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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
The Chick Corea Trio (photo: Dan Muse)

Has your perception of Bitches Brew changed over the years? I was struck by the energy of that “third” quintet on the Live in Europe 1969 set that came out a few years ago. The band with you, Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette, and Wayne Shorter was really intense.

When we started recording [Bitches Brew], I saw it as a comedown from the live gigs that we were doing. They were really an adventure—just the wildest thing I had ever experienced up until that time. With Miles and his incredible melodic sense, and a laser intention that would set the scene for everything. And then the musicians in that band were just taking it every direction, imaginations were running wild in that band. So when we got in the studio to do Bitches Brew, I thought, “Oh, we’re making rock & roll now, Miles is doing some commercial music now.” Hahaha …

Were you surprised by the editing?

When Bob Belden finally did the [2004] remix, I got interested. Before that I couldn’t tell what it was—it didn’t sound like what I remembered was happening in the studio. He put it back together again in a way that made sense. For one thing, finally you could hear keyboards. I thought, “Oh yeah, there it is! I knew I was in there somewhere.”

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Corea has been averaging two new releases a year since his 70th birthday in 2011—a tear chronicled, in part, in the new documentary Chick Corea: Mind of a Master. Some of them have been elaborate projects: a three-CD live set of material from the trio with McBride and Blade, a large-ensemble reboot of the Spanish Heart concept, and so on. There are plans for a U.S. tour with the latter group, featuring Rubén Blades on vocals, in 2020, and that’s in addition to plans for another Akoustic Band record and more solo piano music.

His primary label in recent years has been Concord Records, which has issued significant works by Paul Simon, Santana, and many other established artists. Talking to label president John Burk, you get the sense that Corea presents his team with a unique air-traffic-control challenge: “He tours in three or four different configurations, and he’s out on the road a lot. Then he has a backlog of music ready to go that he wants to release. It’s taken us a while to line up the releases so they align with his touring activity, so that there’s a strategy that allows for each of the records to reach their maximum potential audience.”

Corea has no specific issue with the label; he says that Concord has been extraordinarily supportive. His beef is with the entire record industry. “I have forever disagreed with the commercial philosophy of ‘Don’t flood the market.’ My philosophy has always been, the more communication the better, the more records the better. I think we should capture ideas, document them, and put them out. Then the ones who are trying their best to market it go, ‘Oh no, not another one, we’re still trying to work on the last one.’ I understand that from the business point of view. I just can’t let that commercial reality affect the creative work.”

He mentions the trove of solo recordings he’s just begun to sort; another one is slated for release early next year. By then, he’ll be diving into an artist-in-residence appointment with the New York Philharmonic, and writing a concerto for longtime principal trombonist Joe Alessi. “It’s really exciting to me to write for orchestra—an entirely different beast. These projects, I’d really like to share them with the people who know me from the jazz stuff. … I guess to a label person I must look like a creature with eight heads or something.”

It seems like a gargantuan task to juggle so many endeavors in so many different realms of music. Most musicians just worry about the next gig.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. For me the most important thing is fun, being in musical situations like the trio, where we know it’s going to be a different challenge every time. Years ago I realized that I could have a million ideas and they might never get going without some structure. It’s only fun if I can give what’s needed. At this point in my life, the real way to get involved with any project is to book a commitment. So when Joe Alessi asked about the trombone concerto, I immediately [said], “Wow, yes, I’d love to do that.” And right away that turned into a schedule, and the need to deliver it at a certain time, and that meant planning.

Do you talk about this stuff in master classes, or interactions with young musicians? Seems like there’s a lot there that doesn’t get covered in music school—particularly that notion of having a vision and then prioritizing projects to support the vision.

The first thing I say is that doing anything in the arts requires some organization. It’s necessary. But I don’t focus too much on that. I more want to share my experience of being an artist, because when I’m at work I can see the result of what I do in front of my eyes, as I do it. That’s incredibly fulfilling, and not like most professions. Most people can’t tell how their effort is being received. I can see if I’m bringing people pleasure, if I’m inspiring anybody. When you do that, you’re putting something good into the world. I believe that.

On a vibrational level?

On many levels. What making music for people does, I’ve observed, is it stimulates what’s natural in all of us. It’s native sense, in every person. You don’t have to be a professional anything—all you need to do is be a living human being, and open to the play of imagination. Because imagination is everything … after you do this for a while, you see that you can use your imagination and imbue life with your creation. And that your happiness comes from what you imbue, what you bring of yourself.