My Conversation with Chick Corea

AAJ Staff By

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From the 1995-2003 archive: This article first appeared at All About Jazz in August 1999.

It would be silly for me to even attempt to pontificate on the ramifications Chick Corea has had on this music. But it should be universal that his impact has been substantial at worst. So I will let him give you the download and you decide for yourself. Here he is, unedited, and always, in his own words.

All About Jazz Let's start from the beginning.

Chick Corea: The one paragraph version would be, my dad, who led a band around Boston. He had a dance band that was quite jazz oriented, like a ten-piece group. During the late '20s, all through the '30s, and early '40s, from what I was told by my mother and father, from what I remember when I was a small child, the band was doing very well around Boston. That atmosphere of my father's music, and musicians, and his record collection, and his personal care for me, showing me how to read and write music, play the piano and so forth. That was really my solid beginning. After high school, 1959 or so, I moved to New York City from Boston and in that next five, ten years, really, is where I got my real experience playing with so many great musicians around New York and learning how to do it.

AAJ At that time, who would you say were your primary influences?

CC: Aside from certain musicians around Boston, Jaki Byard, I met when I was young. The was Alan Dawson, the drummer, actually, Tony Williams was a young guy when I was in high school or just after. But in addition to my friends that I met around Boston, I guess Charlie Parker and Bud Powell were the two big impressions on me when I was very young, even though I did not have the technique or the facility to play what they were doing, but the way that they were playing on record, my dad had a collection of 78s, vinyl, really made a strong impression on me. And then later on, when I was in high school, I began to transcribe the compositions and solos off of Horace Silver's records. Horace's piano playing and Blue Mitchell's solos. And then also Miles was beginning to make some of his first records around that time, also with Horace on piano. I remember the first one very, very well, a record called Dig (Original Jazz Classics) with Jackie McLean's tune on it, a great record. Those were some of my first real learning experiences, from Bud and Bird and Dizzy and Horace and so forth.

AAJ You played with Miles Davis for a couple years, most notably on his "Bitches Brew" and "In a Silent Way" albums, how was that time?

CC: Like I said, I had this Boston connection with Tony Williams, who was one of the important members of Miles's last small group, that was one of the great jazz groups, I think, with Hancock, Ron Carter, and Wayne Shorter. At a particular point, I guess, some time in 1968, Herbie Hancock, the band was changing. Ron Carter had already left the band. Dave Holland was playing. I know Tony Williams was planning on leaving the band to form his own group and Herbie left the band around that time. I guess the recommendation for me to join Miles came from Tony. He told Miles about me and then Miles called and I joined the band for a week engagement at a Baltimore club, the name of which I forget. From there on, I played with Miles for about two years and it was really an incredible experience.

AAJ What do you remember most about Miles?

CC: So many things. Miles's motto was very inspirational. Many that he, I think Miles approached things in a way that most great musicians, I think, approach things, not a whole lot different, which is the fact that Miles was never worried about or concerned about authorities in music or critics or what other people thought. He always had a complete integrity about following through on whatever idea he had he wanted to try out. The band I was in, he was trying out some ideas that, it's not only my opinion, but it seems like what others consider as pretty far out. Some of the stuff was, seemed at the time like it was going nowhere. There was a lot of free improvisation and apparent chaos, but within that there was an incredible finding of new things and discovery of ways to communicate with small group jazz that I think were, when you listen to those quintet recordings now, you can tell. They hold my interest anyway, not just because I was in the band, but because of what kind of new ideas were being formed, and the strength and commitment of Miles's playing and the group's playing around that time. His integrity was definitely a huge inspiration and just the way he operated with groups has set an ideal with me, which is that when he chose musicians to be in his band, I think that was the main choice he made, was who would be there. After he set a musical direction, he pretty much left it up to the musicians that he chose to create the content and the harmonies and the rhythms of the music. He didn't dictate to us how to play the music, which invariably set off an atmosphere where everyone was very acknowledged creatively. Whatever offerings we made, Miles accepted as part of the music and I think that was a very great strength.

