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Chick Corea: Creative Giant

Chick Corea: Creative Giant

Courtesy Martin Philbey


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Virtuosity is a beautiful thing. One would somehow like to believe that anybody can learn how to play any given instrument with delicate, enchanting energy; but truth be told, some are simply born with a gift that most can only dream of. The ability to amaze others through music, enriching the hearts and widening the creative searching horizons of those who listen, with melodies and breathtaking performances, that is something extraordinary. Connections are made between musicians and the world; emotions are provoked and often explored; jazz is transformed with every single note and yet kept as pure as it always was. And in the middle of all that dazzling adventure, we stand in awe while our souls grow up in the presence of music. That must be one of the many reasons why we love jazz.

Much can be said about jazz pianist, keyboardist and composer Chick Corea's musical career, but there still are not enough words to describe how wealthy in colors, textures and light his core is. A tireless genius, he understood the importance of self worth a long time ago, and nothing but the most spectacular recordings and live performances have come from it since he first stepped in a recording studio to lead his own projects, way back in 1966. His tuneful vision became his voice; his music, the trail to explore his own humanity. Jazz gave him the perfect vehicle to express himself.

When Return to Forever hit the ground running in 1972, Chick Corea and bassist Stanley Clarke dressed jazz in an electric suit that would everlastingly influence the way they approached music: more adventurous, more open to suggestion, more universal. By the time drummer Lenny White joined the group— after playing on Miles Davis' Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1969) and Freddie Hubbard's Red Clay (CTI, 1970)—RTF was already part of a more ambitious and groundbreaking history of jazz. Together they played acoustic and electric music, and by 1977 the band had already reached permanent legendary status. In 2009, following a reunion tour with guitarist Al Di Meola, these three virtuosos rejoined forces once more, this time as a trio, for a tour documented on Forever (Concord, 2011). They revisit classics like Bill Evans' "Waltz for Debby" and Corea's own "Bud Powell" on an all acoustic first CD, while a bonus second disc features guests including vocalist Chaka Khan, original RTF guitarist Bill Connors, and violinist Jean-Luc Ponty.

The double album presents a magnificent Chick Corea at his best. Creative, striking and vigorous, his straight-ahead piano/keyboard solos are built around the always stirring memory of a historical ensemble: Corea-Clarke-White. Revisited, rebuilt, reinvented; a cosmic connection in jazz music that will ceaselessly keep flowing a fresh aura of inventiveness.

All About Jazz: How do you think Return to Forever happened in the first place, or maybe why did it happen?

Chick Corea: Oh well, RTF started because I was on a search to put a band together that had a groove rhythm, that was very melodic, and that had also vocals in it, because I had just come from playing two years of really great and experimental music with a group that I had, called Circle, and I was really missing playing music that had great rhythm in it. So I began to write music that I wanted to perform. I was in California when I was thinking of that idea; I had an apartment in Los Angeles, and I drove all the way to New York with this idea on my mind, and on one gig that I played with the Joe Henderson Group I met Stanley Clarke for the first time, who was playing the bass. So we enjoyed playing with one another and I started showing Stanley some of my music and we did some trio playing, until finally a group evolved and we started doing gigs.

I found Flora Purim to sing, and then Flora brought her husband [drummer and percussionist Airto Moreira] along, who I knew because I had played with Airto in Miles Davis' band. To that I added in the flute—I loved to have that sound along with my Fender Rhodes—and I found Joe Farrell, who I thought was perfect for the band. The band just started working, and everyone enjoyed it, and we were getting gigs and it became a group.

People must have been ready for us, because the people that came to the shows were smiling and enjoying it and becoming fans. You never have a long view of how the future will look at what you do when you play, I never do. I just make my music and then, later on, I see what happens.

All About Jazz: What's different about playing with Clarke, White, and even Bill Connors today, compared to back in the '70s?

Chick Corea: You know, the things that are different over these years are the unimportant things. The things that are the same are the important things, and that's the friendship that we established and our love of music, and the fact that we love to play together and have a lot of fun. All of those things didn't change at all; the body changes and the culture changes, music changes, styles of music change, but that friendship and joy of playing with one another, that's the big deal, and that doesn't change.

