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Interviews

Chick Corea's Spirit of Creativity

By Published: March 28, 2003

I see that the world is more turbulent now than it ever was and the music is not reflecting it

Turbulent times, these are. Times of bloodshed and fear that touch not only far-off lands, but the heart of the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave, from Maine to El Paso, and from Miami to Seattle. People's minds are cluttered by apprehension and concern. In such an atmosphere, it must be hard for artists to create and express the spirit of creativity when spirit seems deserted.

"It's harder and harder" to create art, reflected Chick Corea not long before the war in Iraq began. "As hard as it is for you and every other person to even travel on any airlines, that's one reflection of how hard it is to get artistic creations happening in the world today. But it's not impossible."

Yet chaotic times have produced important music in the past, like the 1960s - Dylan, Coltrane's spiritual search, protest songs, psychedelic music, and Bitches Brew. Has that chaos created a caldron in which creative inspiration is being stirred?

"I see that the world is more turbulent now than it ever was and the music is not reflecting it," says the composer-pianist. "There was more freedom of expression in the '60s. There was revolt. There was 'We want freedom.' There was Martin Luther King, human rights coming to the fore. Today, a lot of that is under wraps and gone suppressed. So the music we hear is kind of just 'nice' music. There's not a lot of cutting edge music going on, and yet the world is in total turbulence. War is all over the place."

Difficult for artists, but not impossible.

"The basic truth that continues to sit there is the fact that an artist has his direct communication with the audience in front of him. My basic theory is that if I can continue to find people in front of me, the people themselves are similar to the way they were, ever," said Corea. "That is, they respond to creativity. It's just how to gather them together and where to gather them, and how to extract them from their TV sets and from the styles of the day. But live music will never die."

Live music is just the thing on Corea's soon-to-be-released double-CD set, Rendezvous in New York (available April 24). The recording is a sparkling compilation culled from three weeks of live music at the Blue Note nightclub in New York City. It features various performances with many of Corea's old friends and old bands. It was recorded in December of 2001, as a celebration of his 60th birthday that year.

Behind this set, which samples all of the bands that played the Blue Note over the three-week stint, will come separate CDs on each group, said Corea. It was also filmed in the cutting edge Direct Stream Digital (DSD) audio technology and the new 24P Hi Definition video format. The video will be seen on places like the Internet's HDNet and other markets are being looked into. DVDs are also a possibility.

The music comes from a portion of Corea's musical life, but it's all freshly done, on the spot. It's not all-inclusive — no Return to Forever, for example. Corea was reluctant to go back and play older music, but was convinced by club manager and old friend Sal Haries that a birthday celebration theme would work.

"I kept thinking about it as being a kind of reunion and it didn't interest me so much. But he kind of convinced me in the direction of being a fun party. So I started calling some friends up and the response was great. What started to be a one-week celebration turned out to be a three-week birthday celebration," he said. "It ended up being nine different groups playing two nights each at the club. Almost all of them were some of my projects with these great musicians. One was a brand new project, the duet with Gonzalo Rubalcaba. But it was a ball. We had the great time, so we took the opportunity to record it all and film it all."

Included are duets with Bobby McFerrin and Rubalcaba, the trio with Roy Haynes and Miroslav Vitous that recorded the excellent Now He sings, Now He Sobs LP, another "Crystal Silence" duet with Gary Burton on vibes; the Acoustik Band with John Patitucci and Dave Weckl; the Origins band with Avishai Cohen, Jeff Ballard, Steve Davis and Tim Garland; the Remembering Bud Powell group, with Joshua Redman, Haynes, Christian McBride and Terrance Blanchard; the New Trio with Ballard and Garland; and the Three Quartets band with Michael Brecker, Steve Gadd and Eddie Gomez.

Throughout, the music is splendid, full of creative solos, thoughtful investigation of tunes, and with that special quality of being live music.

"Being a musician doing what I'm doing at all is like leading a pretty charmed life, traveling around playing the music I love to play - and my own music, mostly, for my whole life. I continue to love doing what I'm doing. To have the friendship and the musical partnership with the greatest musicians alive is, of course, an honor and a great joy each time it happens. That's why this project was so special," he said, "because so many of these friends came together and, on fairly short notice, were able to come and play and be part of this project. So it was very fulfilling."

Armando Anthony Corea has been on a musical journey well over 40 years, even though that's the figure being tossed out as the length of his "career." The prolific and diverse pianist-composer has been on that voyage since his early days growing up in Chelsea, Mass., listening to his father play trumpet and having dad point out Bud Powell piano solos on records.

