CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

Chick Corea Is the Well-Tempered Clavierist

At 78, in the midst of a wave of creative activity that’s impressive even for him, the pianist is intensely focused on staying in tune—in every sense of that term

Chick Corea
Chick Corea (photo: Dan Muse)

For most of its recent tour, the Chick Corea Trio has opened its concerts with a seemingly ordinary tuning ritual.

Corea plays a series of As in the piano’s middle register. Christian McBride adjusts his bass as needed. Brian Blade, drums impeccably pre-tuned, tests a few brush strokes on the snare drum. Business as usual.

And then Corea offers that same A 440 to the audience.

He politely requests that they sing an A back. After several more such exchanges, there comes a curveball: a short three-note phrase. As Corea repeats the phrase, he makes conductor-like gestures. The next one is more intricate—a ringtone from a galaxy with faster mental processing. This loses people. Chick Corea smiles a delighted evil-professor smile and keeps going, adding a tritone monkey wrench, upping the degree of difficulty.

It’s a little gimmicky, this call-and-response game. The performance equivalent of jumping jacks before gym class. But on the night I caught the group, at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia, its effect was outsized. After the tuning, when the first plaintive rubato notes of “500 Miles High” arrived, the audience seemed alert and fully receptive, ready to listen, primed for something other than the usual “legend playing the greatest hits” experience.

Musicians rely on tuning to create a sense of unity on the bandstand. Corea’s tuning game widens the circle, luring concertgoers into the trio’s workspace, making them participants. In the age of 24/7 handheld distraction machines, it’s a gentle bit of subversion, an end run around attention deficit disorder.

“At first I did it for a lark,” Corea explains. “And then I found out that beyond just a fun moment we might have with the audience, it sets us up for great communication right at the beginning of the show.”

Blade goes further: “You know, people initially might be shy to sing out, if they’re alone. But they hear the whole room is doing it, and what a congregational beauty that brings. It makes everybody loosen up … Chick is all about engaging with people, and this opens the door and invites them to share in the experience.”

Sure enough, that’s what happens. For nearly two hours, the hall is a zone of active listening. The three musicians play at a hushed or moderate volume, Blade mostly on brushes, through a challenging program of Corea’s originals, standards, and Thelonious Monk tunes. They converse from the first theme statement to the last chord, following each other around blind-alley corners and down rickety unlit stairs, chasing dramatic extremes of soft and loud, density and spaciousness, tension and release.

Corea says his goal, particularly on the ballads, is to glimpse new possibilities of color and texture. “As a sonic person, an orchestrator, I find it incredibly interesting, and delicious actually, to have these three different timbres [piano, bass, drums] to work with. It’s a classic sound but it doesn’t have to be just that. We play with a lot of space—you have to become very sensitive to make each other sound good.”

*****

Chick Corea is 78 years old. He has been cultivating this discourse—between himself, an astonishing list of collaborators, and the audiences for his varied projects—for more than six decades. At a time of life when most people are slowing down, Corea is in the midst of a furious creative outpouring. He’s released 13 records of new or live material since 2011. He’s toured around the world with several completely different projects, and has commissions lined up that will consume every scrap of “downtime” he might get in 2020.

Our conversation took place in a hotel suite overlooking Independence Hall in Philadelphia. The focal point of the room was a keyboard; Corea has been preparing to play his Piano Concerto with the Seattle and Portland Symphonies when the current trio tour ends. McBride says the pianist has been obsessive about practicing the work, and when I ask about it, Corea is blunt. “I wrote this piano concerto with a good spirit but never thought to myself that I’d be playing it with orchestras. So now I’m needing to learn it well enough so I don’t look like a jerk when I get there.”

He laughs in a hearty, contagious way, then abruptly pivots back to his concern. “No, I mean that. It’s written notes. I’ve got to play a certain amount of the written notes in order to make it sound like the piece I wrote. In order to let the orchestra know where I’m at.”

This is the only time over an extended conversation that Corea expresses anything resembling anxiety. He’s one of those lively intellects who leaps across disciplines to make a point—he invokes Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Great Stone Face” to answer a question about interacting with Herbie Hancock in a duo situation. As he speaks, it becomes clear that the nitty-gritty challenges of making music are way more important to him than any of the after-effects, the critical raves, or lifetime achievement awards. He’s wired for the moment, oriented in an almost obsessive way toward new creative endeavors. For him, everything lines up around a single overarching goal: communication.

JT: Do you sense, in the audiences at your shows, a difference in terms of attention since the smartphone came along? Is this a concern for artists who are focusing on interplay, often unscripted interplay?

As an artist I’ve learned what I think is the wisdom of putting those kinds of changes, like attention, on a lower mechanical level, in order to focus on the essential thing that happens in music between an artist and an audience. No matter what culture you’re in or what period of history, human beings communicating comes down to the same basic thing: the desire to get someone’s attention and to maintain his attention. For you to have an exchange that not only makes sense but is pleasurable is, I hate to throw out this word but I think it’s the correct one, “archetypical.” It’s built into the human way of living. The essential thing that happens in music is an element that was there from the beginning of time and will never change until the end of time. And that’s human spiritual contact.