Tuesday August 28, 2012

LENOX -- I'll take this opportunity to admit I never had much use for the vibraphone. This was my gut feeling, reinforced whenever I heard it, though I've always suspected the bias betrayed a shortcoming in my aesthetic sophistication. How could I simply dismiss a bona fide instrument in the jazz canon, possessing its own history, performance traditions and supposedly must-hear masters?

The marimba I could cope with. But the dulcet tones of the vibes are best suited for the polite, soft-cornered mainstream jazz in which I hold little interest.

I did suspect that this distaste was a matter of context rather than the inherent limitations of the instrument itself. And this was proven to me Sunday night at Tanglewood's Ozawa Hall, where the duo of pianist Chick Corea and vibraphonist Gary Burton played one of the top shows in the Berkshires so far this year. They were joined for the second of two approximately 50-minute sets by the exciting Harlem String Quartet, in what seems to be shaping up as an audition/ rehearsal process for Corea's next major studio project.

Sure his tone was clean and pretty, but nothing about Burton's performance was in soft focus, whether playing lockstep recitations of a theme with Corea or darting back and forth between rhythm and lead, as the two did frequently.

The evening was mainly split between material from the duo's forthcoming standards album and pieces for string quartet Corea wrote 30 years ago. Though the Harlem String Quartet appears on the new album for only one track, recorded in a special session after the rest of the project was finished, they also shone this night on brand new arrangements such as the one for Thelonius Monk's " ‘Round Midnight."

Here, interludes of Corea's solo piano repeatedly injected a mid-1950s jazz club flair before yielding to the deepened textures offered by the strings. Throughout their selections, the string quartet added dramatic color without the stifled, suffocating tendencies sometimes present in chamber jazz. (Yes, even when playing a Corea composition called "Overture.") Their youthful panache and obvious delight at the musical product created helped keep a sweaty feel even while playing off of the score.

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A star of the night was Corea's compositional and arranging acumen. For his translation of The Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby," the pianist offered a tightly cycling bassline with his left hand while Burton romped luxuriously in the melody. If anything, the performance underlined the reality that the great Lennon/McCartney compositions are, at this point, as much a part of the Great American Songbook as anything by Cole Porter or the Gershwins.

All the talents onstage converged brilliantly for Corea's "Mozart Goes Dancing," the one tune on the new album featuring string quartet. The fully realized arrangement made best use of all musical voices present, while Burton's eminently swinging solo was his highlight of the night, recalling the phrasing of a piano player. When he and Corea traded fours deep in the song, the nature of their musical partnership was underlined -- a gracious interplay, with an ever-shifting spotlight and exchange of virtuosities that sounds effortless in its nimble flexibility.

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One last number, which Corea appeared to call spontaneously, featured a series of urgently cascading lines between himself, Burton and the strings. If Corea's claim that this concert, the duo's first with Harlem String Quartet, amounted to the combo's "first rehearsal," than this piece succeeded only through the players' sheer confidence and musicality. More than at any other point in the evening, they risked falling apart, but didn't -- which made the single-minded success all the more exciting.