AAJ Let's talk about Return to Forever.

CC: Right after Miles, there was a period for about a year and a half where myself and Dave Holland had a band called Circle. It was right after that, on the heels of Circle, that I drove from LA, the West Coast, where we were staying at that time, back to New York and wrote new music and had this idea and put together my first version of Return to Forever, I guess, around 1971 some time, early.

AAJ A couple of members of Return to Forever, Stanley Clarke and Lenny White, have a new band called Vertu.

CC: Yes.

AAJ The three of you have gained icon like status.

CC: Well, Stanley was the first one I met. I didn't meet Lenny until afterwards. We had an immediate, great chemistry that started with Stanley's acoustic bass playing. I played a gig with him with Joe Henderson's group in Philadelphia, it's where we met. The breath of styles of music that we were toying around with matched one another and it felt great to play together. I called Stanley to join that first group that I put together with Airto Moreira on drums, Flora Purim, and Joe Farrell. But then after the first group's rhythm section changed around, Stanley recommended Lenny because Stanley had played with Lenny before that in other bands and I was just being introduced to Lenny and again, when we met we played a gig at Todd Barkan's club in San Francisco. I forget the name of the place.

AAJ Keystone Korner.

CC: Right, Keystone Korner. And again, the rhythm section clicked, very much fired up, and we began to pursue a very wild kind of rhythm playing. Lenny was playing very wide open, full sounding drums and I then was turning up in volume to match that with my keyboards and Stanley was right there with his volume. That rhythm section evolved into the second and last version of Return to Forever, which later included Al DiMeola.

AAJ Let's talk about your label Stretch Records.

CC: As far as the way we organize how we get music to people, it's been a gradual, slow, but sure learning process since I met Ron Moss, actually since I began to book my own gigs before I met Ron Moss. When I became a bandleader, I had to start to do business, like solicit gigs, decide on fees, pay the musicians, and so forth and so forth. After a while, I couldn't deal with it all myself, plus it became this funny place where you need a lawyer. At that time, Ron Moss began to work for me around 1974, I think, as a road manager. We've been together ever since. He's basically from the hat of humping equipment, has come around to understanding and caring for all aspects of the music, of my and the band's musical life. In that, we've learned how to produce records, how to put on tours, how to deal with lawyers, how to deal with the business world around us, and still, somehow, keep our focus and our integrity in the world. When it came around to the time when we were on GRP, Larry Rosen and Dave Grusin, who were then the owners, they were the founders of GRP, they couldn't help noticing what a slick production company we had going. We were helping my band musicians start their first albums, Patitucci, Weckl, and Marienthal. It was a natural progression. Guys would come into my band, they would basically devote their lives to me and the group for the years that they were in the band and I feel it's just a fair exchange to help them get their own careers going, and their own recording careers. Larry Rosen and Dave Grusin wanted us to act as an A&R team for GRP, to find new talent, knowing that we always came across new, fresh music and wanting us to take the care to record it well. Another factor in my little organization is Bernie Kirsh, who has been my good friend and recording engineer since we did The Leprechaun in 1975. Plus, we established a recording studio in 1981 in LA. All these little bits came together and the label formed, Stretch Records. I wasn't on Stretch at first. Chick Corea was not, as a signed artist, was not on Stretch, but then after GRP, sort of, fell apart, when we went on to our next distributor, which became Concord Records, Glen Barros and Concord Records, I decided to do what you had mentioned Fred, which was to put all my musical eggs in one basket and just go for it and become an independent label, which we now are. We're finding out little by little how to do it.

AAJ Was that transition tedious for you?

