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Chick Corea

Mark Sabbatini By

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No musician has used the fusion concept with more variety, intelligence and unimpeachable taste than Chick Corea. —Len Lyons, jazz author and critic
Pianist Chick Corea ranks among a top few in his mastery of jazz dialects, but many among the modern masses speak with his accent.

Corea is one of the major pioneers of fusion, and his far-ranging influence since the 1960s includes post-bop, Latin, free-form and avant-garde jazz, as well as classical. He is a rarity in his proficiency and distinctiveness on both piano and synthesizers, and is one of the first players to fully exploit the potential of electronic instruments.

"No musician has used the fusion concept with more variety, intelligence and unimpeachable taste than Chick Corea," wrote Len Lyons, a longtime jazz author and critic, in his book "The 101 Best Jazz Albums." Downbeat magazine calls him "jazz's most protean and unpredictable character."

Players influencing Corea include Mozart, Beethoven, Art Tatum, Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans and, most of all, Bud Powell. He ranks with Herbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett as the most influential keyboardists of the modern era, extending beyond countless pianists to unexpected performers such as banjo fusion pioneer Bela Fleck and even rapper D.J. Jazzy Jeff (Will Smith's partner when the actor was known as the Fresh Prince).

Career highlights include collaborating with Miles Davis on Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1969), considered by many to be the first successful rock-fusion album, and forming the landmark 1970s fusion band Return To Forever. "Spain," "La Fiesta" and "Now He Sings Now He Sobs" are among his many well-known compositions.

His trademark style is a colorful lyricism filled with dominant chords, chromatic and diminished scale runs, and rapid-fire phrasing. He's also renowned for unique electronic voicings, experimental techniques such as plucking the strings of his piano and a percussion-like approach to many pieces.

"I made a lot of headway technically and musically with my piano playing when I realized that I could regard the piano as a terrific percussion instrument," he wrote in a Music Teacher magazine article, listing a number of drummers as major influences. "Eighty-eight tuned drums! My fingers like 10 drumsticks!"

Some critics say Corea's career features dry spells—lengthy at times—evident in poorly conceived and/ or market-driven "technical bombast." His vast discography contains a surprisingly high number earning poor to mediocre reviews. About 40 percent score six or lower on a scale of one to 10 in today's two largest jazz CD guides—and that figure is somewhat deceptive due to a string of positive reviews in recent years. On the other hand, fewer than 5 percent of Corea's albums get such scores in listener reviews at Amazon.com, with the lowest ratings often going to his more critically acclaimed work.

Corea was born Armando Anthony Corea on June 12, 1941, in Chelsea, Mass., and began playing piano at age 4 (a recording of him playing "I Don't See Me in Your Eyes Anymore" at the age of 8 exists on the out-of-print Music Forever And Beyond boxed set). His father was a professional trumpet player and his enormous collection of jazz played a large role in shaping the younger Corea's future. He moved to New York and, after studying briefly at Columbia University and Julliard, began performing in 1962 with Latin jazz musicians Mongo Santamaria and Willie Bobo, plus players such as Blue Mitchell, Herbie Mann and Sarah Vaughan during the next few years.

His first studio recording came in 1962 on Santamaria's Go, Mongo! and in 1964 he recorded his first original composition, "Chick's Tune," on Mitchell's A Thing To Do. The latter is a straight-ahead performance, with only faint traces of the complex harmonies that eventually dominated his music.

Corea's voice became stronger on his 1966 debut as a leader, Tones For Joan's Bones , a hard-bop album with a modal McCoy Tyner influence. The pianist's first widespread critical acclaim came on 1967's Now He Sings, Now He Sobs, a trio album with bassist Miroslav Vitous and drummer Roy Haynes that finds Corea experimenting more with free jazz. It was the beginning of perhaps the most innovative part of his career, lasting through much of his early fusion work during the 1970s.

He got his chance to play with Davis in 1968 when the trumpet player fired Herbie Hancock for getting food poisoning during his honeymoon. Drummer Tony Williams recommended Corea as a replacement due to his rising reputation as an avant-garde performer. Davis, in the early stages of his rock/fusion phase, wanted someone to play electric piano, which Corea was somewhat reluctant to do.

"I made the best of it, but felt as though I was at a disadvantage because the quality of instrument was not really that of an acoustic instrument," Corea said later. "It was kind of a toy, sort of. So I started to try to get a sound out of it, fooling around with attachments that distorted the sound."

Corea recorded the landmark Bitches Brew and subsequent In A Silent Way albums with Davis before forming the avant-garde group Circle with bassist Dave Holland, saxophonist Anthony Braxton and drummer Barry Altschul in the early 1970s. But in 1971 "the second great discovery of my life"—Scientology and the works of L. Ron Hubbard—prompted Corea to seek a more structured musical setting aimed more at reaching an audience than sophistication. The association sometimes proved troubling in future years, with the German government at times banning him from performing there and protesters appearing at shows in other countries.

