Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock, two of the best-loved and most influential jazz pianists and composers of the past half-century, are touring as a duo for the first time since 1978. They behave on stage like a long-separated comedy team on a private reunion – joshing about each other’s attire, pretending they’ve no idea what to do, discussing the crowd as if surprised to find them there – but when they get down to business on two grand pianos and some electronics, the slightly stagey bonhomie stops dead.
For this Barbican gig, they played for 90 minutes plus rapturously requested encores, in an intimate and sometimes rather private exchange of improv games periodically brought back to earth by oblique arrivals of their most famous tunes.
When Corea and Hancock last played as a pair in the 70s, they were prolifically gifted thirtysomethings (both former Miles Davis alumni), zestfully applying bebop, Latin music, pop forms and classical harmony (plenty of French impressionism in Hancock’s case) to just about any idiom they could get their quicksilver hands on. Over three decades on, both performers and audience share the sense that they can conjure up any permutation of all that experience on the spot.
They began with a show of hands for the question: “Shall we start with something or nothing?” (the vote went to “nothing”, of course), and eased from abstract noises of paper-riffling and lid-banging to a tidal roll of grand piano sound from Hancock, peppered with percussive chords and chirpily scampering runs from Corea.
That first reconnaissance was long and circuitous, but its more explicitly jazzy successor opened on a quiet chordal intro from Hancock and some soft Bill Evans-style lyricism from his partner, before accelerating into a congenial, collective swing. Hancock then lobbed hard-hit chords that Corea answered with his elbows, set up a catchy groove with his stamping feet, and developed it in drum-synth, beatbox and shaker sounds on electric keys.
A stretch of Steve Reich-like minimalism was slyly invaded by Hancock’s famous Canteloupe Island, and then an uptempo bebop groove and more ripply piano impressionism took both players back to thick harmonic undergrowths, before the iconic Maiden Voyage theme arrived, to ecstatic cheers.
They guided the audience into a four-part vocal harmony of Concierto de Aranjuez during the first encore, and if the pair prolonged the ensuing call-and-response game with the crowd a little too long, the emergence of Corea’s Spain sent grateful listeners home singing that most invitingly coquettish of world-jazz themes.