Chick Corea & Steve Gadd: The Past That Never Was

Chick Corea and Steve Gadd’s new collaboration evokes a lost Return to Forever lineup

Chick Corea & Steve Gadd (photo by C. Taylor Crothers)

Chinese Butterfly (Stretch/Concord Jazz), the new double-album by the Chick Corea + Steve Gadd Band, is pretty much what you’d expect from two masters of their respective instruments: a lengthy clinic in exploratory improvisation, tight rhythmic interplay and attention-getting virtuosity. It’s also a “debut” recording that you could justifiably claim has been 53 years in the making.

That’s how long ago Corea, now 76, and Gadd, 72, first met, at a jam session on Long Island in 1965. Details are sketchy, but Corea remembers this much: “There was an instant rapport between us. We didn’t have to meet in the middle.”

A couple of years after that jam, Corea quit playing piano in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and signed on with fellow Blakey alum Chuck Mangione, for whom Gadd occupied the drum stool. “You could tell Chick was special right away,” Gadd says of this brief period. “It was before he went with Miles, but he was already very innovative. He just had that mentality.”

From there, paths diverged. While Corea played with the pioneers of fusion, Gadd performed as a musician in the U.S. Army. Toward the end of his three years in uniform, he caught Corea’s latest band at the Village Vanguard. “It was the original Return to Forever with [percussionist] Airto [Moreira] and [singer] Flora [Purim],” Gadd recalls. “I thought the music was great, and I told Chick then that if he ever needed me, I’d love to be involved.”

Corea’s call came in the spring of 1973, and Gadd quickly accepted. For the next three months, the new all-electric Return to Forever rehearsed and played shows, including a rampaging performance on Boston’s WBCN-FM that’s been widely bootlegged. “That band was on fire,” Gadd says. “[Bassist] Stanley [Clarke], Mingo Lewis on percussion, Bill Connors on guitar. We were playing all the tunes that came out later on Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy.”

But when that album appeared in November ’73, Gadd’s name was absent from the credits. There’d been a problem. “Chick wanted the same band that did the album to do the touring,” Gadd explains. “But I was living in New York, I had a couple of kids and I was doing sessions. I just couldn’t be on the road that much. It was a hard decision to not stay in that band; I knew it was going to be so strong. But it worked out great for Chick and [Gadd’s successor] Lenny [White]—and for me, too.” That’s for sure. RTF went on to tremendous success, and Gadd became one of the world’s top session drummers, renowned for his work with Paul Simon, James Taylor, Steely Dan and many others.

“Steve’s a real buddy,” Corea says. “I love and admire him, but most of the time we’ve been rolling in different worlds.” The two worlds did collide every once in a while, notably when Corea hired Gadd for two 1976 albums, The Leprechaun and My Spanish Heart, and 1981’s Three Quartets. But the long-mooted concept of playing together in a band again didn’t take on an air of reality until two years ago, when they ran into each other in Japan.

“I said, ‘OK, man, we’ve been talking about this for years. Come down to the house and jam,’” Corea remembers. “It took a while to get our schedules together, but we picked a date about three months ahead of time.” By the time Gadd arrived at Corea’s Florida studio in December 2016, the keyboardist had written several new tunes with him in mind. As Gadd puts it, “You plant a seed, and Chick will make it grow.”

“Composing is probably my favorite musical thing to do,” Corea says, “and Steve is a beautiful drummer to present compositions to. He puts his own stamp on the music, and it’s always just the right stamp.”

Once they’d worked their way through two moody, intricate pieces—“Like I Was Sayin’” and “Gadd-zooks”—both players knew they had something. It was time to bring in reinforcements. With Gadd’s approval, Corea called up a few friends: guitarist Lionel Loueke, saxophonist and flutist Steve Wilson, bassist Carlitos Del Puerto and percussionist Luisito Quintero. Over five days of sessions last February, they overdubbed individually on the tracks Corea and Gadd had already recorded, then played as a team on six more, including the mesmerizing Corea/Loueke co-write “Wake-Up Call” and one real surprise: “Return to Forever,” the opening cut of RTF’s debut album, pulled from the Chick archives for the first time since the ’70s.

“We did that one because of Philip,” Corea says, referring to guest Philip Bailey of Earth, Wind & Fire, who puts his trademark falsetto spin on the lines originally sung by Flora Purim. “We’ve become friends over the past several years and we’d been planning to do some tracks together, so I invited him to come by while I was working with Steve. Philip really likes that song, and he wanted to challenge himself to sing all those odd melodies at the beginning.”

That particular song choice may have been a coincidence. But taken together with everything else on Chinese Butterfly—from Gadd’s presence to the vintage Rhodes and analog-synth tones Corea favors throughout to the album’s overall spacey vibe—it feels like we’ve entered some alternate dimension where Gadd actually stayed with Corea in the ’70s. That impression was, if anything, furthered by the new band’s numerous 2017 live shows. Is this, for want of a better phrase, a return to Return to Forever?

“I don’t know, man,” Corea chuckles. “It’s a return to Chick, that’s for sure. You know, I sometimes get criticism when I play stuff that I’ve already written. They say, ‘Oh, he’s playing something old.’ But you don’t create in the past or the future; you do it now. And that’s what we’re doing. Is it old? Is it new? I say it’s all just creation.”

Preview, buy or download songs from the album Chinese Butterfly by Chick Corea and Steve Gadd on iTunes.

Read Nate Chinen’s recommendations for top five classic Steve Gadd tracks.