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Hands Full of KEYS

“The Year of the Piano” begins briskly on Amelia Island


Since its 2001 founding, the annual Amelia Island Chamber Music Festival has been one of the real not-so-hidden gems of Northeast Florida’s cultural scene. And now, 2018 has been designated “The Year of the Piano.” And the esteemed board of directors and Christopher Rex, general and artistic director, are not kidding.

Season 17 kicks off in mid-January showcasing one of the most influential pianists of the modern era, however one cares to define the phrase. Armando Anthony “Chick” Corea achieved global prominence by holding fast to his values and refusing to compromise his particular peculiar musical vision, despite ample pressure to do so.

Playing the Omni’s Magnolia Ballroom on Friday night, Jan. 19, Corea brings a half-century’s worth of professional experience to the AICMF stage. “What people can expect at the concert is an extraordinary display of improvisation at the piano by a consummate artist,” says Dr. Joe Marasco, the festival’s Executive Director. “He does not have a written program; he will sit down at the piano and play.” You may have noticed that Corea’s picture has appeared on the front cover of Folio Weekly several times in recent weeks, being the centerpiece of AICMF’s advertising. The man has put in so much work (87 albums as a leader, 67 as a sideman), it’s easier to recap what he hasn’t done than what he has, but let’s give it a try.

Born in 1941, Chick Corea’s first decade as a professional musician was a period of exhaustive creative diversity, moving him from Cab Calloway and Willie Bobo to Larry Coryell and Anthony Braxton. Technically, his official debut as a leader was on Tones for Joan’s Bones (Vortex, 1966), but it was 1968’s Now He Sings, Now He Sobs that etched him forever on the musical cornerstone at the tender age of 27. Featuring ace bassist Miroslav Vitous and Jax Jazz Fest veteran Roy Haynes (also a force of nature who’s still touring in his 93rd year) on drums, it easily ranks among the top five piano trio albums ever recorded, and it remains the best point of entry a tyro can take into Corea’s voluminous output for the ensuing 50 years.

By the time Now He Sings, Now He Sobs was released, Corea had already succeeded Herbie Hancock on the piano stool for Miles Davis, in the process helping to inaugurate the jazz-fusion era on Filles de Kilimanjaro and In a Silent Way, the two live Fillmore albums, and the seminal Bitches Brew, before striking out on his own in 1970, first leading Circle with Braxton and Barry Altschul, following with Return To Forever, maybe the key fusion band of that era. Recording seven albums in five years, Corea augmented his keyboards by a revolving lineup of legends like Stanley Clarke, Joe Farrell, Steve Gadd, Al Di Meola, Lenny White, Airto Moreira and Flora Purim (easily the most interesting jazz singer of the era; her album Stories To Tell is a masterpiece of the form).

Since the 1980s, Corea (a snowbird who spends his winters on Florida’s Gulf Coast) has worked extensively with colleagues from those former bands, maintaining a punishing schedule of touring and composition lasting well into his 70s. After years of dabbling with string quartets, orchestral music and copious solo material, Corea is currently working Florida with his Akoustic Band, stopping off at Amelia Island’s Magnolia Ballroom for what may be his only solo performance in the United States this year.

The festival has just three full-time employees and a small army of volunteers, all under the leadership of founder and artistic director Christopher Rex, who moonlights as principal cellist in the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. “He sure came up with a winner this year,” says Marasco, chuckling. Perhaps the MVP of the whole affair, though, is Jack Melvin, owner of Keyboard Connection, who has generously provided the Yamaha grand piano upon which the pianists perform, at no cost to the festival organization, since 2005.

The Chick Corea show is not to be missed—a rare opportunity to hear one of the most versatile musicians in the world, stripped down to his essence, completely unconstrained—real bucket-list stuff.

Piano enthusiasts, take note: Corea’s appearance is just the second of some 19 concerts encompassing a wide range of styles, formats, genres and settings that AICMF has scheduled (including a variety of educational outreach efforts, always a priority among this crowd) between now and April 29, when all the goings-on conclude with a stunning display of four-hand pianism by festival faves Julie Coucheron and Elizabeth Pridgen. Theirs is a performance of skill and knowledge anyone who’s ever plunked the ivories will appreciate. Be sure you’re part of it.

We’ll be writing more about all the musicians, venues and details here in Folio Weekly in the weeks ahead—keep reading.

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