At what point were you drawn to Afro-Cuban music?
In high school I had one fortunate gig with a Portuguese trumpet player named Phil Barbosa. He had a little quartet, and the conga player was Bill Fitch, who played with Cal Tjader later on. I knew nothing about Latin music. When we went to play the first time, I didn’t know what to do, and Bill showed me how to make a rhythm background on the piano, like the Latino guys. That was my beginning. And then he played me records—Tito Puente, Eddie Palmieri, Cachao, a whole bunch of people. That music and those rhythms just completely opened me up. It went straight to my heart. I was like, “I know this somehow. I’ve been here. I don’t know when or where. But this is really natural.”
Almost a déjà vu experience?
Exactly. It took what I had gotten into as a serious student of bebop and jazz and put it into a different frame—the openness within that music, the feeling of dancing and people having fun, really spoke to me.
Did you still consider yourself a student?
Absolutely. Of course. And then somebody recommended me for Mongo [Santamaría]’s band, that’s when I got a taste of the real Cuban tradition. Mongo was like a father. Real generous, and patient. Gave me just the right kind of instruction, showed me how to deal with rhythms that were new to me. It was the first time I encountered that kind of learning, and it’s a philosophy that’s stayed with me my whole life. If you want to learn how to do something, go find the guy who’s doing it. Ask questions. Take instructions from him. And then play the music.
Seems like you did that over and over your first years in New York.
When I got the gig with Blue Mitchell I was over the moon, because that’s the music I grew up with, sort of hard-bop rumba. I was basically stepping into Horace Silver’s band, and Horace was one of the megaheroes. I transcribed more Horace, particularly his tunes, more than any other transcription thing I did. … And the gigs [with Mitchell] were an adventure. We did two or three stints at Minton’s Playhouse, long stints like four to five weeks at a time, and six nights a week playing three or four sets a night. Me playing on a really shitty piano.
What was your experience of the social world of musicians in New York? Did people get what you were bringing musically right away?
I have no idea. I sorta had my head inside my coat then. I was just trying to find my heroes and play with them. … I’ll tell you one thing that happened that was really important to me. After Mongo’s band, Willie Bobo, who was the timbale player, formed his own Latin-jazz band and hired me. After the gig the first night, I was at the bar at Birdland having a drink. I think I might have been down on myself—feeling like I could have played better. It was just me at the bar, the end of the night. I notice this guy walking toward me. When he got close up I recognized him as Tommy Flanagan, and he just pointed at me and he said, “You got something fresh.” I was on cloud nine for two weeks.
He was an early adapter!
That was important for me because I always thought I was copying everybody. Because I was! I remember about six months after my first solo record Tones for Joan’s Bones came out, I found it in a record shop and bought it. Joe Farrell was on that—he was my elder by several years and I looked up to him. Anyway, I took it to his apartment and we made some peanut butter sandwiches and sat down and listened. And every time my piano solo came, he’d be listening to the piano solo. I’d play a lick and he’d go, “Horace.” Few seconds later, another like and he’d go, “Oh, Wynton [Kelly].” He was blowing me up because he was kinda right. I could hear what he was saying. That’s the view I had of what I was doing at that time.
For years now I’ve been wanting to thank Corea for sharing a small but significant detail about the making of Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew. We talked on the phone in 1998, for a Guitar World magazine story marking the album’s 30th anniversary. Everyone involved had vivid recollections of the sessions, but Corea dropped what was, for me, a mind-blowing factoid—that the sessions began, promptly, at 10 a.m. every day. I tell him that knowing about the timing became key to my understanding of the album, and that I’d brought it up in discussions around the 50th anniversary of the recording, which was earlier this year.
“That was made 50 years ago?” Corea asked, sounding genuinely stunned. “Jesus Christ.”