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Trio captivates with its playful improv

April 18, 2008|Don Heckman | Special to The Times

It was pretty obvious from the names of the headliners -- singer Bobby McFerrin, pianist Chick Corea and drummer Jack DeJohnette -- that their performance at Walt Disney Concert Hall Wednesday night would be an unusual event. But who knew how unusual?

Start with the segment in which Corea and DeJohnette, each brandishing drumsticks, began a mock sword fight that wound up with the pair rolling around on the stage. McFerrin accompanied the encounter by using his voice to produce guttural sounds straight out of a samurai movie.

Another example: When Corea began to play a ragtime pattern, McFerrin joined him in a four-handed duet, knocking out riffs on the high notes. As Corea worked his way up the keyboard, McFerrin darted around behind him, picking up the rhythm on the low notes. Then Corea did the same. The Laurel and Hardy-like burlesque continued, as they circled around behind each other, maintaining the flow of the music as they took alternate turns across the keyboard.

Obviously not what one encounters on a typical night at Disney. Nor was it intended to be. After the performance, Corea said that the only plan that was made in advance was that there would be no plan -- an improvised encounter between three top-level artists.

The resulting 90-plus-minute, nonstop event tapped elements from all those perspectives: virtuosic individual solos from each artist; startling sounds and textures ranging from subtle lyricism to outright bombast; musical interaction with the audience; and -- as in the samurai fight -- moments suggesting '60s "happenings" filtered through Laurie Anderson performance art.

The humorous segments served as visual act breaks between improvised trio episodes that produced moments of stunning music. McFerrin's pitch-precise vocals twisted in and out of Corea's lush chording and hand-plucked piano string sounds. DeJohnette's layered percussive textures glued it all together.

None of this was far from the off-center musical mixtures that McFerrin serves up in his solo performances. It was startling, however, to see Corea and DeJohnette -- who more commonly present themselves with the cool, into-the-music demeanor of most jazz players -- participate in the high jinks.

But the full effect of the evening's musical interaction was best illustrated at the close of the performance. The crowd, eager for an encore, urged the trio to come back by spontaneously singing a musical phrase McFerrin had taught them a few minutes earlier. It was a lovely affirmation of the unstructured but utterly compelling event that had just taken place.

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