The March 20 meeting between piano kings Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock began with a template that would hold true for much of the evening: each man offering brilliant ideas individually before joining each other with dizzying cascades of melodic, harmonic and rhythmic information, coursing through dark, Bartokian discord and exchanging jabs, stabs and uppercuts like Frazier and Ali.
The ebb and flow of melodic generation expanded with the organic reality of a backyard garden, with plenty of room for each player to nurture and harvest individual and collective wisdom in the moment. "Easy to Love" began in an almost dirge-like fashion as Corea drove the structural pilings and Hancock swirled around them with joyful contrapuntal improvisations.
Most of the night centered on free exchange between the masters of the acoustic piano, although each player also spent time on synthesizer with -- to be honest -- negligible results. One piece that opened freely with Hancock on keyboard ended up in a stunning dual-grand spin through "All Blues" that toggled between light rococo touches and raucous barrel-house explosions.
Most satisfying was the virtuosic exploration of Joe Zawinul's "Directions," which had more twists and turns than a Dickens novel. It led directly into the pensive beauty of Hancock's "Dolphin Dance" then the oblique masterpiece "Maiden Voyage," where the dialog raged like a maelstrom then wafted into silence.
After a prolonged ovation, the masters returned to the stage to lead a hilarious and detailed "audience participation" suite through Corea's "Spain," which illustrated the impressive number of musicians in the sold-out hall, borne out by the articulate relative pitch displayed by the five-note chord Corea assigned to the volunteer choir.
It was dramatic and funny and musical, much in the spirit of the evening itself, and there wasn't any escaping the notion that history was repeating itself -- as Hancock and Corea did this in San Diego back in 1978 -- while being made at the same time. Long live the kings.
Robert Bush is a freelance jazz writer who has been exploring the San Diego improvised music scene for more than 30 years.