Pianist Chick Corea opened his first set at the Blue Note in New York on December 9th with a story about his special guest that evening, guitarist John McLaughlin – how they first met and played together at the local Columbia Records studio in 1969 at a Miles Davis session for the trumpeter’s jazz-rock Book of Genesis, Bitches Brew. McLaughlin, in turn, got a round of laughs as he noted the shared extremes – melodic complexity and improvising velocity – of the bands both men formed out of that experience: Corea’s Return to Forever and McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra. “All these notes, Chick!” McLaughlin exclaimed, laughing, as he looked at the sheet music in front of him, before Corea’s RTF-salute quartet – with bassist Victor Wooten and original drummer Lenny White, also a Bitches Brew alumnus – pulled the pin on the 1973 grenade “Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy.”
The following night, uptown at the Rose Theater in the Jazz at Lincoln Center complex, guitarist Steve Miller was as generous with the historical context during T-Bone Walker: A Bridge From Blues to Jazz, a celebration of that Texas-born singer and electric-guitar pioneer co-hosted with guitarist Jimmie Vaughan. At one point, Miller introduced the ballad “Evenin'” with a story about how Walker – a family friend and blues tutor when Miller was growing up in Dallas – told him Billie Holiday loved Walker’s version of that song so much she requested it every time she saw him play. Miller then sang “Evenin'” with honoring poise, cutting through the harmonized warmth of the JALC brass with sensual exclamations of electric guitar.
This weekend in blues, fusion and renewed acquaintance came with unexpected, connective twists. At the Blue Note, Corea – marking his 75th birthday with a two-month residency of collaborations – welcomed another guest with a Miles connection, this time in the audience: saxophonist Lee Konitz, 89, who played on Davis’ Birth of the Cool. Miller paid his respects at the Rose Theater to Walker’s daughter Bernita, who was in the crowd, and shared a private treasure during intermission: a tape of Walker playing guitar at the Miller family’s home, recorded by Steve’s father in 1951.
Corea and McLaughlin concentrated on toasting friendship and memories. The only new tune in the set was “Chick’s Chums,” a McLaughlin homage from his Fourth Dimension band’s songbook, although no one other than the composer seemed to have mastered it before showtime. Corea, on electric piano, was confused enough in the opening bars to call for a halt and a second take, then had the band do the ending twice over to get it right for the machines recording the night for a live album.
Everyone was on more certain, frantic and extended footing in the title track of Return to Forever’s 1976 album, Romantic Warrior, and the 1973 RTF standard “Captain Señor Mouse.” Corea’s entrance cadenza in the former, on acoustic piano, was suitably extravagant; McLaughlin’s soloing was a striking contradiction, closer to blues – single notes in thoughtful, stairstep formation, held for sustain and buzzing harmonics – that reflected his pre-jazz history in England with blues patriarch Alexis Korner and as a pop and R&B session musician.
In November and December 2017, McLaughlin will pay a rare and long-awaited tribute to the original Mahavishnu lineup and its studio body of fury and prowess – 1971’s The Inner Mounting Flame and 1973’s Birds of Fire – on a U.S. tour dubbed “Meeting of the Spirits” with guitarist and jam-band icon Jimmy Herring. The Blue Note show was a crowd-pleasing preview of that retrospective, with two pieces from the ’71 LP: the Celtic-Asian delicacy of “A Lotus in Irish Streams” and the knotty, circular crawl “You Know, You Know.” McLaughin has announced that the 2017 shows will be his last American performances. But like Corea, he was the picture of vigor and playful relish as he conducted the band in the volley of ensemble gunshots at the end of “You Know, You Know.”
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Miller wasn’t the only guy at JALC with the deep T-Bone lore. Before asking Vaughan to lead the proceedings on a slow blues, Miller pointed out that the Dallas-born older brother of the late Stevie Ray Vaughan used to see Walker at local clubs, “doing the splits, playing behind his head” long before Jimi Hendrix took that showmanship worldwide. Miller actually left a high ratio of the solo space to Vaughan, who heightened “Shufflin’ the Blues” with cluster-bomb flourishes between stalking-rhythm lines and underscored the tease in “Don’t Throw Your Love on Me So Strong” with rubbery, baritone phrasing.
The first song of the night was a gift to the fans – Miller’s “The Joker,” played solo with waterfall-style fingerpicking and clearly descended in wit and vernacular (“I get my lovin’ on the run”) from the Robert Johnson number that followed, “Come On in My Kitchen,” a duet with Vaughan. Brianna Thomas’ bonfire alto was a highlight whenever Miller gave her the mic – the steamy “Blue Moods,” her gender adaption of Walker’s cautionary 1949 single “She Is Going to Ruin Me.” The night-club swing and glow of the enlarged backing combo, with horns, piano and organ, affirmed Miller’s contention that in Walker’s golden era – from the late Forties to the mid-Fifties – blues was pop music, made by artists who were “trying to make hit records and entertain people.” Halfway through the second set, Miller and Vaughan arrived at the inevitable – Walker’s enduring “Call It Stormy Monday,” first recorded in 1947. Miller sang with brio; Vaughan fired low-end exclamations on guitar, then shot up the neck in long, bent-note runs. But the bigger highlight came right before that, in “Lollie Lou,” as Miller and Vaughan turned to each other in competition as well as fraternity, trading four-bar bursts of curt, clawing licks, then firing in inspired tandem and treble.
The only thing missing from this concert was more of that pure showboating. Walker, if he’d been there, would have fixed that.