AAJ: Why the separation between the two discs on Forever—acoustic versus electric?

CC: Well, it was an evolution from that electric moment, because that electric time in the studio, we were not making a recording, we were rehearsing for a one-time gig at the Hollywood Bowl, and it was basically RTF with friends. We invited Billy Connors, who was the first guitarist to play with RTF; and then Jean-Luc Ponty, who never played with RTF but is a close friend of ours and who was very much a part of the creation of the fusion music of the seventies that we were all a part of; and then Chaka Khan, who was also a part of that performance. So we were just rehearsing, and the tape was recording while we were rehearsing. But then after we did that one concert, Stanley, Lenny and I had already been planning to do a trio tour that year, 2009. At first we were going to take electric instruments, but then we decided at the last moment that we wanted to make it all acoustic music, so we went ahead and did, I don't know, fifty or sixty concerts with the trio. So that whole flow began with that rehearsal those couple of days in the studio. So there is a connection between Stanley, Lenny and I, and our connection with the electric side and the acoustic side that we finally did on that tour.

AAJ: What is so appealing to you about electric jazz-rock and fusion, versus straight-ahead and acoustic?

CC: What is really appealing to me are the musicians who make the music; the instruments that they play are secondary to me. I like playing with Stanley and Lenny both, and whether we play the electric instruments or the acoustic instruments, it's the same feeling. We have a connection and a communication that is very joyful and pleasurable, so really, the difference is in the instruments and the different forms of music that we can make using either ones.

The three of us basically grew up first with acoustic instruments and playing jazz; that was in the beginning, in the sixties, for me in the fifties and the sixties. Then electric instruments started to come around in the late sixties and early seventies, and anything with a keyboard attached to it always got my attention; so I got into the electric keyboards, and with Stanley I have been into electric bass and so forth. Stanley, like me, he loves it all. So when we play now with RTF, specially the new band that we are putting together, we combine both ways of playing: we play the electric instruments and the acoustic instruments and we combine them sometimes.

AAJ: Where did the name of the band, Return to Forever, come from?

CC: Well, it doesn't come from anywhere. It comes from my imagination, I suppose you could say. It's just a poetic phrase meaning "basic nature"; forever means no time and outside of time, and it is that place you go where it's just you, it's your basic natural way of being alive. We always try to go to that place, to return to that place, and it's easy to get into kind of a mechanical existence when you live on planet earth, and trying to make money, and pay for the rent and eat food, and keep the body healthy, and drive a car and so forth. But really where we live is in the creative imagination, and that's just...forever. Return to Forever is just a poetic way of saying it, that's all.

AAJ: What do you like the most about Forever?

CC: I like that it expresses, for the first time, the broad area of musical tastes that I share with Stanley Clarke and Lenny White. It shows the electric side of our music, and it also shows not only the acoustic side but the fact that we chose those tracks from a long, sixty-concert tour, so touring and being on the road playing every night is part of our lives. I think this is the first time we ever put out a live album like that. So I think it shows more the basic essence and soul of what we do. In this way I am really happy about being able to share that with everybody.

AAJ: Lenny White said that this was the first time that the trio side of RTF, as an acoustic setting, had been documented.

CC: This is true. When Lenny joined RTF we had already made two recordings with the earlier version, with Flora, Airto and Joe Farrell. But when Lenny joined, we were playing the electric music. But almost every show we played, eventually it had some acoustic trio in it, but we never went on tour and played it as an essential thing, and this is the first time we have done that, which is exciting to me, too.

AAJ: There have been several jazz musicians that have already mentioned as examples of extreme and beautiful creativity through the years. Where do you think your creativity comes from?

CC: Well, I don't think creativity comes from any place. You can't look for a place. It's not in New Jersey, and it's not in Sao Paolo, and it's not at Whole Foods Market, it's not a place. It's the basic way that a spiritual being is, that a person is; it's the way you are. You are basically creative, so the problem is trying to continue to be creative in this life. But it is the most valuable thing we have, I think—creativity, our imagination, the ability to create something new, to have ideas, and then go ahead and do them. I don't think there's a place where it comes from; it comes from you.

