Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock dazzle with double piano duet at Barbican

An endearingly boyish beginning: our heroes walking backwards across the stage, hinting perhaps at a nostalgia for breakdance glory. Which is arguably more relevant to Herbie Hancock’s hip-hop forays than Chick Corea’s Elektric bands but it sets a playful tone for a performance that is big on both humour and adventure. Devotees of the 1970s acoustic duets of these icons who debuted in the 1960s will have been intrigued to see keyboards and samplers beside the two grand pianos, face to face like stretch limos set to rev up on ideas rather than gas.    

Hence from the moment Hancock triggers cheeky garbles and grunts from his workstation it is clear that his and Corea’s backstory as fusion pioneers is as much part of tonight’s programme as their status as pianists who uphold Tatum, Powell and Evans with sufficient verve and imagination to secure a place in the jazz pantheon. This kind of meeting can only really work if the dialogue is balanced and for the most part the exchanges are finely weighted, perhaps with Corea giving more solo space to Hancock. Yet the entwining of their improvisations on a rendition of ‘Maiden Voyage’, in which the pulse and harmony become wonderfully tangential, reveals two minds on the same wavelength, as do a series of spontaneous compositions in which rhythmic strength and textural invention come brilliantly into play.

HancockCoreaHancockCorea MG 6616

We hear Corea tapping out a marimba-style beat on his synthesizer before swiveling to the piano to execute those distinctively flute-like trills that made Return To Forever so poetic, and Hancock laying down the enticingly bluesy progressions that betray his origins in hard bop before leavening them with a barrage of high-pitched motifs from his keyboard. Latin and classical sensibilities bind both men, but the rich individual personalities ensure that the ideas pitched from each Steinway are anything but generic. The anthems pulled out for two rapturous encores make that point in no uncertain terms. First up is Hancock’s ‘Cantaloupe Island’, a slick boogaloo that resists contempt despite the huge familiarity acquired through its recycling in Blue Note’s hit parade.

The beat is given an additional trickery by Corea’s wily syncopations and the rolling bass thickens up when the two men attack it together, prompting mass head nodding around the whole auditorium. Then comes Corea’s ‘Spain’, which marks a stark contrast. It’s all flourish, Arabesque intricacy and long lyrical lines, and, quite puckishly, he opts for an extended prelude, reminding us by way of one concise lament after another that the piece is the Miles, or rather, the Miles & Gil moment to complement an earlier breeze through ‘Solar.’ As the complex harmony is unpacked the orchestral sub-text of the composition becomes explicit and the two men go straight into a long solo before finally moving to the head. The tempo drops a touch and the soaring, bird-in-flight nature of the theme stands as its own concerto. They play the line just the once. That is all that is needed.

– Kevin Le Gendre

– Photos by Roger Thomas

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