Corea's Elektric Band Fires When Live

By Bob Bahr

Like a lot of people in the audience of Chick Corea's fantastic concert November 4 at Jim Porter's, I wasted no time in tracking down a copy of Corea's latest album in the days after the show. The Chick Corea Elektric Band was electrifying that evening (or elektrifying, as Corea might have put it), and I looked forward to having a piece of that fire in my record collection.

Unfortunately, "Beneath the Mask" is no such thing. The 1991 album by the Chick Corea Elektric Band is as sterile as Corea's stage show is vital, as boring as their performance was invigorating. I say that as a warning to those who may try to recreate the live experience using Corea's recordings. Don't try it at home.

Rather, hang on to your memories of the packed-house performance in Jim Porter's Ballroom. That's when the five impeccable musicians of the Elektric Band swaggered and smiled their way through jazz that was fused with funk, rock, Latin, and classical music. Chick and his group also fused the '50s with the '60s, '70s, '80s and '90s, mixing bebop with early fusion, funky jazz with pop jazz.

In the hands of bassist John Patitucci, saxaphonist Eric Marienthal, drummer Dave Weckl, guitarist Frank Gambale and keyboardist Corea, these disparate elements were woven together with lightning fast chops and buckets of good taste. The lively quartet knows that speed and facility on their respective instruments may drop jaws at first, but melody is what casts a captivating spell.

Melodic spells were dispensed regularly by Corea, a veteran of Miles Davis' quintets and an early pioneer of fusion. The 50-year-old keyboardist used a MIDI-Rhodes keyboard for most of the program, giving the proceedings an early-Miles-fusion feel. Corea adeptly mixed the classic Rhodes sounds with the newest electronic gadgets, even performing a "classical quartet piece" on his remote MIDI keyboard with bassist Patitucci. Hearing a string quartet and seeing these two guys playing electric equipment had me checking to see if my head was screwed on straight.

Elsewhere, guitarist Gambale utilized his considerable chops with understatement, delivering classic '70s guitar solos that were as clear as a bell. Weckl stayed behind on the stage for a drum solo that was definitely more rock 'n' roll than jazz. Marienthal fared the worst when soloing, often riding a rut that was full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. His one-dimensional sax playing was energetic and crowd pleasing, but easily the weakest link of the five.

Bassist Patitucci was nothing short of amazing, popping all over his 5- and 6-string basses with funky speed. Interestingly, Patitucci's playing was completely free of Jaco-isms, the trademark licks and funk tricks that bass innovator Jaco Pastorius taught the last generation of bassists. Instead, his playing gave a nod to Stanley Clarke, then embarked on its own course. Patitucci walked a bass line only once the entire evening, and the cascading, swinging notes were as fast and lucid as the sun on a ripply lake.

Chops aside, the most noticeable thing about Chick Corea's Elektric Band is their tightness. The band has been together six years, and you can tell it. Players would often finish statements started by another, and two players often played written lines in perfect unison. In the first set, Marienthal's soprano sax sounded like it had a chorus effect on it, but it was Corea playing Marienthal's line very closely on keyboards. Incredible.

When the Elektric Band plays written lines in unison, as all four of the front line instruments did on one song in the second set, the energy is nearly tangible, visible. Corea and his cohorts are often charged with selling out. Maybe they have. Their merchandise display in the doorway was bigger than some rock acts, and their light and smoke (yes, smoke!) show was bigger than some rock acts too.

But when those five guys took the stage at Jim Porter's, I felt no compromise. Granted, it's not often that one sees jazz musicians visibly having fun on stage, but the Chick Corea Elektric Band was playing some hot jazz, and questionable recordings and profiteering merchandising quickly became forgotten fringe elements. The Elektric Band was for real.