It is a common occurrence at Duke University to see people holding up a sign that says something like “Need 1 Ticket,” but that usually happens only around Cameron Indoor Stadium and the ticket being sought is for a coveted seat at a home basketball game. But on East campus, around Baldwin Auditorium, there were several people just as desperate for passage in to see and hear Armando Anthony Corea. Who? Replace those first two given names with “Chick” and you can understand the desperation. Duke Performances wrangled a stop in Durham for Chick Corea’s solo piano world tour of 2014. This is quite a unique event since, according to Corea, this is the first time that he embarked on an entire tour that was exclusively solo piano.

For nearly fifty years Chick Corea has been, and continues to be, at the forefront of jazz innovation, both as pianist and composer. He was instrumental (no pun intended) in the first, and musically revolutionary, electric bands of Miles Davis and played on albums such as In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew, the jazz equivalent of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps. His 1970s group Return to Forever was an enormous force in shaping fusion, an offshoot of jazz that not only incorporated a great deal of electronics, but also music of other cultures: quite ordinary stuff now, but remarkably inventive forty years ago. Later on, his duo partnership with vibraphonist Gary Burton achieved great popular and critical success. Trying to pigeonhole Corea’s musical affinities is both impossible and totally unnecessary as he has demonstrated, through recordings and performances, his audacious talents and love of the complete spectrum of styles. In 2013 he won his twentieth Grammy Award for Hot House, wherein he re-united with Burton.

The lovely ebony Steinway grand piano stood all by its lonesome on the now immense and wood-lined stage of Baldwin Auditorium. The program said that “Mr. Corea will play selections from the following repertoire” and there followed a list of pieces that were representative of all periods of his long career. This turned out to be not entirely true as more than half played were not on the list and many that were, including some of his best known compositions, were not played.

Corea, quite small in physical stature, came out dressed in very casual black. Before he even played a note or said a word, he exuded a sense of great genuine warmth, empathy, and love of what he does – and the people he plays for. He began playing an as yet indefinable piece, melding complex harmonies with fleet runs the length of the keyboard. In these first few moments, Corea was demonstrating the essence of jazz performance and arranging. There were little teasing hints of some familiar intervals, harmonies that reminded you of a familiar tune, but the music still hung on the periphery as a delicious tease until Irving Berlin’s “How Deep is the Ocean” fully emerged. Tear it down, inspect all its parts, then rebuild it in a new form. Corea is masterful. In his next piece, Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Desafinado,” Corea somehow managed to develop his own unique rhythmic ideas and not the “required” bossa nova beat.

From here on Corea played several mini-sets that paid homage to fellow piano legends/masters (and he is certainly in that club). He spoke with great reverence about Art Tatum and Bill Evans, whom he praised as being the first jazz pianist to create a beautiful sound with his instrument. He played two of Evans’s most beautiful and popular works, “Turn Out the Stars” and “Waltz for Debby.” Far from Evans’ aesthetic, but equally influential and inventive, was Thelonious Monk. Corea played a pair of his compositions and demonstrated the unique Monk style that was often described as “playing in the cracks.”

It’s not often that you hear in the same program Stevie Wonder and Chopin, but Corea did just that. The often stolen (oops, I mean “sampled”) “Pastime Paradise” was followed by a Chopin mazurka. Corea, and the Steinway, then took a retuning break.

This was a fabulous first half, and judging by the works still left on the program list to choose from, the second half would be even better. Unfortunately, that was not to be. Perhaps it is my somewhat curmudgeonly disposition, but I am not a fan of audience participation. After a lovely returning opener called “Yellow Nimbus,” composed by Corea in memory of the recently deceased great flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia, the second half had some element of audience interaction for a major part of precious time we could have had listening to Corea, solo.

First there was a series of “Portraits” where audience members came on stage, sat in a chair by the piano and Corea improvised an impression or portrait of this person. Of course this is completely subjective, and Corea is always inventive, but it seemed a bit pointless. But this was preferable to an improvised dance where there was a woman there already dressed to dance (except for a large hole in the right buttock of her tights). Then the audience was divided into five sections, each was given a note to sing, and we served as a choral backup. Corea then played a series of phrases that we would sing back. Together, all this went on for about 30 minutes.

The majority of the audience will most likely never hear Corea in a solo concert again, so I know I’m not alone in wishing that perhaps these audience playtimes could have been replaced by some of his notable works like “Armando’s Rhumba,” “Spain” or, well, anything else. At the end Corea did play several selections from his Children’s Songs, a sort of jazz Mikrokosmos that ranged from quite simple to finger twisting.

I was sitting quite close and able to observe Corea’s mannerisms, or actually lack of such. He is a calm, controlled presence who remains focused on his magical fingers with very little extraneous movement or outward emotion. Like many great musicians, it seems that the more difficult the technique, the calmer he gets, and he has such an effortless ease that your ears and eyes are at odds. Despite the letdown of the second half, it was quite a thrill to see this legend.