Point of Departure: Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke & Lenny White at the Dakota

"... this man's a genius! playing Ellington like a bartender
plays a Singapore Sling, all that maraschino cherry
sweetness, a little clink of ice, and his voice
doing a kind of mumble moan ..."
--Matthew Dickman, "Chick Corea is Alive and Well!"

One of the oldest clichés in the jazz description biz is the idea that a jazz combo in concert is having a conversation, their notes and phrases bouncing back and forth in sympathy and call and response. It's an attractive idea, and one that's hard to push away as you watch three accomplished masters like pianist Chick Corea, bassist Stanley Clarke, and drummer Lenny White command the stage at the Dakota with no seemingly no more effort than it takes you to shoot the breeze with a couple friends at the bar. But see, this is where it gets complicated.

The conversations we have every day are more self-involved than we'd like to admit. We do much less listening than Lenny White does to begin the set. My favorite part of a jazz show has long been the moments between when the music starts--when Corea plays a few tinkling notes against a high, complicated chord and Clarke lays into a pedaling tone--and when the drums finally come in. White comes in tonight on cat feet, using mallets on the toms before finally slashing in with a stick on his ride cymbal.

Clarke's tone on the stand-up is one of the most resonant I've ever heard. When I was studying jazz guitar in college, bassists used to tell me it takes a year just to make a halfway decent sound on an upright. It's murder on the hands: you have to press hard and hit unmarked notes with precision. But Clarke plays it as fluidly and nimbly as an electric fretless, his vibrato deep and fast. This is the first place where the whole conversation thing breaks down, because this is not casual--this is a mastered skill, a vocabulary, a craft.

Clarke, who's wearing a resoundingly square Philadelphia Eagles T-shirt--like saying he's so badass he doesn't have to dress the part--is the hinge between White to his left and Corea to his right. He looks at Corea, who's facing him, intently, stealing looks back at White to convey something unspoken, like a cue or maybe a shared laugh when Corea teases a bit of a Monk tune. And here again: the unspoken is the most picayune part of what's going on, not the real subtext or undercurrent as it so often is for the rest of us.

White answers Corea's trills with complementary figures across his cymbals. A quick run of notes from the piano and a subtle shift in Corea's chording sends Clarke into double-time walking on the bass and a breath later White drops right in, propelling the song and Corea's solo like a stone skipping across water.

Before the third song, Corea stands and announces that in the classical world, when they play something for the first time, they say they're "premiering" it. But jazz guys just rehearse it, and so with that, they "premier this rehearsal" of a new Clarke tune called "Three Wrong Notes." It's not clear which three are the wrong ones--a lot of jazz is, after all, not playing the right notes but making the wrong ones sound correct.

Chalk a lot of that up to Corea, whose playing weaves back and forth between straight ahead soulfulness with a deep sense of melodicism and almost frightfully cerebral comping. If anything went wrong, you get the sense he could roll easily into whatever kind of feel they stumble into, and as Clarke's song comes back to the head, he and Clarke play little figures that get them smiling, and it almost begins to seem more like a comedy routine than a conversation: the participants throwing out little chestnuts and in-jokes, improvising new licks out of old ones until the grins start breaking out. The song ends with high fives all around for a good first performance.

(l-r) Lenny White, Chick Corea and Stanley Clarke

(l-r) Lenny White, Chick Corea and Stanley Clarke

They play a sketch-like, rough hewn version of Bill Evans' "Waltz for Debby" before launching into one of Return to Forever's (Corea, Clarke, and White represent three-quarters of the seminal fusion group) signature tunes, "500 Miles High," and a polite but appreciative wave of applause rises up from the crowd.

That's when it begins to occur to me that the communication within the group isn't so much a conversation as dialogue. Like actors performing a scene, the musicians here are taking a certain quantity that's known--scales, modes, riffs, dynamics, melodies, things worked out in rehearsal--and then shaping those known things in ways that will deepen their meaning. They bring new timings, new emotional undercurrents, new ways of feeding off each other to each performance. Dialogue renews itself through performance, and on stage at the Dakota tonight, Corea, Clarke, and White are like seasoned veterans playing a Mamet scene: the words tumble over each other, the jokes fly fast and deadpan, the real beauty coming out not through what is said, but through how it is said, and from the sheer joy of communication.