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Live music review: Corea, Clarke and White at the Hollywood Bowl

September 3, 2009 |  3:43 pm
Corea300 Ever go to a jazz show and have a pop concert break out? Pardon the reference to the old joke about hockey games and boxing, but that's sort of what happened at Wednesday's Corea, Clarke and White show at the Hollywood Bowl.

At the second reunion in as many years of the original members of '70s fusion favorites Return to Forever (Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke and Lenny White), the group was midway through a Chaka Khan-led cover of the Gershwin standard "I Loves You Porgy" when a black-clad Stevie Wonder was led to the stage.

The crowd erupted as the R&B legend took a place at the mike near Corea's keyboards, his sweet harmonica gliding with Khan into Gershwin's lilting melody. The ovation grew louder as he joined on vocals.

It was a memorable, surprising moment on a night that unfortunately could have used more of them.

Not that the all-star lineup of veteran musicians wasn't game. After guitarist John Scofield led his Piety Street Band through some raucous New Orleans gospel-blues, Corea introduced his trio with a mischievous promise of "illegal melodies [and] illegal chords." The band then embarked on a sprawling acoustic take on "500 Miles High" from Return to Forever's 1972 debut, "Light as a Feather."

The longtime collaborators proved still capable of recapturing their signature virtuosity, especially Clarke, who curled around his upright bass to weave through an unholy cavalcade of notes that few could ever match.

Yet the more the band turned to sounds and elements from their storied past, the more they struggled to keep up with their legacy. Violin virtuoso Jean-Luc Ponty came to the stage to rapturous applause for Corea's Latin-infused "Armando's Rhumba," and while the results were elegant and delivered with a taut precision, the song remained earthbound.

The musicians regained their fiery edge for a run through Ponty's "Renaissance" but stumbled somewhat when guitarist Bill Connors  joined the band.

Charged with the unenviable task of stepping into Al Di Meola's shoes after Return to Forever's 2008 reunion, Connors  was a key element of the group's rock-heavy "Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy." Against Clarke and White's thundering rhinoceros-herd rhythm, the guitarist sounded tentative through the driving "Senor Mouse," but that might have been due in part to sound problems that briefly had the onstage crew scrambling.

Introduced by drummer White, Khan took the stage and summoned the jazz chops she showed on "Echoes of an Era," the 1982 album with Corea, Clarke, White and the late Freddie Hubbard. The concert's vocal-driven segment sagged though. Khan's easygoing "Through the Fire" relegated a band capable of Formula One performance to rolling along a broad, breezy boulevard.

But there was Stevie Wonder at the show's close to restore the evening's energy.

After a deafening reception, he sat next to Corea at a keyboard, holding his own with some deft countermelodies through "Spain." On piano, Corea dropped in hints of Wonder's "Ribbon in the Sky" to make his guest feel at home.

It wasn't the kind of fireworks fans might have been expecting, but on a sticky summer evening, it was enough to light up the night.

-- Chris Barton

Photo of Chick Corea, right, and Stanley Clarke from a 2008 rehearsal by Julie Rooney