CC: The real answer is it's not a step. It's many, many, many steps. It's very gradual. It's like with each little bit, you begin to take within your own grasp and action, each little action, each little responsibility. I never, even from the first record I did in 1965, ever had a producer in the studio with me. I always produced my own recordings. So when I would help my musicians produce their first record, I would kind of go into the studio with them, not as a producer, but as someone who had learned something about putting music down on tape. I'd show them what I learned and then they would become the producers from their second records on of their own recordings. Little bits of knowledge like that, we would keep, or business things, or how to, for instance, I developed a relationship with Ted Kurland and Associates, which is our booking agent, which is now, I don't know how old, from the '70s we've been working together. And that developed into a really strong working relationship. Now within our own management, we've started a booking agency for the younger musicians who can't work with a larger agency and so it goes. It is gradual and it's one step at a time and it's basically trying to, the reason why you put a business together, put into the aesthetics of wanting to give something and exchange something with people, which unfortunately in our modern quote, unquote democratic and capitalistic world, it tends to, as good as free enterprise is, it tends to bring the larger corporations down to this quote, unquote bottom line, which is too bottomed out for me. It's just got to do with just making a lot of money and getting powerful. If you are willing to continue to use the freedom to run an independent business like we're trying to do and work within the corporate world, making agreements with individuals who run the company that have higher ideals like, for instance, Glen Barros at Concord Records. We have a great relationship with him. Then I feel you can do it. You can put out a statement. You can continue to put out music with integrity.

AAJ Let's talk about one of your musical statement, your latest band Origin.

CC: This group is an absolute joy. This has been, the coming together and the growing of this group has been just more magic than I ever have experienced with a group. We got together by me hearing a tape of Avishai's New York band, before he made a recording. I didn't know who he was or who any of the guys were in the band, but knew the music that I was listening to was great and fresh and very creative. We got in touch with Avishai to record that music for Stretch, which he was delighted to do. Then after I met Avishai, he asked me if I wouldn't help him get his first record done and I did that thing that I mentioned before, which is go into the studio with him and kind of confer with him to help him get his music down on tape the way he wanted to. And after I heard him and the group play in the studio, I decided, I was right on the heels of putting a new group together. I had already written some music and so I invited everyone in the group to join me in New York for a five day stint to rehearse some sextet music and perform three nights there. Basically, the group just clicked right together, musically and spiritually, and it was kind of interesting how it all happened. I didn't think, I thought it would just be like a little experiment and then I would go back to my drawing board and see what to do from there. The group came together over night and we decided, even on short notice to put a recording session together live at the Blue Note two months later, in order to have something to show the concert promoters and so forth, what my new band sounded like. The first record was not a studio record, kind of, out of necessity. We didn't have time to go into the studio and really record, and plus I didn't want to record it that way. The group had this spirit of improvisation that I didn't want to check at that point. We made the live recording and out of it came the first release, which was "Origin," five tunes out of that set. The second one is a six-CD box set (A Week at the Blue Note) that is most of what we did that week at the Blue Note. Months later, after writing and getting to know the group and doing more writing, I put together a whole new set of music that we recording, actually in my studio living room, which is the Change record.

AAJ As a mentor, what advise do you give younger musicians?

CC: I do know one thing that I can unequivocally say to anyone, beginner or not beginner, at any point in their career, which is that as an artist you have to continually reaffirm and rehabilitate and keep, very much, alive one's own power of choice and tastes, for instance, knowing what kind of thing we hear, what kind of music we want to play, what thing we love, our own passions, our personal interests. We have to keep, very much, alive because it's not a given, living within our current society to encourage one to be a free thinker and independent like that. In fact, Fred, all the encouragement goes the other way that leads one to become more conventional, agreeing with everything that goes on around one and not taking any chances and not making any waves, getting to look and do like everyone else. It's a subtle factor and it's something that I feel that every teacher of a young musician can keep on reiterating. I think of teachers, who are pedantic and authoritative about what they're showing their students and say, "It must be done this way and it must be done that way. You can't do that and you can do that." It's very destructive because it can squash the element that is needed more than any other element as an artist, and that is one's own freedom to think. The freedom to think, I think, is the most important thing that I would say to any other artist. After that, once one has a grasp on that, than he can make any other decision, like what sequence he should learn at or where he should go live. Guys are asking me, "Should I move to New York? Or should I go to LA?" Nobody can evaluate for another what he should do. You have to try it out. You have to try things out.

AAJ What's a day in the life of Chick Corea?

