Forty years ago, vibraphonist Gary Burton and pianist-composer Chick Corea recorded an intimate duet session in Norway; released as Crystal Silence, the LP was a contemplative anomaly for both artists, who were better known at the time for fearlessly cross-pollinating post-bop's shriveled flower with flecks of country, Latin, rock, and blues. (Burton's previous duet album, produced with the more modally exuberant Keith Jarrett, was essentially a soul-pop record with forgone vocals and extended solos.) Though composed of pared down fusion covers, Crystal Silence reconfigured what were only remotely jazz-like compositions, such as Corea's own "What Game Shall We Play Today," into explicitly jazz arrangements; the interpretive skills of the players, and their ability to weave in and out of each other's improvisational bursts, were emphasized. The album remains, despite its tinkly quietude, an oddly traditional experiment for the two, and in that sense prescient; one can't presently find more institutionally ensconced players than former Berklee VP Burton or Jazz at Lincoln Center mainstay Corea.
Several sequels, tours, and decades later, the two virtuosos are still burrowing into the possibilities of their partnership, if with decidedly less inventiveness; the once singularly conservative nature of Crystal Silence has now become obligatory. A full reunion arrived five years ago, and this year's Hot House is something of a nostalgic afterthought, a collection of jazz-pop favorites ("Eleanor Rigby," "Once I Loved") reimagined and stretched out to interminable lengths. Most indelibly, this is a joint effort for purely personal pleasure; the stale, mixtape-y song choices will only encourage the bemoaning of their late-career staidness, and neither party does much to challenge the other's recent stylistic softening. Corea's solos are some of the most diatonic of his career, and the days when Burton's spit-fired fourths could tear a hole through Carla Bley's pensive orchestrations are painfully gone.
Burton and Corea's self-producing of the album further enforces its insularity, and with occasionally harmful effects on its soundscape. Manfred Eicher, who produced the original Crystal Silence for his label ECM, mic'd and mixed the performers to put the listener against the wall of the studio; the musicians themselves, however, place us within the buzzing guts of their instruments while they pound away. (The vibraphone is far more percussive than tonal; a grating click accompanies and partially mutes each note.) This especially renders the swinging polyphony of the title track into unnerving chaos.
The engineering faux pas aside, however, the duo handles their unimaginative selections with a lot of likeable playfulness. On the most rewarding tracks, tonal embellishments serve to investigate rather than simply ornament the compositions: A remarkably lucid glissando in Dave Brubeck's "Strange Meadow Lark" becomes a chromatic stepladder to rush down, and Corea situates a significant influence within his Andalusian roots on "Mozart Goes Dancing." This joyousness buoys the album's spirit, even when the persistent moodiness of Corea's chord phrasings threaten to swallow it up. (Only the rendition of Jobim's "Chega de Saudade" is garishly autumnal; aside from suffering alongside Burton's quintessential solo recording of the track, the melody becomes so muddled in harmonic dissonance that the song's crucial shift from minor to major is indiscernible.) Indeed, Corea and Burton exhibit a surfeit of cheerful respectful toward both one another and the songwriters they interpret on Hot House, but this virtue can just as easily be read as a vice: At both its best and its worst, the album is essentially inoffensive.