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 spellslengthy at timesevident 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 guidesand 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."