AAJ: Is there ever a minute on your day where you don't think of music?

CC: The answer is no, but I try to live my life in an artistic way, not just when I am playing the piano—like everybody does, really. I try to be creative about other things that I do. My wife, Gayle, and I, we try to keep our home in a beautiful, creative way. So it's a wavelength, to be creative. And it's a natural thing to do as well, and I just try to be there all the time.

AAJ: I know you started out playing drums as a kid. Do you ever wonder what it would have been like to pick drums instead of piano as your main instrument?

CC: Drums have always been a passion, ever since I got my first set of drums, when I was about eight or ten years old. I have always had a drum kit by my piano, and I still have it now. I also have a marimba instrument, which is an instrument that I like a lot, and I play it too. Drums, well, it's just a passion, what can I say? I'd like to get a gig on drums. Sometimes I try to mock myself to some of my friends, and say, "Hey man, if your drummer can't make it give me a call" [laughs]. But I've learned an incredible amount about music from great drummers. Going back to the drummers that played with Duke Ellington and Count Basie, to Philly Joe Jones, Max Roach, Elvin Jones, Tony Williams and Roy Haynes...These drummers, to me, are the essence of jazz, the essence of music. So I like to play drums, to keep in touch with the rhythm.

AAJ: What do you remember about that first gig with Cab Calloway?

CC: Oh, you dug that one up, huh? I was, like, in high school, I don't think I was even senior, I think I was sixteen or something like that. I guess they couldn't find a pianist to play the Cab Calloway show in Boston and somehow I got recommended, because I could read music, and they wanted me to do this show. So I had never done a gig like that, I had hardly done any gigs, actually. They had a chorus line there of girls too, where they didn't have too many clothes on and stuff, and I was all embarrassed about that, but it was fun, really. Cab Calloway is like a monster to me, such a great performer.

One of the memories of that gig was that there was a pianist, an older man even at that time, 1957—two years before I graduated high school—that played the piano at the lounge of the hotel. His name was Herman Chittison, and he played solo piano in the lounge and had a style like Art Tatum. I used to go in between shows and sit next to him and watch him and listen to him play. It was a great pleasure to me to listen to Herman Chittison.

AAJ: And what do you remember about recording with trumpeter Blue Mitchell on The Thing To Do (Blue Note, 1964)?

CC: Oh, that was a big, big step in my life, because in 1964 I was only in New York for a couple of years, and I got to play with the musicians that were playing with my, at that time, all-time favorite band, which was the Horace Silver Quintet—Blue Mitchell, Junior Cook, Gene Taylor and Roy Brooks. When Horace Silver wasn't working with his quintet, Blue Mitchell would take leadership of the group, find another pianist and go do gigs. So somehow I must have gotten a good recommendation from somebody and I ended up playing with Blue. That first record that we did, The Thing to Do, was recorded at Rudy Van Gelder Studios, a fond memory to me, which I believe was with Al Foster on drums, although Roy Brooks was the original drummer in that band. Al Foster joined the band shortly after Roy Brooks.

I got a lesson in music that was very valuable, and Blue Mitchell treated me kinda like a son, he took me under his wing, and helped me out and showed me things. It was a glorious couple of years that I spent with that band.

AAJ: Why did you choose jazz over classical?

CC: Well, my father was a jazz musician. He led a band. All of the music that I heard when I was young was jazz music, and it appealed to me because it was creative and it was loose and it was very natural, and the musicians who played jazz were communicative and looked like they were having fun. My first impression of classical music was that it was kind of stiff and formal, and it was not the way I liked to be. But it was mainly the music; jazz music was filled with the kind of emotion and life that I was attracted to immediately. I had no doubt that that was the music I wanted to play.

AAJ: Is it true that you studied musical education for one month at Columbia University and six months at The Juilliard School, and quit because you were disappointed?

