Chick Corea is from the Miles Davis school: He doesn’t like to look back.
Throughout his illustrious career, which got its start in 1962 in the Latin jazz bands of Mongo Santamaria and Willie Bobo, he has moved forward with single-minded determination from one project to the next. The breadth of Corea’s oeuvre is as staggering as the size of his enormous discography. From acoustic trios to Latin-jazz, fusion to flamenco, freely improvised to classical and everything in between, Corea is always intent on pushing musical boundaries. (Is it any wonder why the label he formed in 1992 with manager Ron Moss is called Stretch?)
But for three weeks in December of 2001, on the occasion of his 60th birthday celebration at the Blue Note nightclub in New York, Corea did indeed look back, by reconvening some of the acoustic groups that he led over the years.
“I had some resistance to the project at first,” Corea says. “I really didn’t want to cover any old ground. I didn’t want to reunite things, so to speak. But then Sal Haries at the Blue Note, my friend and the manager there, kind of got me into the spirit of a birthday party. He said, ‘It’s your 60th birthday-don’t get too serious about it. Just invite whoever you want to invite and have fun.’ And once I switched into that kind of a birthday-party attitude, I tried not to stress myself out with too much preparation, tried to let the whole gig just flow.”
Rather than burden himself with writing new material or choosing particularly demanding charts, Corea picked tunes that would require the least amount of shedding while putting a premium on improvisation. “When you get together with musicians of that caliber, what I find is the most rewarding approach is always to put a program together that the musicians can feel comfortable to really play and not have to worry about reading notes, because these guys are all great improvisers.
Every note of Corea’s extended birthday celebration at the Blue Note was fastidiously documented via state of the art Direct Stream Digital audio technology, by Herbert Waltl and Clark Germain, as well as in high-definition video, by David Niles of Colossalvision. Rendezvous in New York, a hybrid SACD two-disc set on Stretch, offers a taste of the 60 total hours of music-making that went down at the Blue Note during that three-week retrospective. Individual CDs documenting full sets by each of the nine bands that performed will be available in the U.S. by this summer as part of a subscription series on both Corea’s website (www.chickcorea.com) and Concord’s website (www.concordrecords.com). Plus, the whole affair can be seen on upcoming broadcasts via HDNet, followed by commercial release in both VHS and DVD formats. (The evening that Liza Minnelli sat in with her piano accompanist, causing Corea to shift to the drum chair, will undoubtedly not be included in any of the available formats, though Chick does generously thank her in the liner credits to Rendezvous).
On the night of our phone conversation, Corea calls from his home in Clearwater, Fla., at 11 p.m. explaining, “For me, this is the beginning of the day. I’ve been going to sleep at 7 a.m. I like it for writing music, but it’s the worst for having meetings.” He had been in writing mode for the past few days, preparing new music for a quartet with drummer Jeff Ballard (from Origin and Corea’s New Trio), Origin’s reed player Tim Garland and former Eddie Palmieri bassist John Benítez.
When I suggest that talking about a retrospective recording in the midst of writing new material for a new band must seem like going over ancient history to him, Corea offers: “Well, Rendezvous isn’t ancient history. To me it’s just as alive as when we did it. I’ve been working on the production part of it for the past year by choosing tracks and also by trying to work out a creative way to market the product with my record label. It’s a pretty unusual thing to try and pull off in record-dom.”
And choosing two hours of material out of 60 must have seemed like finding the proverbial needle in the haystack. “That was tough, because in three weeks of performances everything was so spirited. Everyone came in a great spirit of just having fun and playing. I did as much work as I had time to in preparing repertoires for each band because I had existing repertoires for all those bands. So there was some manner of repertoire, a little rehearsal the first day and I had sent some music out beforehand. That was all the preparation that went into it. But when it came time to hit, it all really went down nice.”
Naturally, in trying to cover 35 years of recorded activity, certain things are going to get left out. As Corea explains, “It was less about not choosing, more about who could make it. It was such short notice. I had already been in recent touch, for instance, with Bobby [McFerrin] and Gary [Burton] and Gonzalo [Rubalcaba] and the members of Origin, so I knew they could make it. But I didn’t know if other musicians would be available that soon. I had called Herbie [Hancock] but he was busy with a tour.
“The first idea was to put a week together, and then I kept getting positive responses from guys I was calling so we then turned it into two weeks and then into three. In fact, it was starting to stretch into a fourth week but then I thought it was too close to the engagement, it was getting precarious. So we kept it at three. One of the groups I would’ve liked to have put together, especially now, was the Time Warp quartet with Bob Berg, John Patitucci and Gary Novak. Now we don’t have Bob with us, so in retrospect I missed that opportunity. For me, that band and that repertoire on Time Warp [GRP, 1995] was one of my most prized repertoires. And I missed out on Circle.”
