The Earshot Jazz Festival, which began more than a month ago, wrapped up Wednesday night, Nov. 6, at Benaroya Hall with a dazzling performance by pianist Chick Corea and the Seattle Symphony.
The centerpieces were collaborations on George Gershwin’s masterpiece, “Rhapsody in Blue,” and Corea’s “Piano Concerto No. 1,” but Corea and the orchestra also did separate turns, Corea delivering a rhapsodic interlude on Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch Over Me” and the symphony opening with Mozart’s overture to “Don Giovanni.”
Ever since Gershwin premiered his popular hybrid of jazz and symphonic music in 1924, musicians from both sides of the aisle have wrestled with how best to meld the two genres, which take markedly different approaches to rhythm and improvisation.
Corea, who has won 26 Grammy Awards in his long career and is accomplished in both jazz and classical music, offered some novel and elegant solutions. On his own piece, which thankfully does not include the tacked-on jazz rhythm section so common to jazz-classical crossovers, he played it relatively “straight,” yet still retained the flavors of a jazz pulse and phrasing in the written parts. On the Gershwin, normally played as written, Corea improvised freely and playfully, with conductor Steven Mercurio artfully cueing the orchestra. The result was pure delight.
After the Seattle Symphony’s crisp edition of the Mozart — an appropriately sparkling classical salvo for a jazz-themed concert — the elfin, grey-haired, 78-year-old pianist, wearing sneakers and a sport coat, created a casual and intimate atmosphere by “tuning up” the audience with a singalong. He later confessed that for years he never really cared for “Rhapsody in Blue,” but when he finally looked at the written score, he realized, “I grew up (playing) Gershwin. He was from the Lower East Side. He was a jazz pianist.”
That’s how Corea approached the piece, as if he were having an animated conversation with an old piano compadre, adding bluesy embellishments and cadenzas at will, but also executing lickety-split, rat-a-tat passages with accuracy and relaxed abandon. Mercurio and the orchestra followed suit with appropriate inflections and dynamics, highlighting what a circus of great songwriting Gershwin’s eclectic piece really is. After the final, grand theme rose and fell, the crowd leapt to its feet with an exultant — and well-deserved — standing ovation.
Corea’s own concerto, composed in 1989 and recorded with Mercurio at the helm a decade later, also received a warm welcome. A conversational composition with glinting winds recalling French impressionism, plus lively marimba, vibraphone and Latin percussion, the piece avoids the long, virtuoso displays typical of many concertos, and integrates piano and orchestra well. Until the vivacious, splashy and percussive third (and last) movement, however, those melodies are not particularly memorable.
The same cannot be said about Corea’s “Spain,” one of the most popular and singable tunes in modern jazz, which he and the orchestra offered as an encore. Orchestra members James Benoit (vibraphone), John Turman (French horn) and Efe Baltacigil (cello) offered infectious solos and Corea led the crowd in another playful singalong, which made for a sweet conclusion to an altogether lovely evening.