Thursday, July 26, 2012

Better as a Single: "My Spanish Heart" by Chick Corea

Chick Corea's My Spanish Heart needed to be a double-length album merely for the fact that he could not otherwise have shoehorned three completely disparate genres into a single vinyl record. Well... three is other people's math; not mine. This is apparently a 'fusion fusion' record, jazz-rock fusion further fused with the Spanish music tradition of Corea's ancestors. However, maybe it's because so many years have passed since Bitches Brew but fusion doesn't feel like two different genres in one to me: it mostly feels like jazz played on inappropriate instruments. In the case of Corea, a keyboardist, it appears to be trad jazz when he sits at a normal piano but 'fusion' when he sits at the horribly squelchy 1970s electronic keyboards that have, more than thirty years later, rendered much 1970s work unlistenable.

Happily, Corea plays both kinds of keyboard (and more) here. The genres on display here range from authentically Spanish to authentically synthwank, but most of the tracks fall, true 'fusion' style, somewhere in between. More to the point, Corea takes his varying keyboard instruments, assembles a jazz band, tosses in a string section and a brass section, spices it up with some Iberian percussion, and then adds a handful of female backing vocalists whose sole purpose is to melodically proclaim 'aaah' from time to time on what remains an instrumental package. Then, he reassembles these ingredients in a different combination for each track, giving the package a feeling of highly diverse eclecticism, even as tracks run into each other or are bundled together in four-part 'suites'.

Now, I have to be honest with you: I don't know a thing about Spanish music, and I don't know a thing about jazz. Both have their terminology and their particular approaches to discussion; I'm clueless to all of that. But where a jazz aficionado might find himself obliged to take the Spanish elements in without understanding their origin, and where the Spanish music fan might feel the need to take in the more American jazz moments without asking too many questions, I personally find that I have something in common with both of those people.

But so what? The excitement of discovery is very much what this disc, with its rather horrid front cover picture of Corea in a toreador outfit, presents the listener with. So let's discover, shall we?

My Spanish Heart

Side one
  1. Spanish Fantasy, Part One (6:06)
  2. Love Castle (4:45)
  3. The Gardens (3:12)
  4. Wind Danse (5:00)
Side two
  1. The Hilltop (6:16)
  2. Armando's Rhumba (5:19)
  3. El Bozo, Part Three (5:03)
  4. My Spanish Heart (1:37)
Love Castle: keep (side one, track two)

The first three tracks on this package run together in a kind of 'suite', but throughout this package I've felt free to ignore suites. In any case, this is a strong opener, primarily piano with fretless bass and hyperactive drums until the second half, when it rises and rises to include a not-too-annoying synth (the only time we'll hear it on the whole side one of the double) and, very briefly, the brass. Throughout, however, the stars of the performance are the 'aah' girls, giving the whole piece an enjoyably memorable 'hook'.

It's an arresting beginning for the double, though it's not my beginning. Instead, it's my track two.

The Gardens: keep (side one, track three)

After 'Love Castle', this brings the tempo right down, maintaining the piano and the fretless but this time bringing in a wonderfully expressive violin to set the mood. Though Corea's rather incredible piano playing is more than up to the task by itself. Toward the end the tempo picks up, and the spell is shattered a little, but it remains excellent, the sound of three talented musicians in the same room at the same time working off of each other. I know, I know, that's what jazz is, right?

As it is on the double, I have kept these two tracks side by side, let them run together as Corea envisaged. That means. of course, that it's my side one, track three.

Day Danse: lose

'Danse' is with an 's', and I presume that this track is a faithful take on a particular Spanish idiom. The instrumentation remains more or less the same, though there are two violins this time, and we also hear the first of those handclaps-as-percussion that are so prominent in Spanish music. It's easy to imagine this being performed in a small, intimate room to the accompaniment of Spanish dancers. But for me, it's a bit too disjointed to fully work as a piece, though it has moments of extreme beauty.

My Spanish Heart: keep (side two, track four)

Not like this, though, which is one hundred seconds of truly sublime beauty. I'd call this an 'étude' if I really knew what that meant, but it's a simple and gorgeous piece for solo piano until the 'aah' girls come in and somehow manage to render the listener absolutely speechless. This is absolutely gorgeous music, not a moment wasted, designed for maximum emotional effect.

It might not be that everyone out there loves this particular piece as much as I do, but really it's the finest part of the album. And as such, I give it pride of placement as the final track on the whole album. So where the double finishes with grand statements, my single finishes with a fragile little wisp of a goodbye.

Night Streets: lose

The name just sounds like dated and overinflated 1970s pre-punk studio music, doesn't it? And it doesn't disappoint: yes, there is a piano, there is brass, and there are bursts of Spanish percussion. But this is very much a 'fusion' piece, and its squeaky would-be funk is precisely why the genre is so maligned.

The Hilltop: keep (side two, track one)

Corea clearly didn't invest all that much effort in making names for these tracks. I don't know if this song really evokes a hilltop, but perhaps it evokes a journey up to one; again the ingredients are primarily piano and fretless bass, but the overall mood is kind of 'new age' - which is not an insult by any means - and the piece is indeed evocative of a journey. I don't detect much Spanish influence here, really, or much jazz-rock fusion either. But that's not a problem, because Corea's piano part is highly melodic and quite enjoyable. Who'd have thought I'd be calling something 'new age' and yet still liking it?

I don't have any particular reason for starting side two with this piece, above and beyond the fact that that's what Corea does too.

