The title of Chick Corea’s Now He Sings, Now He Sobs evokes both the bipolar energy of the album’s birthyear of 1968 and the piano’s function as an emotional sounding board for the pianist.
From its invention in the eighteenth century, and increasingly across the century that followed, the piano was the beating heart of the home. Loved ones gathered around it for wordless reverie, then joined their voices in song. Often they cried, alone or together. How was it that feelings were encouraged to express themselves by fingers moving across ivory and ebony keys, the hammer-struck strings resonating with emotion?
The cover photo of Corea’s album, his second as a leader, updates the Biedermeier décor of those now cheerful, now tearful evenings of yore, parquet floor replaced by shag carpet, cut glass decanter by chrome drinks tray. Posters not paintings hang on the wall. Instead of portraits of ancestors or the Kaiser, family photographs perch on polished wood furniture. The polyester curtain is drawn to keep the big city’s lights and sounds out of the apartment where the pianist is alone at the keyboard, deep in his music.
But save two searching piano introductions, Corea is not alone on this album. He is joined by veteran drummer Roy Haynes, 42 years old in 1968, and more than twice the age of the emigré Czech bassist Miroslav Vitous, then 20. Haynes and Vitous met for first time when they arrived in March of 1968 at the A & R Studios in Manhattan for these sessions convened under the auspices of the short-lived Solid State label. The music, too was new, its unpredictable novelty unsettling at first to the two musicians who had joined the composer/pianist.
The names of the sidemen (a term more to do with marketing than music) do not appear on the front cover. Yet their music sings and sobs, too. Much material was recorded over three days of recording, the results winnowed down to just five tracks amounting to forty minutes that fit on two sides of a vinyl disc. (A 1988 Blue Note CD reissue added seven, shorter bonus numbers, among them two standards.)
However resonant the connotations of the album’s title, it actually comes from a line in an ancient Chinese text, the I Ching—The Book of Changes. Popular among the mystically inclined of the 1960s, these procedures and practices of divination spoke to Corea. 1968 was also the year he joined the Church of Scientology.
Though a quotation from the Chinese classic, the album title also makes for a clever pun. Jazz, musicians must be able to “play the changes”—that is, spontaneously create music, especially melody lines, that cleave to (or artfully depart) from the harmonic progressions laid out in the original tune. To be sure, these improvisations rely on an arsenal of memorized and modularly applicable figures, but these branch off in new directions. Inspiration takes flight from preparation. Like the I Ching, jazz might be thought of as an inscrutable combination of chance and intention.
The album’s opening track encompasses two songs (“Steps — What Was”) that make for a petite suite of nearly fourteen minutes. Corea begins alone, almost. Haynes’s drums whisper, click and shimmer, as Corea grabs angular chords cut through by dazzling runs—a muscular Gymnopédie, marked by obstinate repetition and harmonic lunges. The music glares, shadeless and uncooled by breezes. Towards the end of this prelude the vigor abates: in the aura of poised anticipation one can see—impossibly, even hear—the pianist’s eyes rise to meet those of bassist and drummer, and suddenly, synchronically the suspended energy becomes the trio’s vector. An open fifth drone in the keyboardists’ left-hand is joined by the bass and the laser-focused exuberance of the drum stick on the ride cymbal. “Steps” takes off.
The music races ahead even though the harmony remains static, like an up tempo version of Miles Davis’s “So What” from a decade earlier. Then there is a chord change and then another that returns to the opening harmony. The opening ballad has become a brisk minor blues, classic in shape. But as the tune careens towards the end of the venerable twelve-bar form, Corea throws up a jagged obstacle course of fast-moving chromatic chords. In navigating these hazards, the musicians come vaulting out the other side to the open field of the start and another four-bars of sprinting in place. Spurred on by Vitous’s driving, resonant bass lines and Haynes’s ever-inventive commentary, Corea jabs his left hand chords, as if the keyboard were a snare drum. His right-hand carves out ecstatic, unexpected lines, long phrases alternating with quick asides and pauses that pull at the leash of silence.
Increasingly, Corea introduces the feints from the harmonically challenging turnaround into the opening. The momentum builds even as the tempo remains constant. The train seems always about to jump its tracks, but we know it won’t. The paradoxical compound of precariousness and surety is thrilling.
The drone returns, the exhilaration slackens even if the tempo refuses to. Every syncopation is hit again with exactitude, but now more gently. “Steps” gives way to an extended drum interlude. As if in answer to Corea’s intensely rhythmic playing is rhythmic, Haynes’s turns melodic The drummer alone makes the extended transition to “What Was,” a buoyant waltz tinged with Schumannesque nostalgia. If anyone sobs, it is Vitous on his bass, his solo often fleet, but also plaintive.
As athletic as the opener, Matrix has a Monkish humor (Monk’s is one of the bonus tracks on the Blue Note CD):
The B side begins with the title track—an adventure in rhythmic complexity, as if the whirring succession of triple and duple meters had been decided by the toss of a coin. This perpetual questioning of time requires self-searching answers in the rush of the moment.
The next line of the I Ching text provides the title for the following track—“Now He Beats the Drum / Now He Stops”—which sounds like it could be a tribute to Haynes. After the delicate piano introduction, the drums join in and never stop. More relaxed than “Steps,” the swing is as irrepressible.
These ten minutes recede into an afterglow of overtones that point the way to last the track, “The Law of Falling Down and Catching Up.” This starts with a muted bass tone and proceeds through effect and atmosphere—piano strings strummed; harmonics conjured from the bass, the shimmer and clack of the drums.
This epilogue in sound rather than song continues the album’s final withdrawal from the earlier harmonic riches and challenges. The concluding vagueness brings the classicism of the rest into swinging relief.
Tempus fugit—time flies—was one of Bud Powell’s classic bebop provocations, recorded, too, by Corea in his 1997 tribute to his illustrious predecessor:
Now He Sings, Now He Sobs flies by even if the music often gestures at resisting time’s illusory progress. Dead at the age of 79, Corea has returned to a tomorrowless forever. Yet when spinning at 33 1/3 revolutions per minute, this timeless trio album and its pianist remain alive and in the moment, before, at last, peacefully letting go.