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Chick Corea: Creative Giant

Esther Berlanga-Ryan By

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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.

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

CC: 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.
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