Chick Corea

Mark Sabbatini By

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"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.

Corea has released perhaps his best and most diverse work since the breakup of the Elektric Band in 1991, shifting consistently from traditional to fusion to experiments in classical music, with a corresponding change in personnel for the albums and tours. Part of the diversity is due to his co-founding of Stretch Records in 1992 with producer Ron Moss, which the pianist says allow him greater freedom in issuing recordings by himself and other musicians. It also allowed him to issue unreleased and little-known previous recordings, which sometimes fell victim to a rocky relationship with the music industry.

Highlight recordings from recent years include an all-star sextet tribute on 1997's Remembering Bud Powell , a live performance of his first original symphonic work on 2000's Corea.Concerto , and the 2003 Rendezvous In New York reunion concert with many former sidemen to celebrate his 60th birthday. That year he also reunited the Elektric Band for a concert tour and the 2004 studio album To The Stars.

The broad approach is likely to continue for Corea, who has been nominated for nearly 50 Grammy awards and won more than 10 as of 2004, as freedom remains one of his main points of emphasis in his musical and spiritual life. Such efforts, he says, are a natural rather than deliberative process.

"'Style' is what the listener sees after it's all put together and gliding along," he wrote in response to a fan's question about his abililty to shift between a wide range of genres. "Style is never something which I consider while creating a composition or a band or a performance. Like, if it rains, you put on a raincoat and a hat—and that's your style that day. If the sun's out you put on your sunglasses—and that's your style that day."


Considering Corea's influence and productivity, it is somewhat remarkable he has no albums considered to be consensus top-tier "classics" in the realm of Miles Davis' Kind Of Blue , John Coltrane's Giant Steps or even Herbie Hancock's Maiden Voyage. Indeed, esteemed New York Times jazz critic Ben Ratliff doesn't include a single album on which Corea plays -much less leads—in his book "Essential Library Jazz" detailing the writer's top 100 picks.

That's not to say he doesn't have his share of four-and five-star releases, and certainly some observers include various albums in their "must-have" rankings. But those albums often vary and there is sharp disagreement about early albums most likely to be considered landmarks.

Corea's versatility and progression in playing styles over the years means non-completists will likely want to learn about and hone in on certain works and eras. His first decade of recording from the mid 1960s to '70s is generally the most adventurous, his subsequent work into the '90s ranges from commercially oriented fusion to near-legendary traditional sessions, and recent years has seen him tilt more toward traditional and experimental projects earning the most consistent critical acclaim.


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