CC: There is no average day, which you learn after you begin to tour and travel. There just isn't. The thing that keeps us in line on a long tour like I'm on now. I'm calling from the Canary Islands. It's our concert schedule. We have concert commitments in all these various cities and you basically have to have a plane schedule and a pick up schedule and a set up schedule and a sound check schedule. Within all of that, you have to eat, sleep, and care for yourself, and stay on the phone with your family and so forth and so on. That's what, you've got to get very malleable as a world citizen to try and stay healthy within that context because it can get pretty crazy. You can not sleep and not eat well and you can go out of contact with home, all of which can pull you down.

AAJ What percentage of the year are you touring?

CC: Most of the year, usually. Sometimes it's much as ten months, with some time at home. That is where my work is. Aside from the time that I love to spend practicing and writing new music, which I do best at home, but which I can do on the road when I need to. Most of our time is spent on the road.

AAJ What is something the rest of society can learn from this music?

CC: Well, Fred, if you get close up to any musician, who is trying to create something new, and who wants to include the races of the world in his communication, which is many artist, many musicians and artists have that kind of ideal, kind of like a world view, like a view of Earth as one people. And viewing people, not as a race, or a genetic line, or nationality, but viewing people as spirits, spiritual beings, creative beings. Artists like that want to express themselves in those terms. I find that the people who enjoy that and who want that kind of a communication are those people who have that same kind of ideal. I don't know what kind of word to put to it without calling up a particular movement. You could call it brotherhood, or a world view, or humanity as a single group, but it is a kind spiritual and human freedom that we strive for. Of course, as a artist, you have to put yourself in a stance like that in order to create freely. If you begin to create with a slant toward a particular racial, national view, or religious view, or with some bent or cause, then I think your communication then becomes limited. The artist, I think, starts with the freedom of the mind, a freedom of thinking, and than attracts those who want to also be free to think as they like.

AAJ How has L. Ron Hubbard impacted, not only your views on life, but also the way you approach this music?

CC: It's hard to say specifically, but generally, I would have to say that since I came across Hubbard's philosophy and his way of thinking, around 1968, I read the book Dianetics, that was his first public book. For sure, that since that point, I feel that he as a philosopher, singly has the best expression of a world view of anyone that I've come across. He has helped me keep a sane footing in the world without becoming exclusive with my thoughts or in anyway intolerant about what other people believe, because his philosophy is that man is free to believe whatever he believes. It's a great way to start. It's a great footing to start out on. In addition to that, his specific findings on how to live life and how to understand some of what we have come to consider the mysteries of life have been very helpful to me.

AAJ Within the compass of this music, in what direction is the needle pointing?

CC: The needle always points toward to relative well-being and health of the world around us because you don't have to encourage a being to be interested in the artful things in life, in music and the beauties around him. You don't have to tell him to do that. All you have to do is take the suppression off. Take the pressure off. Take the war off and the craziness and the conflict and that kind of thing. You find that the arts will flourish. I've stopped trying to look inward to the music to see how we're going to change the world. It's just a matter of how much of society you can get relieved of their conflict. In an area that's involved in genocide and war, you're not going to get many jazz concerts. You're not going to get many people thinking about the prettiness of life. They're going to be trying to live, moment to moment, live or die. So the compass always points towards the health of our society. I could write pages about what governments or people could do to ease the burden and make it go a little better. The first thing that we can all do, and of course you can't just say this to people, is to stop fighting one another. It's almost a silly thing to say after never one respite from that kind of thing in all of written history. But that still is the compass. I tell you, Fred, that's the compass and when people in local areas get bright ideas about how to relieve the scene in a local area and maybe start a club or a music place or an educational activity, something that helps people get their mind off of the stress of survival and onto something creative. It always, always helps.

AAJ If you had a mission statement in life and in your music, what would that be?

CC: I have aligned myself with the statement that L. Ron Hubbard made in his aims of Scientology, which are very, very simple. I think they apply to Scientology specifically, of course, because they've become written down and agreed, but I personally think they reflect every person's desire, which is a world without war.

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