The journey has taken him from Mongo Santamaria to Stan Getz, to Sarah Vaughan. And of course the Miles connection that indelibly stamped so many careers; the people in Davis' musical family becoming part of the mystical and mythical forest surrounding the Prince of Darkness. But there's been so much more. Circle, with Dave Holland, Barry Altschul and Anthony Braxton. The revered fusion band Return to Forever. The Acoustik and Elektric bands. Origins. Classical works. And 10 Grammy awards along the way.

At this writing, Corea was off to play in Italy with bassist John Benitez and drummer Jeff Ballard, and had planned summer duets concerts as well as an Elektric Band tour. All the while, his eyes are on the future, including the creation of a piano concerto that will be presented during the Mozart 300th anniversary celebration in Austria in 2006.

Corea is an artist that doesn't put things into categories. He doesn't fret if jazz purists don't like his electric stuff or don't like funkier music. He doesn't look over his shoulder to see the reaction when he chooses to perform classical music and concertos.

"It's been an interesting story in my life, this thing about eclecticness, or whatever you want to call it. I never paid much attention to forms or what I was doing with regard to styles. The only time I ever get drawn to the idea is when others draw me to the idea, and they're saying, 'Well, gee you're doing this, and then you do that, and then you do that.' And I say, yeah, I guess I do.

"I always saw the kind of music I love being involved in as having an atmosphere of freedom in it. Freedom to develop ideas. I never saw music as having a law about it, one way or the other. I'm just taking whatever path musically - whatever sounds, musically, whatever instruments - to take me on musical journeys that end up making this kind of music, different kind of music. The rallying point is my own interest and what choices I make about what I want to do."

Corea has a calm, yet direct style of speaking and he expresses his opinions without any hint of pretension. He's confident in his direction and comfortable with the idea that not everyone is going to jump on the bandwagon. In fact, he has no bandwagon. He's just an artist who continues to try and grow and search and make music that means something. His talk with All About Jazz was enjoyable and informative, evidenced by these highlights:

All About Jazz: Where did that variety come from in your music? Does it come from your upbringing, your musical curiosity, different influences growing up?

Chick Corea: My father's interest in music was jazz music. He was a trumpeter. He led a band around Boston and they played a modern Dixieland style. When I was a tot, I grew up in an atmosphere of my dad playing his record collection of 78 rpm vinyl. It was Diz and Bird. Bud Powell was in some of those bands. I remember listening to Bud. Billy Eckstine big band was part of my dad's collection. That was the kind of music my father liked, but quickly after that I got interested in Latin music and Latin grooves and Latin dance music. So when I first arrived in New York after high school, I connected up with Latin players and actually got a wonderful tenure with Mongo Santamaria's band and made contact with a lot of Latin players.

But the journey goes on and on in investigating all kinds of music. Classical music, different kind of cultural music. Dave Holland and I used to listen to the Bulgarian singers that are now quite popular. Jazz musicians have gotten interested in their music. So my interests have taken me all over the place.

AAJ: On piano, who struck your fancy as a young kid?

CC: On recordings, Bud Powell was the first pianist I heard that caught my ear. I used to like to listen to his piano solos. My father pointed them out. I was 6 or 7 years old. As I was beginning to play the piano, I couldn't nearly approach trying to play anything like what Bud played. It was too technical for me. But I do remember the first pianist whose music I started to take as kind of a university course was Horace Silver's music. I had some of his quintet music, his early music, including Blowin' the Blues Away with Blue Mitchell and Junior Cook and Gene Taylor. That became a learning process for me. I did a lot of transcribing of Horace's compositions, transcribed his piano solos. He was a pianist I was very much interested in.

Then as the years went on, I think I listened to and learned a lot from a lot of different pianists. In a recent book I wrote - it's called "A Work in Progress" because it's not over yet - It's sort of like my write-up on what I do musically; how I practice and how I write music. Not intended as an instructional book, more as a book where I share with other musicians how I do things and if they can learn from it, it's fine. In that book, I finally sat down and made the list of pianists I feel I learned from or got inspired by in one way or another. And gee, it's a whole page of pianists, from Vladimir Horowitz through to Wynton Kelly and Bill Evans and Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, McCoy Tyner. The list could be extended now, because there are other pianists I've found as well. It's a piano club, you know?

AAJ: What would you say was your big professional break.

CC: My charmed life was such that practically each step that I made through the '60s, before I had my own bands, was a break. To me, a big break was when I got the gig with Mongo Santamaria. It was an incredible break for me to break into the New York scene as a teenager. After that, I worked with the Sister Sadie All Stars, which was Blue Mitchell's quintet. I actually made some of my first jazz records with Blue and actually got a composition of mine on one of Blue's recordings. But then another great break was playing with the Stan Getz quartet, that helped me out a lot. And working with Sarah Vaughan was a wonderful musical experience and break for me. But the gig that everyone considered the prime gig was the gig with Miles.

