Tuesday, August 31, 2004


Last night was the closing performance of Lincoln Center Out of Doors, a free series of music and dance and other free performance on the Lincoln Center grounds. The series had been trying to present Chick Corea for some time, the announcer said, and last night they finally had him and his Elektric Band.

In high school, I loved Chick Corea and the Elektric Band. See, Chick played for Miles, then formed Return to Forever, and has otherwise always been on the forefront of fusion jazz, while keeping his toes in acoustic jazz (with Michael Brecker, with the Akoustic Band, with Origins, among others) and classical music (most notably in my CD collection, a number of string quartet pieces for John Patitucci). I’m no longer the fusion fan I used to be, and would have rather seen Chick in another musical setting, but he’s Chick. And it was free.

He played two sets, separated by the announcement that usually he’d have a fifteen minute intermission, so pretend we were getting a cup of coffee or something. The first 45 minutes included three songs from earlier albums, my favorite of which was the third, “C.T.A.” The last 75 minutes came from Chick’s new album, a “tone-poem” based on his favorite L. Ron Hubbard novel (yes, Chick’s a devoted Scientologist).

Complaints first: the band is treble-heavy. Except when Chick is playing a piano, rather than a keyboard, the music feels like it could tip over on the slightest curve. The acoustics of the piano fix the problem with a tone that fills up the mid-level and bass harmonics. Unfortunately, Chick only played the piano on a couple songs, including the last two of the night, which also happened to be two of the group’s strongest. And I don’t like Eric Marienthal. The only thing that keeps him from being smooth jazz is the fact that he’s playing with Chick; his fingers fly, but his tone, his attack, his slides, his vibrato all suggest Dave Koz and Kenny G.

That said, I love Frank Gambale. He reminds me of John Scofield, a steady distortion and runs that would make your most devoted metalhead blush, only using harmonics he (the metalhead) couldn’t even imagine. He’s even better on acoustic. I remember the (uninitiated’s) shock at hearing Clapton play acoustic, knowing soloing on acoustic’s harder than on electric. Clapton doesn’t hold a candle to Gambale. And the bass player (who replaced Patitucci a couple months ago, apparently) can slap as well as anyone I’ve heard.

The second half made me think. President Spencer W. Kimball, both citing others who came before and explaining his vision of the potential of Mormon art, said that Mormonism had yet to create its artistic masterpieces. “For years I have been waiting for someone to do justice in recording in song and story and painting and sculpture the story of the Restoration,” he said. And I think his lament still holds—in spite of the recent outpouring of movies, music, even writing, artists have yet to live up to the grandeur of the Restoration (with a couple notable exceptions—Minerva Teichart leaps to mind, and nobody else). The problem, especially with the literature, film, and music? Excessive didacticism and insufficient artistic ability.

Chick, however, presented an amazing tribute to Scientology (true, he was competing with Travolta’s Battlefield Earth). I don’t think To the Stars will be immortal; in 50 years Chick will be remembered, but not for his Elektric Band material. Still, the music succeeds. And I think it succeeds because it’s an evocation; it’s metaphorical. It doesn’t try to tell me or teach me that Hubbard was right, it just tries to paint a picture of the characters of his book.

What am I arguing, then? That the great and memorable Mormon evocation of the Book of Mormon story, of Nauvoo and Jackson County Missouri, of the exodus west, will be jazz (or other lyricless music). Will be dance (also a metaphorical, rather than a didactic, art form) (meaning that it tends to fail when it tries to be didactic, not that it never tries). Will be non-representational art (imagine what Mark Rothko might have done with the Martyrdom). It will function like the Spirit, evoking and suggesting, rather than telling its audience what to think.