The Sky: lose

Okay, I'll be straight with you: the reason I'm not including 'The Sky' is that I've never heard 'The Sky', so I don't know if it's any good or not. How is that possible? Well, in the early days of the CD, a disc's upper limit was 73 minutes, so the odd double that clocked in at, say, 75 minutes would actually be released with tracks removed as opposed to on two discs. So the version of My Spanish Heart that I own does not feature this track at all. And it's not on YouTube or anything... so I'm left with a fair supposition: that if this is the one track that the record company decided was least essential, it's not likely to show up among my list of most essential tracks, right? Well, hopefully.

Wind Danse: keep (side one, track four)

The 'aah' girls are all over this particular piece, which makes it of a piece with the opening 'Love Castle'. Like that first piece, as well, squeaky synths are all over the place. It's a decently composed piece but you can't overcome the nagging feeling that it merely crosses a boundary of good taste, at least by the standards of 2012. It's what you might call 'kitschy', though that word is often used when people attempt to defend what really, artistically, can't be.

And yet I include it. I found this a very confusing album, really, filled with moments of sublime beauty reinforced with horribly aged artistic decisions. If nothing else, at least tracks two, three and four on my side one (of which this is the fourth) do make a kind of 'suite' of my own imagining. One that doesn't really have much to do with jazz or Spanish music, but is certainly of its era. And having them side by side like this allows you to shuck off your cynicism and just enjoy them for what they are, whatever exactly that is.

Armando's Rhumba: keep (side two, track two)

I have no idea what a 'rhumba' is, though I guess this is one. From start to finish, this seems authentically Spanish to me, with most of the hallmarks I associate with Spanish music. The violin and the handclaps are well prominent, and you half expect people to start calling out 'olé!' (they don't). It's easy enough merely to enjoy the genre, but in addition it's in service of an expressive and joyful vertical melody line that I dare say would be enjoyable regardless of genre. The track is five and a half minutes long and yet seems to go by in a blink of an eye.

After a side one that attempted a consistent feel, my side two is very much 'all over the place'. To that end, then, track two is the perfect place for this particular piece.

Prelude to El Bozo: lose
El Bozo, Part One: lose
El Bozo, Part Two: lose
El Bozo, Part Three: keep (side two, track three)

Excepting 'Armando's Rhumba', the entire second disc is given over to two extended multi-part 'suites'. Normally that might disqualify a double from consideration here, but in this case each of the two 'suites' is divided into four parts, which I feel free to break up and consider as distinct 'entities' (Chick Corea might hate me for that). So really, for me, they are eight different 'songs', really. The first four, a suite called 'El Bozo', feature some of the double's most grating moments. The prelude is a piano piece of little consequence, but the next two parts are short segments for sci-fi sounding farting synths, sounding like something out of Doctor Who. At two minutes in length each, they still last far too long and threaten to render the entire 'El Bozo' suite as unlistenable synthwank, until the five-minute long Part III comes along. Featuring the robotic synth, on yet another setting, as its lead instrument, this much-longer part would seem to be 'more of the same'. And yet by bringing in a Spanish rhythmic feeling and putting a big-hearted melody over top of it, the piece winds up reminiscent of the very best moments of 1970s 'Sesame Street' cartoons or after-school documentaries. And that is no insult either; the piece is sweet and difficult to resist, outdated synth burbling an attraction now and not a detraction.

So indeed what I do is take the lengthy part three, as track three on my b-side, and can the rest. And then the extreme stylistic variations in my side two start to seem the very point: as if the varied elements that were 'fused' to create this project were unfused on side two: authentic Spanish music, urban American synth music side by side.

Spanish Fantasy, Part One: keep (side one, track one)
Spanish Fantasy, Part Two: lose
Spanish Fantasy, Part Three: lose
Spanish Fantasy, Part Four: lose

At just shy of twenty minutes, 'Spanish Fantasy' is by far the album's most ambitious moment, a culmination of sorts of all of the album's various moods and feels in a piece that is highly composed and structured as opposed to improvised. The first 'movement', the highlight of the whole suite, is the most dramatic and most authentically Spanish moment, taking as much from classical idioms as from folk idioms (and sounding like no kind of jazz at all) and using every acoustic instrument in the whole studio - strings, piano, brass, bass, percussion - in service of a highly complex piece that jerks back and forth from mood to intricate mood. It's a display of virtuosity, yes, but one that never fails to be melodic. Within seconds of the beginning of Part II, a rock drum kit enters along with a booming synth, and these two new elements serve as the main focus of the movement: this is practically one five-minute-long drum fill. And while the drum work is rhythmically inventive, it appears that the balance of virtuosity and melodicism has been discarded. Part II is impressive but not overly enjoyable. Part III is three minutes of dramatic and intricate solo piano, shining the 'virtuoso' spotlight on the album's band leader himself. And yet the same caveat applies: where this is technically impressive, it feels more than a bit like showing off. Part IV, the conclusion of the piece and of the whole double album, has the same complex feel of Part I, but this time combining the 'fusion' instruments (i.e. the synth and the drum kit) with the Spanish instruments. The drum is hyperkinetic in a surprisingly 21st century way, and yet the keyboard conspires to give the listener a headache - in a sadly unsurprising 1970s way. The piece winds down in an attractively dramatic way, but by then it's too late.

The only part of this suite that catches my attention is the first part - and that first part works so hard to be a 'dramatic opening' that it made sense for me to make it my album's opener, as track one on side one. It's a bit deceptive, since it isn't jazz at all and sounds little like the remainder of the album. So it serves as a kind of 'psyche!' opening, I suppose.


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