AAJ: Ah. That's a whole section in itself. Was that through Tony Williams?

CC: I think Tony was the one that recommended me to Miles. Miles probably heard me play when I was working with the Blue Mitchell group because we used to do these stints up at Minton's Playhouse for four and five weeks at a time. Miles came by several times to sit in with the group. Sometimes he'd just hang out. He probably heard me play up there. And then Tony, later on, in '68 reminded him - maybe he remembered back then, I don't know. I never did ask him - but I think Tony was definitely my connection, the guy who recommended me to the quintet and how I got the gig.

AAJ: Was that intimidating at first?

CC: It was a pretty emotional experience, after what for me at that time was a lifetime of listening to Miles and following his recordings and learning from the musicians around him and so forth, to actually be on the stage with him. There was already an aura about the group that I was coming into, which was the group with Herbie [Hancock] and Wayne [Shorter], Tony and Ron Carter. So when that group began to disperse, and things changed, and I found myself sitting in the piano chair, it was pretty intense at first, the first bits of it. But Miles himself, in retrospect I can remember, was in a mode of just continuing on with his musical life. He commented a few times at the beginning, when I got in the band, then about six months later when Jack DeJohnette joined the band, he commented how it was change again for him. He would say 'Change again.' This was another change for him, that he was then getting accustomed to, which was a whole new set of musicians with a whole new set of ideas and it was a wonderful experience.

AAJ: The electronics of it, was that something you were ready for?

CC: Not at all. I was extremely disappointed. I thought the electric pianos were kind of a coloration thing in addition to the ensemble. One night as I was walking on stage and heading toward the acoustic piano, Miles turned around, pointed at the Fender Rhodes and said 'Play that.' So I did. Probably from that day forward, which was about six or eight months after I got in the band, I played pretty much exclusively electric keyboards. Mainly the Rhodes. So I learned as I went along and it was an experiment.

AAJ: It had to be something like being in a laboratory, almost, that band. Does it still stand out as one of the highlights?

CC: Miles approached that whole thing kind of like he was cooking up a spiritual brew. He was like a witch doctor. He brought all of these musicians together and he was brewing the pot. It wasn't like he was giving out a bunch of directions about what to do, because he wasn't. He'd bring in tunes, or he'd bring in the bare essentials or a line, or a vamp, or a groove or something or other. But he really wouldn't ever give much instruction to anyone about how to play. Therefore we all got the idea in that band that we were to play it as we heard it. It was a very free atmosphere. We were leading each other around and maybe trying to follow Miles along to see what direction he wanted to take things. But there was quite a bit of give-and-take in it as well. The rhythm section would set up things and set up atmospheres and grooves and different kind of directions that Miles would then embellish on and take somewhere. It reminded me of Miles' cooking. He was an excellent cook.

One of my takes on Miles' leadership qualities was just that. All of the great bands that he had, I think he pretty much had that kind of a tacit, unspoken policy about the band. Which was that everyone in the band would play freely. If you analyze the music of the Great Quintet with Herbie and Tony and Ron Carter and Wayne, it's that way. And earlier than that, with Coltrane and Philly Joe Jones and later on Bill Evans and Jimmy Cobb, all of those musicians, you can hear their individuality come shining through on everything that they did.

AAJ: The spirit of the music you can hear in all those different eras. I think you can also hear it in your music. It seems to me that today, a lot of music is the same. It seems like it's still you and Wayne and Herbie, and Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette and Keith Jarrett, the people from those Miles bands, who are the ones now making the exciting music.

CC: There's something amongst the group you just listed that is what I grew up in and what I love and what I'll always be in, which is a spirit of freedom. A spirit of creative freedom and the willingness to actually do anything with music. If you analyze any of the musical careers of all of those guys that you've listed, you'll come up with an incredible eclecticness and an incredible breadth of investigation into different ways of making music. To me, that's the real fun and statement of the art of music. As far as whether music should have a groove or should not have a groove is all personal taste. It's hard to make any kind of judgment about musical styles because the style itself is not music, it's some kind of an arbitrary designation placed - also arbitrarily - on some area of music, which is arbitrarily selected.

It's an interesting subject though. Which way the music goes culturally is one thing to look at, and how individual musical tastes are involved in that is another look at it. Definitely that freedom spirit that I was talking about is much less prevalent in the music world today. One of the basic reasons for that is not anything to do with the potentials and musicality and creativity and desires of musicians and artists. That's a factor affected by the society itself and the culture around us and what is possible and not possible to achieve as a working musician in the world today. It's a cultural problem. It's a governmental problem. It's society's problem.

AAJ: When it comes to live music, electric versus acoustic, do you have a preference? Is it a feeling, deciding which way you're going to go? What plays into that?