CC: Well, not that black and white, but at Columbia I was there for maybe two weeks, maybe three weeks or so before I realized that that was not really how I should be spending my time. Those few weeks that I spent in New York I spent them going to jazz clubs, and I was way more interested in the music. Then I realized that I had gone there on the advice of others, rather than on my own steam—not that Columbia is a bad school, or anything like that. So I called my parents in Boston, and I told them that I really didn't want to do that, and we came up with the idea of going to Julliard School of Music, because that was in the area of music. So I went there the next year, and it was better, but only to find out that the kind of thing that was being taught was not what I was wanting to learn. I finally realized after all of that that what I really wanted to do was play with the musicians in New York City and learn from the musicians who I loved.

At that time, 1960-1961, New York was filled with the great jazz musicians of all time: Miles Davis, John Coltrane Quartet with Elvin and McCoy and Jimmy Garrison, Ornette Coleman. Sonny Rollins was playing around town, Maynard Ferguson's band, Count Basie was there, Duke Ellington was there, Tito Puente, Eddie Palmieri... What was I doing with my head in a book when the real deal was happening with these bands? So that's when I decided what I wanted to do: I wanted to go learn from the people who were making the music that I wanted to play. So that's what I finally spent the rest of the sixties doing, learning from my heroes.

It's well-known, in the world of people that are successful in what they do, that degrees in anything might tell something, but they don't really tell the story you want to know, which is how competent is the person, how well can he make music, how well can he play his instrument and so forth. It doesn't matter how the person gets there, whether he went to school or didn't go to school, it doesn't matter. I just think that the essence of education is apprenticeship and, no matter what kind of books you read or other opinions that you get of the subject that you are studying, eventually to work with a person who is a master in the subject that you are trying to learn is the best way to do it. That's why the practical mind of a musicians always says, "Well, you gotta go out and work"; but I have to add that you have to choose who you are working with, so that you know you are working with someone that you can learn from, and improve yourself by expanding your knowledge. It's still my joy in making music.

It doesn't matter how old the musician is, because most musicians are younger than me now; but I can work with a musician that I can learn something from, like with Christian McBride and Brian Blade, whom I have worked with recently. They are younger than me. I have learned a tremendous amount working with them. Actually, most musicians that I work with, I learn from. It's a constant joy to learn that way. In a school, if there was a way to help the musician realize his only goals, however he does it, then that would be a good thing.

AAJ : The days of your first album, Tones for Joan's Bones (Vortex/Atlantic 1966)?

CC : Well, it's a story I tell a lot because I am proud of it. It's my best memory of that record. I remember a lot of just details about the band and all those guys that I played with; Joe Chambers, Joe Farrell, Woody Shaw and Steve Swallow. But the main success that I came away with, from making that record, was that it was the first record that I did and I did it in a way that was purely what I wanted to do. It wasn't what someone else wanted me to do. The way it happened was that I was working with Herbie Mann's band at the time, and Herbie had just formed a new record label of his own called Vortex, funded by Atlantic Records.

So Herbie liked the way I played and he asked me to make a record for his label. I said, "Sure, I would love to do that. I am working on some music now, and blah blah blah." And he said, "Yes, but I'd like you to use some timbales, and conga, and make it kind of Latin style record." And I said to him that it might be fun to do, but what I really would like to do was the music I was working on with the quintet; that was the music I would like to record. So I didn't get to do the record. Then he asked me again some weeks later, and this time he said, "Maybe if you just use the timbales on a couple of your tunes." I said, "No, Herbie, really, I am working on this quintet music and that's really what I want to do." I turned him down maybe three times, until finally he said to me, "Look Chick, just make a record and do what you were writing, what you are working on; whatever you do is fine." And that's what I did.

From left: Chick Corea, Christian McBride, Brian Blade

I spent, I think, two days recording all these tracks, songs that I had written with my favorite musicians at the time, and I never went in the control room once; I didn't mix the record, I didn't have anything to do with the album cover, and then six or eight months later, I saw the LP in a record store and I said, "That's my record!," and I bought it. But my success was that I kept to my own reality and my own goal about what I wanted to record, and then I kept that way for the rest of my life. I never was persuaded by a producer or by what someone else thought I should do. I think it's made a good life musically for me, that way. I am proud of being able to always make music the way I see to make it.

AAJ: It takes a lot of courage, too.

