Review Summary: Definitely not one of my all-time favourite jazz records, but a solid first offering from Chick Corea as a band leader.
"Tones for Joan's Bones" marks the beginning of the solo recording career Chick Corea, one of the finest jazz pianists of all time. Whilst there are definitely Corea albums I consider significantly better, this record was a pretty good way to cut his teeth.
The record begins with "Litha", a frantically paced piece and the longest track on the album, clocking in at thirteen and a half minutes. The immediate question when it comes to longer tracks is always "does it overstay its welcome"" Not exactly. But for something this long, there certainly aren't all that many memorable hooks, and a lot of the track's appeal comes in the form of the improvisation taking it off at so many tagents. This helps keep it lively and unpredictable. But surprisingly, Litha is a piece that is actually a little slow to get going and finishes strongly, rather than one that comes out of the traps spitting fire but drags on. The most interesting parts are definitely when Chick himself is in the spotlight, and the use of dazzling, fast melodies on the piano alongside some busy (but not overpowering) drumming from Joe Chambers is what really brings this track to life. As an opening track it covers a lot of ground and shows a lot of what the band have to offer.
"This is New" is a slower-paced piece, using a very broad dynamic range to good effect. Going from blaring trumpet fanfares to subtle walking double-bass with, propped up with subtle drumming shows off two greatly constrasting sides to the band in quick succession to good effect. Whilst "Litha" was mostly focused on using the piano solos as the centrepiece, Chick is happy to share the limelight a bit more on "This is New" and Woody Shaw in particular provides some very nice improvisations on trumpet that are a pleasure to listen to. The whole band then share the spotlight during the closing sequence to bring the track and first half of the album to a very interesting and definitive conclusion. "This is New" would be my own personal pick of the bunch for the strongest of the four tracks on the album.
The second half of the record begins with the title track, "Tones for Joan's Bones", opening with a subdued piano introduction, accompanied by a shuffle on the snare from Chambers. It doesn't take long for Corea to let loose into his improvisational piano soloing, though it is noticably patchier on this track, with certain passages and lines from the man himself not always feeling particularly necessary or purposeful this time round. I was actually a little more taken with Steve Swallow's double-bass solo on this track, which was very well executed and fitting for the drop in dynamic to a rather hushed level.
"Straight Up and Down" sees a return to a more frantic pace heard earlier on Litha, with some of Corea's most extensive and expansive piano runs right from the beginning, separated by short motifs from the sax and trumpet. The final of the four tracks is the most energetic and relentless in its intensity. Much like the opening piece, "Straight Up and Down" is very much guided by the hands of Chick Corea, enigmatically changing the direction at frequent intervals. Woody Shaw's trumpet soloing is stacked against Corea's use of dissoance on piano to create a very overwhelming atmosphere. It builds to absolute musical chaos around the half-way mark, using some avant-garde elements, throwing all sense of rhythm or meter out the window and creating a menacing soundscape with odd use of percussion alone. But whilst the mood set by these techniques was interesting, the final track is the one that felt the most self-indulgent, and maybe didn't fully validate that with the content.
In general, there were some interesting moments on "Tones for Joan's Bones", and I liked how the band were able to blend consonance and dissonance together, with some parts being more pleasant and accessible and some parts being more daunting and challenging to listen to. However, there weren't really any memorable motifs or recurring themes to latch onto, which is something I really look for in a jazz record. Amongst all the comotion, no matter how technical and elaborate it may get, I like my jazz pieces to be grounded in something a bit more straight forward and recognisable, and return to that main lick. That sense of familiarity wasn't established on this record at all.
The performances were definitely strong. The record's strongest point in fact. Chick Corea, even on this earliest of records already displays masterful ability, and his piano solos are the real highlight of the record. The chemistry on show is pretty impressive here too, particularly in the rhythm section, with Joe and Steve showing a lot of sensibility regarding dynamics and virtuosity. They always seem to know just how busy to be on this album, which is pretty much the deal-breaker in any jazz rhythm section.
Production isn't usually a big worry on these kind of jazz records. It's mostly about capturing that sense of a live performance so it feels like they're right there in your living room, and it does achieve that. Although, there are moments where it feels like the bass isn't maybe cutting through the mix quite enough, and there equally there are instances where the trumpet and sax are really going for it and it starts to sound a bit piercing.
In terms of a cohesive listen, it flows pretty well. I like how the two shorter, more accessible composition are bookended by the longer, more adventurous ones. It provides a welcome break before dropping you back into that intensity, though I would say the second half of this album is a bit weaker than the first. In terms of a type of listening experience, it's not the most versatile as jazz records go. It's a little too frantic during the opening and closing tracks to have it on as a background music kind of record, and it instead requires quite a lot of focus and attention to get the best out of. Though in its defence the material does reward that effort to a decent degree.
Definitely not one of my all-time favourite jazz records, but a solid first offering from Chick Corea as a band leader.