CC: You can think about electric instruments and acoustic instruments as just tools of the trade. It's like whether you're writing a poem or a short story or a novel or a promo blurb or a report, different kinds of writings. Different kinds of techniques are needed. Different kinds of effects are produced by the use of these techniques. Same thing. Electric instruments and the sound of music is all surrounded in the subject of the style of music and the clothing that you put on a message. You can deliver a message of gentleness, for instance, with an acoustic piano solo. You can deliver a message of gentleness with a 100-piece symphony orchestra playing gently. Electric instruments have their use and they have an effect they create on the listener. That's how I use them.

I like them for certain effects. I'm bringing the Elektric Band back together again for touring and a recording, enjoying very much playing with the electric instruments and creating a certain sound that communicates a certain way to audiences.

AAJ: It doesn't bother you that some people might say, 'He's not playing jazz,' when you go electric and get a little funkier?

CC: That's a pretty simple subject. A critic is a critic. Anyone has the freedom to be critical about whatever they want to be critical about. Everyone is free to their own opinions. Art is a subject that is inundated with opinions. In fact, that's all it is about is opinions. If you think about the old adage that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, which is absolutely true, then what one considers art or beautiful or valid or pure or correct or whatever you want to call it, is pure opinion. The only problem is when a critic tries to place himself in some position of authority, which is just some marked up authority, and it starts to look like law, what he says. This is when it gets a little silly. That kind of thing stopped bothering me a long, long time ago. I think that the world is made up of a lot of people and they all think differently, and they're welcome to it.

AAJ: How about a musician like Wynton Marsalis, who has a certain status and the media seems to hang on what he says. He's on TV a lot. Does it bother you that he is a bit dogmatic about what he thinks is jazz?

CC: I have a personal policy to not ever enter an arena like that. It's negative. I have one opinion on Wynton Marsalis. He's one of the most incredible trumpet players of the century. And that's it. Cause that's true. He's an incredible musician. I heard something by him the other day, in fact I decided I wanted to get this piece. Gayle [his wife] and I were listening to it on the radio. It's a piece of classical music that sounds like "Flight of the Bumble Bee" but it's not. It's some incredibly technical piece, but so beautifully rendered. It sounds like it's done in one breath. It sounds like part of the piece is circular breathing. It put my hair up on the back of my neck, and we said, 'We've got to find out who that is.' And at the end the announcer said it was Wynton Marsalis. And I said 'Good on you, Wynton, man, that's incredible.' I stay out of that other stuff. All it leads to is more of that other stuff.

AAJ: The direction that music is going, do you like what you see?

CC: I have a different opinion about the quote-unquote direction of music, and it's the direction of our society. You could list numerous people who you know, who have incredible aesthetic judgment, or they sing great or they can do something aesthetically, but have never developed the talent. Being an artist is something that's natural to every human being. So the direction of music in the future has all to do with how families and communities and nations and governments treat their artists and treat the whole subject of art.

The more it gets encouraged from society's point of view, the easier it will be, the more artists will participate and grow, the more schools there'll be, the more performances there'll be, the more music will be made and everything. That's an indication of a healthy culture. Music is only made and sold for money, which is the lowest motivation there could be. Not an illegal thing, to want money, but if that's your only motivation, that's not a very spiritual thing to do. I think it's a societal problem.

As you can tell, the styles today range all the way from far left to far right. You've got success with Tony Bennett and Dianna Krall in wonderfully accessible, genuinely high-quality music, and you've also got huge success from music from groups that actually have very negative messages and cause very negative effects on society. So you have the whole gamut of it. I don't know how to predict the future of music without trying to predict the future of our society.

I'm a scientologist, so I have a very positive outlook on life. The aims of scientologists are a world without criminality and without insanity where able people can prosper. This is a positive look at life. The way that operates in my life is that I feel that our future is something we can determine, not something that's some kind of destiny. If all of us that are concerned about the future of music and the future of art actually get busy doing something about it, I think we would achieve some positive results; getting some action going in the community, supporting some young artist - anything. Even devoting some time and energy to some young family member who shows interest in music. My encouragement is for all of us who love music and art to create our future and make it real positive, make it a new Golden Age.

AAJ: Times change, but the scene that jazz people grew up in, with jam sessions and hanging out and going to Minton's, Dizzy taking people to his house and showing them things, doesn't seem to exist anymore. There's a lot of great music schools, but that kind of organic, learn-from-each-other thing doesn't seem to be there.

CC: As my lifestyle changed, when you start to lead your own band, it's very different from being a youngster and getting your face into everything you can get into. I think those scenes still exist. New York is a great example. It has a very burgeoning underground, musicians all over the city who are making things happen. Probably not in the same way as years ago. I still think that the problem is the same. The problem is both society and the environment have to make it a little more encouraging for artists to do their thing.



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