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Chick Corea

Mark Sabbatini By

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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."

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