A pair of jazz pianists playing together always has the potential to be a problematic format.
Especially when the players in question are arguably the two best in the world: Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea. The danger is that it becomes like two orchestras playing at once, overly dense and complex.
For the most part, Hancock and Corea managed to avoid this trap at Melbourne international jazz festival. They opened playing pointillistic, dissonant phrases that intersected neatly with each other. A jerky dialogue was created between the two instruments, at times aimless, but at least well co-ordinated.
Their prodigious techniques were hard to separate, but Corea’s playing tended to the lyrical with Hancock’s more percussive. Both pianists also used electric instruments and synthesisers to create a range of musical colours, but this often seemed simply a way to vary the sound textures for the sake of it rather than a device with a clear musical purpose.
The challenge with such a potentially busy format is to establish an underlying structure, to outline slowly evolving patterns of tension and release. There were high levels of dexterity in their musical dialogue and they did not intrude on each other’s playing. But Hancock and Corea seemed to struggle when it came to defining a broader sense of direction, in part because they were concentrating on harmonic and intervallic invention rather than melody.
The problem was largely solved when they turned to the standards. In their renditions of Stella by Starlight, Mysterious Traveller and Miles Davis’s Solar, the melodies were scarcely recognisable, but developed instead as motifs in a theme and variation structure that exhibited far more shape. And in the final two pieces, their most well known compositions respectively, Canteloupe Island and Spain, the approach was closer to conventional jazz soloing.
The overall impression was one of meandering bravura. There is no doubting Corea’s and Hancock’s musical and technical skill, and their knowledge is deep. But the partnership did not entirely convince.
This article was written by David James, for theguardian.com on Monday 1st June 2015 00.42 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010