When Chick Corea and Gary Burton get together, as they have every year for the last forty years, it’s a communion of music masters that has no peers. As the first — and possibly — the only permanent piano/vibes duo, the two’s unbroken collaboration has been slotted in between many career-defining turns of the individual artists themselves, and many more memorable side endeavors (we’ve devoted a lot of space just chronicling the goings on of Corea’s last few years alone, and plenty more still for Burton).
Every so often, this partnership produces a record, the last one being a double-CD set that preserves two separate live performances. This debut for Concord, The New Crystal Silence (2008), updates many of the mostly Corea originals the two have performed during their ECM days. The upcoming Hot House, by contrast, documents a return to the studio and presents a whole new set of songs added to their repertoire. It’s a way to keep their alliance fresh and interesting without tampering with special rapport that defines it.
The songs themselves aren’t really “new,” they’ve have been around a while, from the ’40s, 50s and 60s. Nine songs were chosen from eight great composers (Antonio Carlos Jobim is represented twice), with mostly “deeper cuts” selected, songs you may have heard before, but not too many times.
[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Need a refresher on the fabled Chick Corea/Gary Burton partnership? Check out ‘Crystal Silence, The ECM Recordings 1972-79,’ a four-disc box set of their seminal 1970s output.]
Well, OK, perhaps “Eleanor Rigby” has been covered only slightly less then “Yesterday,” even within jazz circles. Corea and Burton still manage to steal the song from Sir Paul and take ownership of it, mostly by ratcheting up the tempo and losing none of the seriousness inherent in the melody. Corea’s right hand goes in tandem with Burton’s quad-mallet attack, while his left hand conjures up an original repeating bass figure. Sublime.
In actuality, their creative arrangements, interplay, and somersaults around chord progressions is a point of appeal for any of their records together. Hot House carves out its niche in the selection of songs. “Time Remembered,” with its esoteric, winding harmony, is cut out for the cool, sophisticated approach of Burton and Corea. “Strange Meadow Lark,” which is incidentally my favorite Brubeck original, is treated with tender majesty in the hands of the duo. “Can’t We Be Friends” always conjures up memories of Ella Fitzgerald’s famous 1956 meeting with Louis Armstrong, since their album begins with this tune, but Corea and Burton opt for the stride approach to this song championed earlier by Art Tatum, and the two swing with the confidence of a big band.
When referencing great composers of this period, Thelonious Monk can’t be ignored, and his lesser-known “Light Blue” reveals how well his eccentric melodies work in this setting, as the two can combine to make any melody better delineated. For one of those two Jobim’s, “Once I Loved,” they employ a different tact, as Corea plays a rhythm part and Burton handles the melody mainly by himself. Tadd Dameron’s “Hot House” contains a happy mistake as both dove right into their respective solos at the same time right after the first go around of the theme. Even in this instance where they didn’t mean to, they play so well around each other, and the take was kept so we can marvel at that.
Right at the end, there’s an anomaly: “Mozart Goes Dancing” is a new Corea original, and one that’s accompanied by strings (provided by the Harlem String Quartet). Corea and Burton have already made plans to record a full album next year with this configuration, a follow-up to their Lyric Suite For Sextet from 1982. Happily, the strings do not get in the way with the telepathy that goes on with Corea and Burton, but at this point, nothing could. Four decades of doing this means that nothing like a string ensemble can throw them off their game. For that matter, different songs recorded in a sterile studio environment did nothing to break their stride, either.
Crisply performed and recorded, with fine song selections to boot. All of which makes Hot House as much of a pleasure to listen to as their first recorded encounter, Crystal Silence.
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Hot House goes on sale September 4, by Concord Jazz.