CC: At the time, it didn't seem to take courage, because it was just a silly idea for me to try to do something that I wasn't interested in. I wasn't trying to be disrespectful to Herbie by saying, "Gee, thank you, Herbie, but I don't think I can do good doing this other thing, but I could do good doing this other thing that I got going." So I didn't think that it was courage at the time, but I guess it could be considered so, I don't know.

AAJ: There has been another reunion for you last year with the Now He Sings, Now He Sobs (Blue Note, 1968) trio, with drummer Roy Haynes and bassist Miroslav Vitous.

CC: Yes, the spirit was very much the same, and that trio was kind of a chance that I took, because at the time. In '68 I was playing with Roy Haynes in the Stan Getz Quartet, and Steve Swallow was the bassist. I was enjoying that rhythm section a lot, but when I got the invitation to do a trio record I had met Miroslav Vitouš, and I thought what an interesting combination it would make to have Miroslav play bass with Roy, because they had different styles, and putting them together might be something interesting, And it turned out to be very interesting and it worked really well.

Roy Haynes was and has been a great inspiration to me my whole life, and to get to work with him with Stan Getz and then him being on my record was a big, big thrill back then. So Roy and I have kept pretty much a musical association going through the years; I have played in Roy's bands, and he has played on some of mine. We did a tour last year with Kenny Garrett and Christian McBride, The Freedom Band, and Roy is going to come and play with me some more this November at my Blue Note birthday gig; and also I played with Roy on his recent recording. So we have a long track record together. When we got to get together with Miroslav it was very joyful, and a lot of fun.

AAJ: In September 1968 you replaced Herbie Hancock in Miles Davis' band. What was it like recording and working with Miles? Did you have the notion that most younger musicians had, that "This is Miles Davis!," or were you relaxed about it?

CC: Well, I am never over the emotion about Miles, because I grew up with his music. There is a hand full of musicians that I grew up really taking the inspiration and the lead from, and it was Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis. But Miles was the one that I got to meet and play with, finally, in 1968. Of course, like you said, for a young guy it was a thrill for me to do that, and it was a tremendous three years that I spent working with him. But what can I say? The best thing that Miles taught me was that level of strength and being true to yourself; because he took any chance with his music that he wanted to do, because that was the way that he saw to do it. And in the face of all kinds of criticism, or people who thought that he shouldn't do that or he should do something else, he did it anyway, and then he changed again and he made a different kind of music and they thought he shouldn't do that either.

Miles just kept going forward, pursuing the idea that he had, that he wanted to do. I was in a band with him when he was in a transition period, changing the form of the music all the time. The quintet that I played in was very loose and free music. It wasn't really determined yet what it would be, but Miles kept experimenting and he let the musicians create and the music that we played was quite wild, but it was beautiful, to me, anyway. So to me, Miles' courage in following his own dream was the biggest inspiration about him. But he is more than a person today, he is a legacy.

I have too many pictures in my memory to find one that I cherish more than others, but one of the later memories that I have was when I had a trio, before the Elektric Band, with John Patitucci and Dave Weckl, and it was an electric trio and we were playing a jazz festival; it was 1984 or something like that, and Miles was headlining. We played our set and Miles played his set. And then I went to this little cottage they had backstage, like a mobile home, and I wanted to say hello to Miles, and when I walked in the room, the room was filled with people, musicians and fans, and I hadn't seen Miles in years. He spotted me, and I was waiting for him to say hello to all these people, and then all of a sudden he chased all these people out of the place and I was about to leave, I thought he was mad or something. But he said, "No, no, come on back in," and I just hung out a little bit with Miles, and we talked; he liked to talk about clothing. He showed me some of his new jackets and shirts, and he admired the trio, and he liked what I was playing with John and Dave, and, in fact, he asked about one of the songs that we were doing. Miles always treated me very warmly, and I loved him to death.

AAJ: Of all the older musicians that you worked with through the years when you were a younger musician yourself, which one had a bigger impact on you?