The three-week engagement ended up featuring Corea’s acoustic works, but that wasn’t necessarily his intention in the beginning. “When I considered trying to put either Return to Forever together or the Elektric Band, I looked at the amount of preparation that it would take me,” he says. “And by the time I had finally agreed to do the gig it was already September, so I didn’t have a whole lot of time to get everything together, just a couple of months. Another thing I decided to do was eliminate my problem of having to put a keyboard rig together, so that paved the path toward an acoustic direction for this whole engagement. Then I got into this idea of duets, trios and ensembles. That’s why we made the first two nights of each week at the Blue Note a duet. So there ended up being three duets, three trios and three larger ensembles.”
Corea still seems to marvel at the fact that he was able to pull it all off. “I don’t think I would’ve gone into it at all if I hadn’t switched my attitude to it being more or less a birthday party. If I had to get into a serious retrospective vibe, I would’ve bailed on the whole thing.”
Thankfully, Corea obviously didn’t bail, and Rendezvous in New York is both an excellent introduction for those new to the keyboardist’s acoustic side and a refreshing reminder for those who have followed him throughout his eclectic 40-year career.
Below are some of Corea’s reminiscences of the music he created and the musicians he worked with for Rendezvous in New York, and throughout his career, organized to follow the groupings of musicians on the new CD.
Bobby McFerrin duet
Bobby called me up one time and said, “Hey, let’s do some concerts together.” I said, “Wow, great, man. You want me to bring my trio?” And he said, “No, let’s just do a duet.” So I said, “Cool, what repertoire should we use?” And he said, “Let’s just improvise.” And I thought, “Wow, there’s a guy after my own heart.”
So we went out and did six or eight concerts around the United States and the game was “Let’s just walk out on stage and make something up.” And it turned out to be these hilarious concerts in which we explored everything. Bobby had people coming up on stage to participate; we were doing mime and chanting. Bobby actually did some stage diving at Carnegie Hall and at Wolf Trap [in Virginia], where the audience caught him and passed him to the back of the hall while I accompanied the action on stage. It was all very theatrical, and everything that came up musically was improvised. Occasionally he would float into a standard, which we’d touch on before taking it someplace else. That was the beginning of our musical partnership and it’s been just incredible since then. We did Play [1990’s collaboration on Blue Note] and then the Mozart thing hit [1996’s The Mozart Sessions (Sony Classical)] and that was a whole other way of making music together. He’s an amazing communicator, Bobby.
Now He Sings, Now He Sobs trio with Roy Haynes & Miroslav Vitous
The trio with Roy and Miroslav was the earliest collaboration of the retrospective, going back to 1968. We played together again a little bit in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and we made Trio Music for ECM [in 1981] and also a live recording with that same trio a few years later [1984’s Trio Music: Live in Europe (ECM)]. But we hadn’t played together again since then-I had played with Roy quite a bit in the meantime, but not Miroslav and Roy together. That was very warm, very heartening to get back together with them. For this trio I really didn’t put anything new in. I wanted to play some of the tunes that we originally recorded on Now He Sings, Now He Sobs [Blue Note], like “What Was,” which I had to practice a little bit. But Roy and Miroslav didn’t have to do much in terms of preparation. Miroslav read a couple of chord changes and that was it.
I remember very clearly how this trio came together in 1968. A very memorable part of my life was beginning to first of all know Roy. I had met Roy in Stan Getz’s quartet. Gary Burton had just left, and I replaced him and began to play with Roy. Steve Swallow was the bassist in the band. Right around that time, I had a rehearsal ensemble in New York. That’s when I made my first recording with Swallow, Joe Chambers, Joe Farrell and Woody Shaw [1966’s Tones for Joan’s Bones for Atlantic]. But I loved playing with Roy. So I got an offer from Solid State to do a trio record. At that time I was also in jam-session situations with Jack DeJohnette and Miroslav Vitous, and I really liked what Miroslav was doing. He had, to me, a very different approach-loose but very intelligent. So I got the idea to pair him with Roy, who has this incredible bebop beat that I love. So we met, actually, in the studio, and did two days of recording-maybe three, four hours a day. And I brought these tunes in I had prepared by writing a few sketches out. And there it was-we just played it down in one or two takes.
Remembering Bud Powell band with Roy Haynes, Christian McBride, Joshua Redman & Terence Blanchard
I guess the biggest preparation for Retrospective was the Bud Powell band, which hadn’t worked together for a while. Also complicating the matter was the fact that [trumpeter] Wallace Roney was busy so he couldn’t make it, but I was fortunate to get Terence Blanchard to play, even though the whole book was new to him. But Terence came in very well prepared and tore it apart, played absolutely great.
