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Chick Corea renders Mozart with daring and playfulness on a posthumous new album

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Pianist and composer Chick Corea's interests stretched beyond jazz into classical music. In 2018, three years before his death at the age of 79, he gave a concert in Sardinia that included both Mozart and George Gershwin. A live recording of that concert is now available, and our classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz has a review.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICK COREA AND ORCHESTRA DA CAMERA DELLA SARDEGNA'S "MOZART PIANO CONCERTO NO. 24 IN C MINOR, K.491: I. ALLEGRO (LIVE)")

LLOYD SCHWARTZ, BYLINE: Can a jazz musician play Mozart? Too many so-called crossover artists perform classical music as if they were afraid of it. Legendary jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman played Mozart that was beautiful but bland. Barbra Streisand's stab at "Schubert & Schumann: Lieder" sounded too timid, as if she were choirboy instead of her own uninhibited self. On the other hand, Frank Sinatra sang Mozart's "Don Giovanni" as slyly and seductively as he sang "The Lady Is A Tramp."

I wish all musicians, both pop and classical, brought to classical music the rhythmic energy and freedom of spirit that composers intended. That's what worried me when I heard about a new posthumous recording by the elegant jazz pianist and composer Chick Corea, which includes his version of one of Mozart's most sublime and dramatic masterpieces, the "Piano Concerto No. 24 In C Minor." This live concert recording also features two of George Gershwin's most beloved works, "Rhapsody In Blue" and the song "Someone To Watch Over Me." Corea's playing is impeccable, and he seems to be having a great time. He's not afraid to give Mozart the syncopated, daring and playfulness of jazz.

(SOUNDBITE OF COREA PERFORMANCE OF MOZART'S "PIANO CONCERTO NO. 24 IN C MINOR, K.491: I. ALLEGRO")

SCHWARTZ: Corea's performance is a fascinating hybrid. Some of its most convincing parts are the straightforward classical stuff - not timid, with just the kind of excitement I hope for - though some of his non-classical impulses miss the point. For example, the improvised solos he adds at the beginning of each movement undercut the suspense Mozart creates as to exactly when the piano is going to arrive. And in the central slow movement, Corea jazzes up Mozart's radical and heartbreaking simplicity. Still, Corea captures a spirit that Mozart, a great improviser himself, might really have appreciated. He tells the audience that he's going to play mostly what Mozart wrote, but also improvisation.

(SOUNDBITE OF COREA PERFORMANCE OF MOZART'S "PIANO CONCERTO NO. 24 IN C MINOR, K.491: I. ALLEGRO")

SCHWARTZ: Corea's Gershwin is also idiosyncratic. "Rhapsody In Blue," like the Mozart, is really a piano concerto, Gershwin's attempt to bring together jazz and classical music. Gershwin's score encourages some improvisation, but Corea pushes Gershwin's invitation to an extreme. The writer of the CD's liner notes admits that he doesn't really like "Rhapsody In Blue," so he prefers Corea's more improvisatory freedom. Personally, I like the way Gershwin conceived it, as a jazz-inspired concert piece rather than as a piece of pure jazz. There's a great story about how, in a rehearsal before the premiere, instead of playing the notes simply as written, the inspired clarinetist played the opening, a rising glissando, as a wail that then turns into a guffaw. Gershwin loved it that way and wanted to keep it. This is what it sounded like in 1924, almost a century ago, on its very first recording.

(SOUNDBITE OF GEORGE GERSHWIN'S "RHAPSODY IN BLUE")

SCHWARTZ: Here's Corea playing on the piano, his own tamer version of that astonishing clarinet glissando.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICK COREA'S "RHAPSODY IN BLUE")

SCHWARTZ: Still, when Corea improvises, the music can get pretty exciting and is full of surprises.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICK COREA'S "RHAPSODY IN BLUE")

SCHWARTZ: Gershwin's own piano arrangements of his songs give jazz musicians permission to improvise even further. My favorite cut on this Chick Corea album is his scintillating version of one of the great Gershwin standards, "Someone To Watch Over Me." Here, on a rhythmic high wire of his own making, he has me completely holding my breath.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICK COREA'S "SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME")

MOSLEY: Lloyd Schwartz's latest book is "Who's On First?: New And Selected Poems." He reviewed "Chick Corea: A Night Of Mozart & Gershwin." For Terry Gross, I'm Tonya Mosley.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICK COREA'S "SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Lloyd Schwartz is the classical music critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.

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