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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 with the Spanish Heart Band (photo: Mad Hatter Studios)

Right, but as an improvising artist you have an unusual hill to climb: to involve listeners in your mostly abstract pursuit. How do you bring people into that? 

Most of the audience, they’re not professionals. They maybe don’t recognize when we’re playing the melody from an original score and when we’re departing from it. A lot of people are surprised to learn that we’re playing on a form at all! They hear it as one endless meandering of notes. I never gear the performance so that people need to recognize the tune—that’s never the game we’re playing. [Because] what I notice is, anyone can get into the thing I was talking about before. They pick up on the visceral communication between the trio, and between us and them.

Are there ever times when that’s not enough?

It’s up to us as performers to be responsible for making sure there’s a good groove there. My rule number one of ethics as a performer is that you can never blame the audience for being a bad audience. You hear players say stuff like “They weren’t so good tonight.” C’mon! That’s not their job. They paid to come into the hall to see us. It then becomes our job to give them something that they can hold and enjoy. … I’ve made music that totally loses the audience sometimes. Not because I wanted to, but because I didn’t give ’em enough hooks, enough familiarity. That’s part of our job, and it’s one of the reasons I like to talk between tunes. Because it brings us down to earth together for a moment. I’ll tell a little bit about what we’re about to do, to get them oriented. Honestly, I like it when the audience gets what we’re doing.

Accessibility has never been a negative in the lexicon of Chick Corea. Though he’s pursued improvisational dissonance in provocative ways (see Circle, with Dave Holland and Anthony Braxton), the pianist and composer has also created profound yet easily relatable music in a head-spinning array of settings. Early on, Corea formed an agile, pathfinding trio, with drummer Roy Haynes and bassist Miroslav Vitous, for the classic Now He Sings, Now He Sobs. After stints as a sideman with Mongo Santamaría and Blue Mitchell, he cultivated his own approach to Afro-Cuban improvisation, then wrote some of the most challenging sambas in history (see Light as a Feather), then explored flamenco and bolero and tango (My Spanish Heart). Corea was in the room when Miles Davis’ pioneering Bitches Brew happened, and went on to build a jazz-fusion juggernaut (Return to Forever) that, through several iterations, sold lots of records and influenced generations of musicians. His catalog includes gorgeous Satie-like miniatures (Children’s Songs) and luminous duet records (Crystal Silence with Gary Burton, CoreaHancock with Herbie Hancock, the underappreciated Orvieto with Stefano Bollani) and assorted jazz quartets and quintets.

Consider Corea’s activity just during 1972. That’s the year Crystal Silence was recorded, and the release year for Piano Improvisations Vol. 2, which had been recorded the year before. 1972 was also the year Corea recorded both Return to Forever’s self-titled debut and Light as a Feather—though the former album wasn’t released in the U.S. until 1975.

Every musician should have a year like you did in 1972.

I don’t go so much by the number of the year as the project. Like if you’re asking about that first Return to Forever, I know where that sits because it was in New York. That first one for ECM was the first thing we did as a group—we had no record company for it at the time. We’d been performing regularly, and all we did was go in and play our set down and that was the record. We took the tapes to Germany and Manfred [Eicher, the ECM founder] was in on the mix. Light as a Feather happened after that, and I think Crystal Silence was before the first Return to Forever. The records didn’t come out in the order they were recorded. … They’re all quite a stretch from each other.

You’ve said before that Return to Forever was like a 180 from Circle, an attempt to play music with a groove.

I had two tunes, “Some Time Ago” and “La Fiesta,” and I put a band together based on that. The first guy I bumped into was Stanley Clarke, we played a gig with Joe Henderson here in Philly … then I asked Joe Farrell, then Flora [Purim, the vocalist] came to a rehearsal and brought her husband Airto, who I had played with earlier in Miles’ band. Our first gig was at the Vanguard. I went to see [Vanguard owner] Max [Gordon] and told him I had a group he would like. He said “Well, I can pay you blah-blah, and you can open for Roy Haynes’ group this weekend.” So we played two nights and it was such a hit that he hired us again to do a week. At that point I was booking the gigs and me and Stanley were carrying the Fender Rhodes around.

Was the sound we know from Light as a Feather there from the beginning?

Yes. Stanley and me and Joe were steeped in Miles, Monk, Coltrane. But of course Airto was not, not so much. It was a mixture for sure—Airto brought that authentic feel, and then Stanley, being a rebel from day one, played those rhythms his own way, not like Brazilians played them. It just clicked.

*****

The cover of the Spanish Heart Band’s ambitious recent album, Antidote, shows Chick Corea in a flamenco dance position. One hand is above his head doing the finger-snap, the other is at his belt, possibly just post-snap. He’s smiling in a rascally sly way, like he’s just been caught doing something supremely un-legend-like and could not care less. It’s not a distinguished-elder look. It’s not a jazz look. It’s a “Lighten up! Come dance!” look.

The image speaks to a core truth of Corea’s approach to music: He comes at his work with genuine lightness. Even when the compositions are intricate and technically demanding, he’s running on impulse, not doctrine. Trying stuff. He can dispense musical heaviness in bulk, but he tends to offset the meta-conceptual with a rogue move or a comical quote.  

Several times during our conversation, Corea uses the phrase “That’s not the game I’m playing” to draw distinctions between his philosophy and that of others. The distinctions themselves are important if sometimes small; his choice of that phrase is more significant, speaking to temperament, orientation, the priority he places on mental agility and flexibility. And, just as important, fun.