Bud was, possibly more than any other pianist, like a touchstone for me. I had started listening to Bud before I could even reach a piano key. My dad had records of Bud playing Bird. And I had the sound in my head and always was attracted to it and could always recognize when Bud was playing. Then as I grew older and began to play, I studied Bud and he inspired me and I copied his solos.
Most people thought that Bud’s influence on music was mainly as an innovative pianist, but I always saw him as this really far-sighted composer who wove that pianism into his music. So I had been incubating this project in my mind for years and years, wanting to put a repertoire together of just Bud’s music, and not try to play it like he played it but just interpret the compositions.
So when there came a space in time to jump into this I thought, “Boy, if Roy would agree to do this project it would really fly.” Because he knew and played with Bud, and Bird and Monk, too. So Roy liked the idea and said, “Let’s do it.” And once I mentioned that Roy was into it, Joshua and Wallace and Christian all got excited and said, “Wow! Let’s hit it!” The spirit of the project came together really beautifully. Then when Joshua had some scheduling problems with his own band, we called Kenny Garrett to come and play in his place. And I ended up having them both play on the record [1997’s Remembering Bud Powell (Stretch)]. We did a few concerts as a sextet with Kenny and Joshua. There’s an incredible frontline for you, man: Josh, Kenny and Wallace. That was a lot of fun. I’m happy with the way that music turned out; I think Bud would’ve liked it.
Gary Burton duet
There was very little preparation for the set with Gary. We basically played some of the old familiar tunes. It’s always an immediate blend and a nice give and take with Gary. Through the years we’ve made a lot of records and have built up a pretty big repertoire, so it depends on what we choose to play that determines how much preparation we may need. I picked a couple of pieces that actually didn’t take a lot of preparation. We played some things from Native Sense, our last duet record [from 1997 on Stretch], and then we played something old, “Crystal Silence” [the title track from their 1972 duet on ECM], which is the cut that made it on Rendezvous.
Akoustic Band with John Patitucci & Dave Weckl
The Akoustic Band required a little preparation. I actually had to relearn some of the pieces I wanted to play, like “Morning Sprite,” [from 1989’s Akoustic Band, GRP]. This was also the first time Patitucci, Weckl and myself had played that repertoire together since we stopped doing it around ’92 or so. But it whipped together very quickly and was a very comfortable glove to fit into. I really liked the tracks that made it onto [Rendevous in New York], “Autumn Leaves” and “Bessie’s Blues.” It was such a ball playing together again that we talked about putting the Elektric Band back together again [which they did in fall of 2002]. I had forgotten how much fun this trio was. When I don’t involve myself with something, I forget how it is. And then when we began to put it together again it was kind of mystic because it was like we hadn’t stopped playing-once we got over things like, “What was that chord change there? Do we play that part twice or once? Solo first or second?” and all that kind of thing. Once that was out of the way it was like we never stopped playing, like we did a gig last night and here we are again blowing.
Origin with Avishai Cohen, Jeff Ballard, Steve Wilson, Steve Davis & Tim Garland
Origin was already a [recent] working installation so there was nothing to prepare there. It’s a band that I’d like to bring back together again as well. It allowed me for the couple years that we had it going [1997-1999] to be equally a player, composer and improviser-because in concert the band got very loose and we’d explore improvisational things as a group [as thoroughly documented on 1998’s six-CD set A Week at the Blue Note on Stretch]. But having the three horns and the two woodwind players, that play all the incredible variety of sounds that I love working with as a writer, was such a thrill. And I haven’t done that as much, except to write for really big orchestras [like 1999’s project with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Corea.Concerto on Sony Classical]. That’s wonderful but it’s not a working gig where you can develop something on the bandstand. But Origin was a working ensemble for three years, and there’s more to go with that band. In fact, I wrote a whole new album of music for Origin before we ever got around to recording it. It’s a repertoire sitting there ready to roll.
Gonzalo Rubalcaba duet
Just a month or two before the December gig at the Blue Note, Gonzalo and I played five duet concerts together in Germany at a very nice concert hall there. We had played together a little bit before, just jamming, and it was a lot of fun. And he has an incredible improvisational, open spirit about him, which I really love. He’s just open to jump into anything and make something up, so we had a ball playing these five concerts. He played some solo and I played some solo but they were mostly duets. So by the time we got to the Blue Note we had a little bit of a repertoire, [yet] most of our performances were improvised. What made it onto Rendezvous [Joaquin Vidre Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez,” which segues to Corea’s familiar “Spain”] is one of the maybe three or four written pieces that we performed at the Blue Note. I liked the way the track came out a lot and I loved Gonzalo’s conception.
