Notes and Editorial Reviews
Live recording from the Munich Klaviersommer 1982.
Picture format: NTSC 4:3
Sound format: PCM Stereo
Region code: 0 (worldwide)
Running time: 154 mins
No. of DVDs: 1 (DVD 9)
CHICK COREA & FRIEDRICH GULDA: THE MEETING • Chick Corea, Friedrich Gulda (pn) • ARTHAUS MUSIK 101634 (DVD: 150:00) Live: Munich 6/27/1982
This appears to be the first video release of this famous improvised duo
recital by Friedrich Gulda and Chick Corea, which took place in June of 1982. The CD from this concert was issued some years back on Philips 410397, and is still available at ArkivMusic as a special reissue. What made it so special then, and continues to make it special today, is the feeling of discovery the pianists have in each other’s playing and the interesting synthesis they create together. Prior to their meeting, Gulda knew Corea’s work but Corea had never even heard of Gulda, despite the Austrian pianist’s having played at Birdland back in the 1950s. As a classically trained pianist who combined formal and improvised music in his recitals, Gulda was not merely ahead of his time; I can’t think of too many pianists who do this even today.
The problem with being a pioneer, however, particularly a pioneer raised in a form of foreign high culture, was that Gulda was only partially comfortable with the jazz idiom. He could indeed improvise, but more often than not his rhythms were much closer to Bach or Mozart than to Brubeck or Bill Evans. He did achieve a loose rhythmic feel in his famous interpretation of the Doors’s Light My Fire (not included here), as well as in his jazz-influenced piano preludes, published under the title Play Piano Play, and his jazz-influenced Prelude and Fugue, but by and large Gulda’s own music tends toward formal rhythms. This is not meant as a criticism, only a description, but I think you can see in his face—after a coin flip picked him to play first—that this isn’t want he really wanted. I think Gulda would have been more comfortable had Corea gone first, because he knew that the Latin-American pianist was a real jazz master and it would have given him something to follow.
As it is, Gulda’s solo set emerges as a mixed bag. He sandwiches Mozart’s complete Sonata No. 10, K 330, in between improvised paraphrases on his own Concerto for Ursula, a gentle, almost lullaby-like theme around which Gulda plays strong and sometimes strongly contrapuntal lines—but it all sounds rather formal. So, too, do his own pieces Dance and Aria; but Etude No. 1 from Play Piano Play is in a different world, as is his Prelude and Fugue. This is jazz-classical music of a very high order, the kind of music that I’m sure influenced Nikolai Kapustin. Gulda ends his set with an in-between piece, a paraphrase on a traditional tune called Die Reblaus, which continually alternates back and forth between formal and improvised feeling.
But, it turns out, Corea was fascinated by the more formal structures that Gulda played, and in fact it was this performance of the Mozart sonata that led him to explore classical music. In time, Corea and Gulda played Mozart together (in 1984 and 1995) and even improvised music in the spirit of Mozart. Thus, this concert was an ear-opener for both pianists into a musical world that had formerly been out of earshot of each other.
Corea’s set begins with a long improvisation, titled in the booklet as being “on ’Round Midnight,” but Monk’s famous tune doesn’t even emerge until the halfway mark, and later on there is as much of an improvisation on the same composer’s Trinkle, Tinkle. Suffice it to say that Corea is at his most inventive and ingenious here. Improvisation 3 contains some references to his own famous tune La Fiesta, and in Improvisation 4 he employs his little trick of holding down the piano strings with a finger while he plays percussive figures on the keyboard. This final piece also has the strongest Latin rhythm, and again there are references to some of his famed Latin-tinged compositions. It erupts in a flurry of keyboard fireworks, but ends as quietly as it began. The audience goes berserk.
Yet the duet part of the program is, by far, the most absorbing and fascinating—to watch as well as to hear. Corea and Gulda, facing each other across the top of dueling Steinways, begin a musical conversation initiated with Corea playing a few tentative notes, a brief reply played by Gulda, another slightly longer response from Corea, a slightly longer one by Gulda, and they’re off and running! This is truly instantaneous improvisation, “without a safety net” as the liner notes so aptly put it, in which anything can happen—including Gulda imitating Corea by holding down piano strings while he plays, in one brief passage. The opening piece is given in the program as Frank Churchill’s famous Someday My Prince Will Come (from Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs), but as with Corea’s improvisation on ’Round Midnight they only arrive at that tune eventually (at the 9:47 mark), and by degrees. One of the more remarkable passages comes where Gulda, again reaching into the piano frame, plucks out some soft bass notes that perfectly complement what Corea is playing on his keyboard, after which the two pianists briefly engage in an improvised canon. Then we finally hear the famed Churchill tune, and with Corea to help him along Gulda really swings. There’s yet another remarkable passage where Corea falls into an ostinato rhythm groove, Gulda plays counterpoint, and they suddenly grin at each other across the pianos and begin to sound like one pianist with four hands. With Gulda’s help, the music even moves into a brief fugue before again relaxing the tempo and ending as quietly as—but more musically assured than—it began.
If anything, the second duo-improvisation is even further out than the first; despite the completely spontaneous nature of the performance, the music is even more technically involved and brilliantly conceived. After those first 15 minutes, Corea and Gulda are on each other’s wavelength, and neither feels the least bit inhibited in just cutting loose because they’ve come to trust each other’s musical instincts. What occurs in this second piece would take three paragraphs to analyze, but suffice it to say that their blistering pace and rapid exchange of ideas produce the kind of music that Alkan and Liszt could only have dreamed of. What impresses me most in this piece is the rapidity of the turnarounds, how quickly they are able to respond to each other’s musical ideas without ever losing sight of where they are headed. This is improvised piano jazz on the highest level of art, with absolutely no concessions to popular taste. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that this is the kind of musical dialog that usually occurs only in private settings, without either an audience or microphones. That both of these were present, and that it was achieved in a large hall filled to capacity, is a miracle of our time. Eventually, they settle into Larry Spier’s Put Your Little Foot Right Out, yet in a way this almost sounds like a mental release (one might say relaxation) of the musical tension that had built up so ferociously. Thus this piece almost seems to be a medley—a wild and completely unpredictable free jazz piece, followed by a more genial and relaxed improv on a standard tune.
Improvisation No. 3, listed in the program as Poem No. 3 by Fritz Pauer, is now initiated by Gulda. Corea listens intently, then jumps in and follows. Here, again, the rhythm is more formal—at least at first. In almost no time at all (a minute or two), Corea has loosened up the tempo and Gulda follows him into no man’s land. Again, descriptions are difficult because so much is happening, but once again the percussive use of the piano becomes a fulcrum for rhythmic variants that somehow morph into almost abstract structures that flit in and out of the listener’s consciousness. Gulda smiles across the piano at Corea, continuing to pluck the strings but more gently than before, thus signaling to Corea to keep it going, to take one more chorus. He’s so obviously enjoying the American’s playing that he doesn’t want to intrude on his mood, yet it almost comes to a complete stop before Gulda plays a single note as an indication to Corea that he’s ready to take over. His spontaneously created melody is gentle, almost ballad-like in feeling and structure. The dropped ball is thus picked up, and the dialog continues—in a different vein from before, but no less creative. Almost ironically, they end with a very gentle performance of the Brahms Lullaby.
In short, this is an absolute gem of a DVD. I give the Gulda solo set three stars (it’s good if not wholly in the spirit of the concert), the Corea solo set six stars, and the duo performance 10. You may not necessarily want to watch either solo set too often, but the duo improvisation will literally have you on the edge of your seat every time you view it (provided you don’t view it too often, of course).
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