Arts: Jazz/Classical: Mozart. Cool...

Chick Corea Royal Festival Hall London
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The Independent Culture
"LET'S SEE what we can do with Amadeus here," said the piano concerto soloist. And launched into a sly improvisation of his own. Chick Corea has been playing Mozart in public for a few years now, so he is quite relaxed about it. But that is a good two decades shorter than his jazz career, and the curiosity factor was high when he picked a Viennese classic of the 18th century to open one of the London Philharmonic's more unlikely South Bank concerts.

In Vienna, faced with a similar programme, the public were sniffy about the Mozart Concerto No 20 and preferred Corea's compositions. In London we don't have to feel so possessive. Corea's personal prelude to the concerto toyed with its themes over harmonies that had more to do with traditional Andalusia.

Corea joined it deftly to the real beginning, a trick he pulled off again later on, and then showed he had a fine ear for the music's mix of drama and playfulness. He would have been thrown out of a piano competition for his handfuls of mistakes. But how many competition winners have Corea's instinct for well-timed intervention, or his feeling for the music's proportions?

Corea's own Piano Concerto followed. It took only a few seconds of neat orchestration to show that this was a whole lot more than a bout of floundering in the classical depths, Paul McCartney-style. The right comparison would be Gershwin. Corea's tunes are harder work, but he has a better feel for composing on a big scale.

Best of all, it was full of easy rhythmic life: something that most classical composers have left under-developed. All this it did without needing to put a jazz hat on. Corea's bassist and drummer took part, but the latter punched out the scored rhythms while the former was more or less redundant. The orchestration was neat and clean - rather conservative really, but it always worked. All the concerto lacked was gut excitement.

Spain had fat, though it was more of an endangered species: the big opus, the jazz group, Corea sextet Origin, plus the full symphonic line-up. Orchestras playing jazz are like elephants in a circus. You can train them to go through the motions but nature never meant them to get up and swing. Bombastic blasts begin and end Spain, but the effect is a series of rambling preludes that hold up the real business. Once the orchestra got out of the way and let Origin play jazz, the energy level went up sharply. The big piano solo was a bit constrained but Steve Wilson's soprano sax and - this time - Avishai Cohen's bass at least began to get going.

More variations on the tune for encore, with the band at last loosening up. The orchestra didn't quite know when to come in and was probably enjoying itself too much to care. Good to see Anne Manson, once a regular on the London opera scene, conducting with unfussy flair.

Robert Maycock