New Trio with Avishai Cohen & Jeff Ballard
The New Trio has been my working band for a couple of years now, since Origin. That’s been a creative blast all the way. Avishai and Jeff playing together is a naturally breathing ensemble. Avishai is a monster bass player, and Jeff has steeped himself in different ethnic musics, different strains of music, which he brings into his performance. Jeff’s approach to the kit is very different than Dave Weckl’s. Dave is a total master at composing something. He plays the drums with incredible fire and composes as he plays. Actually, the first time I ever noticed a drummer doing that was back when Tony Williams began to put Lifetime together. Then Steve Gadd had that quality as well and Weckl does that, too. But Jeff is a real loose, emotional player. He doesn’t regard the kit as a kit; he puts it together in different ways.
Three Quartets Band with Michael Brecker, Steve Gadd & Eddie Gomez
There was actually some preparation to get the Three Quartets repertoire together because Michael Brecker and Eddie and Steve particularly wanted to play those pieces that are on Three Quartets [Stretch/GRP, 1981], and that music is not easy, to say the least. But man, those guys were so diligent about what they prepared before they came to rehearsal that the music just flew. That group had not played together since the recording in 1981. I had played with Eddie and Steve some-in fact, we did some gigs with Bob Berg. And I had played with Michael a little bit in different situations and had played with Steve in some other contexts. But we had never played together as a quartet with that repertoire, and that was some of the hardest music we played all three weeks. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen with it, but these musicians are such magicians and geniuses that it all came together very quickly. Some bands get into this attitude, “Well, just take it easy and play the notes, know what the form is and don’t extend too much energy during rehearsal.” And other bands just let out all the stops at rehearsals. I can go either way on that kind of thing. But with this quartet, when we got together for the afternoon rehearsal we played it real easy-just kind of lightly picked up the notes. But when the band hit at night, man, the whole first set that we played I think my hair was standing on end, from beginning to end. It was so great getting back together with those guys. And those last two nights were very strong, very memorable.
During his extended three-week engagement at the Blue Note for his career retrospective, Corea played a rented Yamaha Concert Grand. “It was a gorgeous piano to play,” he says. “And on the duet night I played with Gonzalo Rubalcaba-it was the Tuesday and Wednesday of the third week, the final week-Gonzalo had a favorite Yamaha that he liked to play, so we brought a second concert grand on stage. It was a great night. We had two pianos, took the lids off of both instruments. It was a really fun night. But I ended up liking Gonzalo’s piano much better. So the next time I went into the Blue Note, just this past year, I rented Gonzalo’s piano. But both pianos were wonderful and served us well.”
Regarding his recent reunion tour with the Elektric Band (saxophonist Eric Marienthal, guitarist Frank Gambale, drummer Dave Weckl and bassist John Patitucci), Corea says, “When we started up an Elektric Band tour it was a push trying to work up some electric keyboard technology again. I had been unplugged and out of that whole flow of MIDI and keyboards for 12 years. Obviously, a lot has happened in that time. I basically started out with the gear that I had been using because you can make anything sound good. But slowly, as I’m getting into it.”
Corea’s Elektric Band setup includes a nine-foot Yamaha Disklavier CFIIIS concert grand (which enables him to trigger synths from the grand piano), an old 73-key Fender Rhodes electric piano, which he has retro-fitted with a Gulbransen MIDI unit and a new Yamaha Motif 8 synthesizer, and a Yamaha KX5 strap-on MIDI controller using the old Gambatte MIDI wireless system. His effects rack includes a Yamaha CS6R rack-mounted synthesizer, a Yamaha TX802 that he uses for his KX5 sound, a Yamaha TG77 and a Lexicon PCM 70 for reverb. He also has an old 16-channel Studiomaster mixing board, a vintage Walter Woods Amplifiers (“Still a wonderful warm sound”), the Mentor, a MIDI-processing device designed by Steve Salani, that he used through the ’80s. “I looked around and found not one device that could replace what the Mentor can do,” Corea maintains. “It makes MIDI outing from controllers to slaves very easy and flexible.”
He uses Bag End Sapphire keyboard speakers and the Bag End ELP subwoofer system. “These speakers give me a very pleasing sound with just the right amount of punch and impingement for stage,” Corea says. “Many of the components of this new rig are pieces I used in the ’80s, and it’s amazing to hear how good they still sound. It seems there’s been much more development in the digital facility of gear since the ’80s than in actual sound quality. I’m very happy with the new-old sounds.”