Setting the scene for Thursday's super-trio performance at Yoshi's in San Francisco, pianist Chick Corea, 71, joked that he was about to play "with one old and one older friend." The merely "old" member of the band was bassist Stanley Clarke, 61. The "older" associate, and the man of the hour, was drummer Jack DeJohnette, who turned 70 on Aug. 9 and has taken this group on tour -- he's its nominal leader -- as a way of celebrating.
"We never get bored playing music," the drummer told the crowd. Then the acoustic trio floated into "Eiderdown," a tune by bassist Steve Swallow (who happens to be 71). Maybe you can imagine the time-freezing wonder of it: Corea's crystal-silence chords; DeJohnette's tumbling undertow of drum chatter; and Clarke's dancing bass lines, anchoring the song in time-honored jazz fashion, but also finding spaces, constantly, in which to step out and "sing" responses to his friends.
These three guys -- combine their resumes, and they've played with everyone from Mongo Santamaria to Santana, Miles Davis and Anthony Braxton -- don't play like senior citizens.
Over the course of two shows at Yoshi's -- where the trio performs through Saturday -- they offered a master class in the art of surprise: Their best-known tunes were rescrambled, on the spot. Clarke's "Light as a Feather" -- an airy Brazilian number when he and Corea recorded it with Return to Forever in 1972 -- immediately got roughed up by DeJohnette's spare funk
Midway through McCoy Tyner's "Passion Dance," Clarke turned toward DeJohnette, spinning the bass in the drummer's direction, and locked onto the rolling Afro-thunder of DeJohnette's rhythms. Clarke smiled and pushed the tempo -- he was bubbling, cleanly, through his ostinato-riffs at about 200 miles per hour -- and DeJohnette pushed back. Not a problem. It was like watching two maniacs throwing gasoline on one another's fires.
The second show was less macho than that, more exploratory. Corea's "Windows" -- one of the greatest and loveliest modern jazz tunes, a waltz -- was played like a samba for toy soldiers, with a clackety DeJohnette accompaniment, and even a few Ginger Baker-style rumbles on his tom-toms. Where'd that come from? It was utter subversion; like hearing Dylan turn "Like a Rolling Stone" into a reggae number.
Wayne Shorter's "E.S.P." began with DeJohnette bouncing the ends of his sticks, held vertically, onto his drumheads, while Corea plucked inside the piano and Clarke rumbled his strings and finger-drummed the wooden face of the bass. It was from-scratch free improvisation, but soon turned into the biggest straight-on jazz burner of the night.
As the burn subsided, Clarke began his solo, and -- well, can I say something about this guy? With his burbling locked-in grooves and riffs -- you've heard them for decades, with Return to Forever; with Tyner; with Santana on "Borboletta" -- his playing is the most accessible in the group. But conceptually, it's outrageous and multifunctional. To reiterate: He simultaneously anchors the time (like Chambers, like Carter), while finding spaces inside his phrases to stream steady commentaries on the song at hand (like a saxophonist answering a vocalist).
He draws a softly buzzing tone from the bass, almost electric. On "E.S.P.," as he began his solo, it was as if a choir of singing bees was moving across the strings. Then more: flicked harmonics, flamenco flourishes, skittering arpeggios played at warp speed. Often he squeezed bunches of notes into impossibly tight spaces, one of his patented moves. But somehow, it all wound up sounding relaxed and lyrical, and taken almost at a lope.
Starting up the evening-ending encore, he played the repeating bass line to "All Blues," by Davis, who mentored DeJohnette and Corea in the late '60s and early '70s. Joining Clarke, the pianist and drummer entered the mystery mood of this familiar tune. You could see the focus on their faces; all three men were intent on respecting the form. But this is no history lesson going on at Yoshi's this week. It's all about right now.
JACK DEJOHNETTE TRIO
Featuring Chick Corea and Stanley Clarke
Through: Saturday, shows at 8 (sold out) and 10 p.m.
Where: Yoshi's San Francisco, 1330 Fillmore St.
Tickets: $40-$60 415-655-5600, www.yoshis.com