In Hollywood, it is hard to hear the phrase "Inspired by a science fiction novel by L. Ron Hubbard" without thinking of John Travolta's box-office disaster Battlefield Earth. If the enthusiastic crowd at Catalina's is any bellwether, Chick has had much more success translating To The Stars into jazz than the aforementioned celluloid effort. The line-up with the Elektric band was similar to the one on the CD, featuring Dave Weckl on drums, Frank Gambale on guitar and Eric Marienthal on saxes, while substituting Ric Fierabracci for John Patitucci on bass. Chick played a variety of keyboards, and he needed all of them to create the variety of sounds used in the performance, perhaps the spaciest that I've heard in the decade since both the death of Sun Ra and the end the original Elektric Band.
Chick's main instruments were a powerful Roland Motif synthesizer and a Fender Rhodes electric piano outfitted with a variety of pedals. The Motif provided some interesting sequences of sounds, particularly during the various "Port View" pieces--brief musical interludes that depict the view of space from the windows of the spaceship Hound of Heaven. And Corea's work on the Rhodes was unique and engaging, just as it was 40 years ago with Miles Davis. But I have to say that some of the most fascinating and even freakiest playing was done on a baby grand piano. The dissonance and oddly metered introduction to "Jocelyn-The Commander" was riveting, and built to an exciting crescendo when he used the "string piano" technique of Henry Cowell and John Cage by striking the strings of the keyboard directly to evoke haunting blocks of sound.
The rest of the band played with aplomb as well. Gambale played with his usual dexterity, nimbly running up and down the fretboard and demonstrating an understanding of how to use the amplifier to provide a horn-like sustain a la Carlos Santana, Jeff Beck and Sonny Sharrock. Weckl was surprisingly restrained; he put it some intricate fills where it seemed appropriate, but let showing off his chops be secondary to providing the necessary groove to the African rhythm of "Hound of Heaven" and the reggae-ish "Johnny's Landing." Fierabracci, playing a five stringed bass, played with a strong melodic sense while occasionally seeming to be playing a 'midrange' rather than a true 'bass.' Eric Marienthal proved capable on each of the soprano, tenor and alto saxophones. The evening's tour-de-force was the intricate tango "Alan Corday," which featured everyone successfully, particularly Corea and Gambale. For an encore, the group treated the crowd to "C.T.A," a Jimmy Heath composition Corea used to play with Miles.
Some fans are no doubt skeptical about a jazz suite based on a science fiction novel, not to mention those who have never cottoned to electric instruments. I don't know that To The Stars is going to convert anyone to either, though I do think the latest incarnation of the Elektric Band is less bound to technique and more expressive than the original. Either way, Chick Corea has built a pretty successful career despite the objections of musical Puritans, and for the rest of us this latest piece is a fine addition to that body of work.