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JAZZ REVIEW : Elektric Band Has Lots of Spark but Lacks Soul

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Chick’s Corea’s Elektric Band comes off like a wayward gathering of Mensa, the society for geniuses.

Corea and his four band-mates--drummer Dave Weckl, bassist John Patitucci, guitarist Frank Gambale and saxophonist Eric Marienthal--are certifiable geniuses when it comes to technical mastery.

But all the genius in the world is no guarantee of memorable results, as Corea, who turned 50 this year, and his young charges proved Saturday night at Sound FX.

Concentrating on material from their new, fifth release, “Beneath the Mask,” Corea and the Elektric band seemed more interested in technical one-upsmanship than emotional impact. The new songs feature tightly scripted ensemble work, with Corea, Marienthal, Gambale and Patitucci running down complex, fragmented melodies, often at breakneck speed, but with little room left for their cerebral cyclones to hit home.

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During an opening set consisting of a half dozen songs from “Beneath the Mask,” the band quickly established its technical prowess.

Equipped with an unusual six-string electric bass, Patitucci serves as both a funky, slap-bass timekeeper and a full-range melodic lead player. Marienthal spews urgent streams of notes from both alto and soprano saxes. Fleet-fingered Gambale has heavy metal leanings, often steering this turbocharged jazz/rock unit in MTV/Spandex directions.

But Weckl is this machine’s nuclear power source. From behind his sizable drum kit, he thrashes out all manner of rhythmic combinations, his hands and feet serving as four independent but tightly interacting metronomes.

Although 20 years older than when he first fronted his legendary Return to Forever groups, Corea hasn’t lost the proverbial step. Whether improvising with a basic electric piano sound that called to mind his earlier years, or employing dense layers of electronic effects, he remains a swift, unpredictable soloist. In his search for a fountain of youth, Corea even slings a portable keyboard over his shoulder on some numbers, going toe-to-toe with Gambale and Patitucci.

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So where’s the problem? Most of the Elektric Band’s songs come off as superhuman studio riffing--five hot shots out to prove who has the most awesome licks. The results can be dizzying, even breathtaking, but also frequently pretentious and emotionally vacant.

The evening’s best moments came when the music was stripped to bare essentials.

Corea’s unadorned, synthesized introduction to “99 Steps” from “Beneath the Mask” was lyrical and moving.

Accompanied only by Gambale’s acoustic guitar, Corea provided another memorable introduction to “A Wave Goodbye,” a slow, sentimental tune from the new release, featuring solos by Gambale and Marienthal.

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The group’s shortcomings were highlighted in an ironic way during the second set, when the group played a pair of songs Corea wrote recently as a tribute to trumpeter Miles Davis, who died in September.

These called to mind some of Davis’s most moving music: his laid-back 1950s cool jazz, his 1960 collaboration with arranger Gil Evans on “Sketches of Spain” and his pioneering mid-1960s electric jazz.

Corea was in Davis’s late-1960s electric group. He should have learned two essentials from his mentor: the importance of space, and the value of exploiting melodic hooks.

Davis was a master of understatement. Two or three properly placed notes from his trumpet carried more emotional weight than any of the frenzied gymnastics undertaken by the Elektric Band. The Man With The Horn also had a knack for choosing or writing great melodies, and arranging the music to wring the most from both the material and players.

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If Corea and his musical mates can find more subtle, effective means of exploiting their phenomenal talents, their concerts and recordings may move beyond a Mensa-like several geniuses talking at once.


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