CC: I really don't think I can measure that. I really try to answer honestly, and I can't answer that. I think different musicians have different kinds of effects on me, give me different things; they take different things from what my experience with them is, and I consider all of these things valuable in one way or another, because I accept them and because I take them, but they all have their kind of importance to me. Someone like Miles, of course, has a long-term, continual effect, because I was listening to Miles when for instance he was playing trumpet with Charlie Parker in 1949, my father had those recordings. And then I worked with him in 1968 through 1971—and then, even to this day, I still listen to Miles, and I listen to the recordings that he has done. So there's a lifetime association there, which is hard to deny.

Return to Forever IV, from left: Chick Corea, Jean-Luc Ponty, Stanley Clarke Frank Gambale (missing: Lenny White}

It's similar with the music of John Coltrane—although I didn't know John—and with Thelonious Monk. So, in some ways, the musicians that I stayed with my whole life tend to give me a continual inspiration: Monk is definitely one of them; and then Bud Powell; later on Bill Evans. And then there's my contemporaries, like McCoy Tyner, who was and is always a big inspiration to me; Herbie Hancock; I love Keith Jarrett's playing. I am rich in this kind of way, because I have so much great inspiration from so many great artists.

AAJ: Do you ever wonder about any of the great musicians that you didn't get to meet or play with?

CC: Not really, more in the idea that some of the musicians back when I was young in New York I regret not having approached them to thank them or to say hello to them. Coltrane was one of them. I was around Coltrane a lot. I went to hear him at Birdland, Five Spot...I spent many nights in close proximity to Coltrane on the bandstand, and in between sets ,and I was always too shy to say hello; the same with Monk. So, in that way, there's a little bit of regret, but you know, the important thing is that their music is still with me.

AAJ: Can you tell me about writing "Spain"?

CC: That definitely came out of a long series of friendships and associations with Spanish-speaking people, starting with my Portuguese bandleader when I was in High School. He introduced me to Latin dance music, and I loved it immediately. The rhythm of it felt like home to me. But in the late sixties and early seventies I became familiar with flamenco for the first time as a particular kind of music. I didn't know too much about it, and I got very interested in flamenco through the music of Paco de Lucia. This was becoming an influence to me. And also, at the time, in the late fifties, I also remember a Miles recording that still is one of my favorites, called Sketches of Spain (Columbia, 1960), with Gil Evans. They did an arrangement of "Concierto de Aranjuez," of Rodrigo's beautiful concerto. So I was studying that second guitar concerto, that everyone knows, and based on that theme and that whole flavor, it grew on me, and I began to write and put this melody together. When I played it, I would always use Rodrigo's theme as an introduction. I played the theme as an introduction, and then I would go into my piece. To me it gathered everything Spanish, so I called it "Spain."

AAJ: What do you enjoy the most about music and about jazz?

CC: Oh wow, that's wild! You are going really wide on me now! [laughs] I just enjoy being an artist, and I enjoy finding and creating beauty in life; and the technical way I found to do that and that I practice doing that, is with music. The piano, the composition... And that's what I love to do. And I love all kinds of art and all kinds of creativity. And I chose jazz as a field because it's creative, it's wide, you can't pin it down, and it's a spirit of spontaneous creativity. I love to improvise, I love to play things that I feel, I like to always do something different, and it seems to fit in the world of jazz, more than anything else. So I get labeled that way, and that's fine with me.

AAJ: What would you tell to the newer generations of jazz musicians that are maybe struggling to find their own voice?

CC: Don't worry about struggling, first of all. Struggling is good. And next, all I can offer is for an artist and a musician to just follow his own heart, and to think for himself, and to keep on making sure that he is doing what he loves to do and learning the things that he wants to learn, and expressing the way that he wants to express himself, and being true to himself. And the more you do that, I think, the more you get a joy out of life; you get successes out of life. I don't think you get too much joy out of doing something only because someone else thinks you should do it, or that you feel you must do it because you are forced to do it. And it's very easy to fall into that. That's my advice, for a musician: to follow his own heart and think for himself.

AAJ: So is music life to you or is music just a part of life to you?

CC: It's whatever it is you say it is right now. And then if you ask your friend, your boyfriend, or your husband, and they say "this is what it is," then that's what it is. It's what we think it is. To me it's a wonderful way to spend a lifetime.

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