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On the fly with Chick Corea

Toshi Sakurai/Chick Corea Productions

If Chick Corea doesn’t precisely do it all, he comes pretty darn close.

Just in recent years he’s played Boston as a solo pianist and in duos with innovative banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck, vibraphonist Gary Burton, and fellow Miles Davis alumnus Herbie Hancock. Last year he played four nights at Scullers with Vigilette, his trio with bassist Carlitos Del Puerto and drummer Marcus Gilmore.

If you go back far enough, you can chart the Chelsea native playing bugle with the St. Rose Scarlet Lancers Drum & Bugle Corps as a child, around the time he was soaking in the Dixieland bands led by his father, trumpeter Armando Corea. Chick may not pick up the bugle much these days, but he’s currently writing a trombone concerto for the New York Philharmonic.

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The gig that brings him back to town Sunday is a Celebrity Series concert at Symphony Hall with his trio Trilogy, featuring bassist Christian McBride and drummer Brian Blade.

So with all the differently shaped projects he pursues, what makes this particular ensemble a unique experience for its bandleader?

“It’s really bad to make any sort of comparison between one musician and another, because my relationship with each one is so unique, and the chemistry is very delicate,” Corea, 78, says in a phone call from the road. “If I do some duet gigs with Christian and then you add one other musician to that mix, the chemistry completely changes into a new thing.”

Blade sounds a similar note.

“When one thing changes, everything changes,” the drummer says in a separate phone call. “Chick has so many ideas and so many projects, but he calls individuals who he trusts, I believe, and he wants them to bring what they bring to each situation.”

While Corea’s name sits at the top of the bill, this is a veritable all-star trio. McBride is a virtuoso on his instrument, a busy bandleader, and his curatorial know-how netted him a role as artistic director for the Newport Jazz Festival. He has six Grammy Awards of his own. Blade has led his own group, the Fellowship Band, for 20 years but may be better-known to many jazz fans for his similar-length tenure as the drummer in Wayne Shorter’s quartet.

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The chemistry in Chick Corea Trilogy has translated into an expansive, two-disc live album, “Trilogy 2,” released earlier this month. It ranges from a patient reading of the Irving Berlin’s standard “How Deep is the Ocean” to a nimble and compact strut through Thelonious Monk’s “Work” and a probing analysis of the classic Corea original, “Now He Sings, Now He Sobs.”

Corea says he, McBride, and Blade share “a certain rapport” with the work of Monk and with older standards. But Corea himself is one of the great, living composers of the art form, and this group reflects his wide-ranging interests as a songwriter and arranger. The repertoire includes his arrangements of work by Domenico Scarlatti, the 18th-century Baroque composer whose work Corea also took for a spin when he played the Wilbur Theatre three years ago with Fleck. He’s working on a composition inspired by Hungarian composer Béla Bartók which he says he plans to start rehearsing with the trio soon.

“We’re always adding things, trying new things out. I’ve written an arrangement of [Duke Ellington’s] ‘In A Sentimental Mood’ that we’re trying out. We just jam and pull things out of the hat sometimes,” Corea says.

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Sometimes his arranging instinct emerges on the fly.

“If Chick’s saying, ‘Let’s play this Scarlatti piece’ or ‘Let’s play this new concerto I’m working on,’ I have to try to find what’s needed in that moment,” Blade says. “Sometimes Chick keeps surprising me because he’ll want me to play introductions and solo much more than I would in a lot of other situations. We’ll play some of Thelonious Monk’s music and Chick will say, ‘Hey Brian, play an intro tonight.’ I’m always glad about the invitation and the challenge.”

Corea is long used to his role as a creatively omnivorous shape-shifter. He is, after all, the master of the acoustic piano who once showed up for work and was completely surprised to learn that his boss, one Miles Davis, wanted him to play electric piano on the gig. A few years later, Corea formed one of the great groups of the fusion movement, Return To Forever.

When his many projects bring him back to Boston, Corea tends to shout-out family members and old high school friends from the stage. But while his early musical experiences continue to shape his artistic development, there’s one type of performance from which he has emphatically retired.

As a student at Chelsea High School, he recalls, he was sent in for the last 10 minutes of a football game with rival Everett High School.

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“We were getting creamed, and so the coach said, ‘Go ahead in.’ I played right guard and I got my hand stepped on. I came off the field with my hand bleeding, and my music teacher pulled me out and said, ‘You ain’t doing that any more, man.’ ”

His football career ended that day. Music lovers are OK with the trade-off.

Chick Corea Trilogy

Presented by Celebrity Series of Boston. At Symphony Hall, Oct. 20 at 7 p.m.

Tickets from $65, 617-482-6661, www.celebrityseries.org


Jeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at jeremy@jeremy
dgoodwin.com
. Find him on Twitter @jeremydgoodwin.