Pianist-composer Chick Corea and vibraphonist Gary Burton, two “local” boys who have long enjoyed an international reputation, brought their “Hot House Tour” to Symphony Hall for a Sunday afternoon Celebrity Series concert, and a packed house of fans and jazz lovers was on hand to welcome them home. Corea set the intimate and casual tone from the outset by sharing some warm and personal memories of his early days in Boston: graduating from Chelsea High School in 1959, working with local drumming legends Lenny Nelson and Bobby Ward, and enjoying the support of his baker’s dozen of aunts and uncles. One of them—“Uncle Johnny”—was sitting in my row, a few seats away. The musical performances, however, were anything but casual or nostalgic; they were in fact, electric. Corea and Burton are both virtuosos on their respective instruments, and this was on full display throughout the concert, as were an unerring sense of rhythm, tight ensemble (well-honed after playing together for 40 years), and some remarkable compositions.
The program opened with Corea’s Love Castle, a three-part work in which a brief piano introduction leads into some fabulous vibraphone playing accompanied by Corea, who then takes over the musical material before handing it back to Burton. The next piece, Corea’s Allegria, uses a 12-beat pattern, modal harmonies and Scarlatti-like acciaccaturas to brilliantly evoke the violent/passionate outbursts of flamenco guitarists, singers and dancers. Next was Hot House, a grateful nod of thanks to Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, after which we were then treated to a wonderful long riff on the Beatles’ iconic “Eleanor Rigby,” the well-known tune played by both Burton and Corea, who also provided an ostinato left-hand accompaniment. The duo closed the first half on a Brazilian beat: Chega de Saudade, listed as being by J. Gilberto, but which Burton told us was inspired by the music of the great Brazilian performer-composer Antonio Carlos Jobim.
The Harlem (String) Quartet (Ilmar Gavilán and Melissa White, violins; Juan Miguel Hernandez, viola; and Earl Lee, cello) joined Corea and Burton on stage after intermission, and these fine young musicians were more than equal to the task. They also gave us the opportunity to hear some of Corea’s more adventurous forays into crossover idioms. Many of these reveal the strong influence of the music of Béla Bartòk, a composer Corea is reported to particularly admire, and there were quite a few moments when I was sure I was hearing tunes from Bartòk’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste or the Concerto for Orchestra—nattily dressed in jazzy clothing, of course.