He joined bassist Stanley Clarke to form Return To Forever. The initial focus was Latin music, with woodwind player Joe Farrell joining Brazilian vocalist Flora Purim and percussionist Airto Moreira as the group's other members. Their albums Return To Forever and Light As A Feather generally remain the most critically acclaimed of those by three different Return To Forever incarnations, with the latter earning a Grammy nomination for the song "Spain."

Guitarist Bill Conners and drummer Lenny White joined Corea and Clarke in 1973 as Return To Forever became a fusion quartet, based at least somewhat intentionally on guitarist's John McLaughlin's highly popular but then-defunct Mahavishnu Orchestra. The influence is obvious on songs like "Space Circus" from their Hymn Of The Seventh Galaxy album, a generally less polished but more intense album than those following.

Al DiMeola replaced Conners for the quartet's subsequent albums. The first, Where Have I Known You Before? , also features Corea's first synthesizer work, refuting skeptics who said a personal voice wasn't possible on such instruments through a combination of soloing prowess, pitch sliding and note-bending. In 1975 No Mystery won a Grammy for best jazz instrumental performance and 1976's Romantic Warrior became the group's most popular by achieving gold record status.

But the acclaim and growing commercial success were accompanied by a healthy dose of criticism. At the simplest level, jazz fans found too much rock in the music and rock fans found too much jazz. Also, many fusion fans and critics said certain albums were clinched, undisciplined, insincere or just lousy—although which albums were praised and panned varied widely due to the shifting of styles and personnel.

The divide can be seen on the final Return To Forever studio album, 1977's Musicmagic. Corea dropped the electric guitar, expanded the instrumentalists into a 13-piece ensemble with a string section and added vocals—including his own—to many of the songs. The album was a big seller and some hail it as a complex transition to Corea's subsequent individual work, but it is also widely attacked as commercial light pop with a grating sound.

Criticism is also frequent on Corea's individual albums, recorded with increasing frequency as Return To Forever neared its final breakup. But again there is little consistency, as some albums hailed as his finest work are blasted by others as among his worst, based often on whether the constantly changing themes are accepted as sincere or contrived. Fans of 1976's My Spanish Heart , for instance, call it a stellar tribute to Corea's heritage made more daring by his rare use of a large ensemble, critics call it a clinched and lackluster performance by an ill-chosen group of players.

Similar comments are made about other eclectic albums from this period such as The Leprechaun and The Mad hatter. But a handful of more straight-ahead efforts such as 1972's Crystal Silence , a collaboration with vibraphonist Gary Burton with a strong chamber presence, are generally well-acclaimed. Other such recordings included a series of solo piano improvisations for the ECM label and a concert with Herbie Hancock.

Straight-ahead performances were more prevalent in Corea's playing during the first half of the 1980s as, perhaps not coincidentally, a public backlash to '70s-era fusion emerged. Albums such as Live In Montreux , Three Quartets and Trio won widespread acclaim as Corea joined with players like Joe Henderson, Michael Brecker, Eddie Gomez and Roy Haynes. The irony was a drop in sales and magazine reader polls that consistently ranked him as one of the top keyboardists of the 1970s.

"In the late '70s, on the basis of RTF's fusion sales record, he was given what Corea called a 'big-time advance' by Warner Brothers," according to 1998 article in Culture Kiosque magazine. "But while the company was expecting a sort of RTF2, he was by then interested in making acoustic chamber jazz. The first two records under the deal did not sell well."

"When a record doesn't make its money back, if that goes on for awhile, then a musician is going to feel like his product is no good," Corea said in the interview, noting he and Warner broke off an agreement to record four more albums. "The financial reality tends to invalidate the musical value. Eventually it puts the musician in a frame of mind where he uses his energy trying to make music that isn't really his."

Corea made his second major splash on the fusion scene in 1986 with the Elektric Band, comprised of players and styles he has worked with with at least intermittently ever since. The emphasis was often compositional rather than improvisational, with less adventurous songs and fewer solos than the Return To Forever bands. The synthesizer-drenched music is also dated, but less so than Corea's 1970s fusion.

The group dominated contemporary jazz sales charts and all but the last of their six albums received Grammy nominations or awards. They didn't impress all critics and straight-ahead fans—the group's self-titled debut initially got a one-star review in Downbeat —but some revised and raised their ratings in retrospect (one Downbeat reviewer eventually gave it four out of five stars).

"(It was) not that much of a compromise at all," said saxophonist Eric Marienthal, who joined the group following the album's release, in an interview years later. But "because it wasn't Chick Corea playing acoustic piano and playing 'hip' music, a lot of people just didn't care for it."

Other members of the group included bassist John Patitucci, drummer Dave Weckl and guitarist Frank Gambale, with all four sidemen becoming successful lead artists in their own right. Corea also worked some of his fusion-oriented themes into a traditional setting by releasing trio two albums with Patitucci and Weckl as the Akoustic Band, earning another Grammy nomination and an award in the process.
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