The one thing that sets the Montreal Jazz Festival apart from the myriad of other similar events around the world is its Invitation Series. Launched in 1989, it showcases two musicians, four nights each, in various settings of their choosing. And who better to inaugurate the 25th anniversary of the "little festival that could" than someone who played the first edition in 1980, and has been a perennial visitor--Armando Anthony "Chick" Corea. In his opening remarks, he said it was very nice to see the festival progress like this, and that it's wonderful that the city participates in it at such a high level.

His goal for this solo piano concert was to make it as if we were all sitting around his living room. He had worked with the lighting directors in Monument-National to eliminate some of that boundary between audience and performer. In his thick Massachusetts accent, he noted how the performer is always illuminated and the audience in pitch black.

Chick Corea by Dr. Jazz
Corea has a wonderful stage presence: he's utterly charming, witty, funny, and can play the hell out of the piano. He came out to a wonderful ovation, and cracked that he didn't want any clinking of glasses, smoking, "no breathing, and no moving--it makes me very nervous when you move." To a latecomer he said, "Come on in. How are the other shows?" He said he doesn't do solo piano a whole lot; after a while he becomes lonely and starts looking for his musician friends.

Corea started with stuff that was "easy for [him]," standards he learned as a youngster. His father was a musician in dance bands, and Chick learned a lot of the old standards from the gigs his father played. He opened with "Someone to Watch Over Me" and continued with "It Could Happen to You." Both featured pseudo-stride piano and his patented not-quite-tango, not-quite-swing rhythmic conception. Chick noted that a lot of these songs came from Broadway shows, but he learned them from the jazz versions; he doesn't like the actual Broadway versions so much! He played a wonderful ballad, "But Beautiful," and it was a textbook, a revelation really. He was so focused and deliberate about every note he played, from the brilliant filigree of lines to the upper-keyboard chords that would punctuate his melodic statements.

Chick moved onto a Bud Powell medley of "Dusk In Sandi/Oblivion" which swung harder than I'd ever heard coming from Chick's playing. Corea said that Powell, although often overlooked, played in a way that left a very strong impact, and that he'd bet every piano player in the festival paid homage at some level to Powell.

He then really invited us into his living room and played some of the stuff he works on at home--namely, two Skryabin preludes, into which he inserted some improvisation. Afterwards he played about six of his "Children's Songs" which were intended as piano portraits of the spirit of childhood. Indeed a lot of them had a carefree, innocent quality to them that often gets lost with age. By request, he then played a sizzling take on "Armando's Rhumba," which provided a glimpse of the fire-breathing Chick we all know and love. At 63 he looks 20 years younger and can play circles around some guys half his age, more affirmation that jazz really is the fountain of youth.

He closed the set with an improvisation involving audience participation, the "Montreal Jazz Choir" singing an A-minor chord in five parts, and then scatting his lines back to him. It was really quite fun and made the venue seem even more intimate. It was reminiscent of, and maybe a tip of the hat to, Bobby McFerrin. As an encore, he did a duet with his wife, Gayle Moran, on "Someday My Prince Will Come," from an upcoming standards project they're developing--in their living room.

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