two hours, Corea and Burton put on a show that delighted their audience but would have made Hammond cringe. Their arrangements showed utmost taste and virtuosity, but the music lacked the frenzied intensity that characterized early jazz and even the work of Corea’s early career.

The concert showcased songs from Corea and Burton’s new collaborative album, “Hot House,” which is mostly made up of reinventions of standards. Whereas the album’s title track was made famous as a passionate, twisting bebop tune, Corea and Burton performed the song with quiet intellect. They reharmonized the melody and added flourishes, making it even more complex. Their simultaneous soloing, filled with staggering chromatic runs, sounded like Bach counterpoint with a dash of Charlie Parker rather than the other way around.

The next song, Lennon and McCartney’s “Eleanor Rigby,” was a testament to the performing duo’s impeccable arranging abilities. Corea kept steady time with a rolling piano riff, and Burton’s interpretation of the melody was bare and crisp. The steady pulse and style evoked images of lonely, detached people going to work and giving meaningless sermons. The music was able to bring out the song’s poignant lyrics even without the presence of a singer.

Corea and Burton were soon joined by the Harlem String Quartet, who provided intense beauty at some times and pomp at others. On Corea’s “Lyric Suite for Sextet,” the Quartet transitioned straight from tuning their instruments into an atonal swirl; their heavy tone produced to a jarring contrast to the lighter sound of Corea and Burton. Their melodic figures seemed out of place, and the most dynamic sections of the song happened when they dropped out, leaving Corea and Burton room to breathe and dance around each other.

The quartet fared much better on “Adventures of Hippocrates,” another Corea composition. Whether it was stronger songwriting, arrangement, or individual performance, the song possessed a powerful anguish. Violinist Ilmar Gavilan was particularly impressive: on his solo, he treated some runs like a saxophonist would, bending notes and making his violin grown with joyful abandon. The group ended with a majestic unison finish.

To close the concert, the group played a recently composed piece by Corea, “Mozart Goes Dancing,” which is also the closer on “Hot House.” The performance was extremely emblematic of the evening: Burton showed off his unbelievable nimbleness, chopping away with two mallets in each hand; the String Quartet produced a full yet precise sound on menacing melodic runs; Corea once again showed his ability to take in influences and transform them into a breathtaking and original arrangement. However, despite the title, the song was not danceable at all, and was characterized much more by tact than levity. The song fit perfectly into the atmosphere of the grandiose music hall, and the musicians walked off to a standing ovation and shouts of “Bravo!”

Corea and Burton have been performing together for 40 odd years, and they’ve explored the bounds of electric jazz, latin, funk, folk and more. On Sunday, they were just content to play technically dazzling versions of old standards in the comfort of a star-struck concert hall. While they are still superb, it seems as if they’ve found their resting place. It would be unfortunate if jazz as a whole did the same.

—Staff writer Andrew Chow can be reached at andrewchow@college.harvard.edu.

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