I first became aware of Chick on an album that wasn’t his. In fact, he wasn’t even on it! My mother used to love Al Jarreau’s version of “Spain” on his album This Time. My mother would say, “That’s Chick Corea’s song.” And I would say, “Who’s Chick Corea?” And she would respond, “Oh … you’ll learn about him.”
As I started getting into jazz, some of my earliest Chick memories on record were Three Quartets with Michael Brecker, Eddie Gomez and Steve Gadd, and Echoes of an Era with Freddie Hubbard, Joe Henderson, Stanley Clarke and Lenny White. And the live one they did with Nancy Wilson. We had all of those records. The one where I really started to get into Chick was Bobby Hutcherson’s Total Eclipse. Then I heard him on Blue Mitchell’s The Thing to Do. By this time, I’m probably 12 or 13 and becoming a huge fan of Chick’s. I would soon after get into those Return to Forever albums.
I first met him at the old Mt. Fuji Jazz Festival in Japan. I was playing with Benny Green’s trio and Chick was there with the second iteration of the Elektric band: Eric Marienthal, Mike Miller, Jimmy Earl and Gary Novak. I was so excited that Chick was there. Much to my surprise, when Benny’s trio played, Chick pulled up a chair, sat in the wings, and listened intently to every note we played. I was surprised because that was right around the time I started to learn that there was a group of musicians who weren’t too fond of what was about to be called the “Young Lions” era. They thought we were too retro. Benny’s trio was one of the most straight-ahead groups on the festival that year. But Chick really listened to us, and after it was over he was really complimentary, particularly to Benny, saying, “Benny, you played your ass off, let’s get together—I like what you’re doing.” I think his being so supportive of Benny made me love and appreciate Chick even more.
Shortly after he got finished speaking with Benny, I got to say a few words with him and it was the same thing. “Christian, you sound wonderful, it’s great to hear you play for the first time…” Shortly after that conversation, he said, “Let’s exchange info, I want to have your number.” And of course, my 21-year-old brain started running like crazy. Oh man, is he going to call me for a gig? My head is exploding. I gave him my address and my phone number.
Maybe three or four months later I received a letter in the mail. He had handwritten a one-page letter and it basically said, “Hey, it was a pleasure to meet you, let’s stay in touch … maybe we can make some music together one day.” Almost immediately I got a frame for that letter. That was in 1993.
In 1995 I asked Chick to play on my second CD, Number Two Express. That was the first time we played together. I was scared to death because here I am, getting to play with Chick Corea and Jack DeJohnette. I’m sure they could tell I was nervous, but they made life so easy for me. One of the songs I wanted to play was Chick’s “Tones for Joan’s Bones.” Chick said, “Sure, but I don’t know if I remember it.” He was sitting at the piano and I reached over his back and started playing the song, and Chick was pretty tickled that I knew it that well. It all came back to him and we recorded it—thus starting my wonderful 26-year friendship and working relationship with him.
When you play with a legend, you have to train yourself to get out of the epicness of it all and embrace the moment. To not be starstruck. But it wasn’t that hard to do with Chick because he was so nice. In many instances, he almost acted like a sideman in his own band. There’s a certain mindset of musicians who worked extensively as sidemen before they became bandleaders: They know what it means to simply show up for a gig and make it work.
Shortly before we recorded Number Two Express, Ron Moss, Chick’s manager at the time, said that Chick was interested in putting together an all-star quintet with me, Wallace Roney, Joshua Redman and Roy Haynes, playing the music of Bud Powell. Of course, my brain officially exploded then. During that first tour in the summer of 1996, not only am I playing with Chick Corea, but I’m also playing with Roy Haynes.
I had played with Roy quite a bit before I played with Chick, so I felt comfortable, because we had a rapport. But that Haynes-Corea connection was a very special one for a very long time, and I thought it was so sweet that Chick treated Roy with such reverence. Because we were playing Bud Powell’s music and Roy had played with Bud, there was sincere respect from Chick. We would rehearse these arrangements and Chick would often defer to Roy, saying something like, “What do you think, Roy, is that cool?”
Musically, I always appreciated Chick’s rhythmic buoyance. He always played with a certain bounce, very similar to the way Roy played. Because Chick also played drums, I think it really informed his piano playing. I got to play with Chick with a lot of different drummers—Jack, Roy, Steve Gadd, Jeff Ballard, Ignacio Berroa, Vinnie Colaiuta, Marcus Gilmore, Brian Blade—and no matter who it was, there was always a “bounce.”
That first tour I did with him, the Bud Powell tour, he had been commissioned to write a symphony for an orchestra in Japan [The Japan Suite]. It was so crazy—that gig with the orchestra happened sort of in the middle of the tour, so we had this one symphonic gig to mentally prepare for while we’re playing all this Bud Powell music. The gig in Japan I believe was in August. Early on in the tour in mid-June, I said, “Chick, I can’t wait to play this symphony you wrote.” And he says, “Yeah, I better finish it.” I’m like, “You’re not finished?” He says, “No, man, I’ve been so tied up with the music for this tour and I got another commission I’ve got to finish.” This is 1996 and all those composing software programs weren’t readily available yet. Chick was still doing pencil to paper. My jaw was hanging open, like “How’s he going to pull this off?”
We played the Hollywood Bowl, probably a couple of weeks before we went to Japan, and Chick said, “I’m almost done!” I said, “Wait, Chick, I’ve been with you all summer, when did you write the rest of it?” He says, “Oh, you know, after the gig, before soundcheck …” Incredible. This cat wrote an entire symphony, or at least most of it, in six weeks while working on tour.
I saw him do that a lot. He just wrote music all the time. I said, “Chick, what’s your secret?” He said, “There’s no secret.” When he first came on the scene in the ’60s, he said his main focus was actually on composing, so he really spent time honing that craft. I know no one who could write that well, that quickly, all the time. Chick could go in a room and say, “I’ll see you in an hour” and come out with 15 new songs. I never actually saw him do that, but I’m sure he could have!
Chick was always trying to get Brian and me to write more. When he first started the trio he said, “Look, I don’t want this trio to be all my music.” I can’t speak for Brian, but I was just too nervous to write. Chick stayed on us. Brian and I came up with a little something here and there and Chick was like, “That’s good, I just need more. Write more, c’mon.” Part of me feels like my personal tribute to Chick is to do just that: to write and compose more.
His passing is going to have a very debilitating effect on the jazz industry, certainly in terms of the festival and club circuit, because he was a perennial draw with every band that he put together. It’s always been a challenge for jazz clubs and jazz festivals to sell tickets, but you always knew that if Chick Corea was going to be around, there would be some great band playing great music that people couldn’t wait to see and hear. He would have the trio with Brian and me, a tour with Béla Fleck, with Vigil, with Bobby McFerrin, with Stanley and Lenny, with [John] Patitucci and [Dave] Weckl, all kinds of people. He always had multiple irons in the fire. It wasn’t just good for his creativity and his music skills. It was important for the business as well. But I don’t know how he did it.
After playing with Chick for over 25 years … it feels humbling and even awkward to say it, but he became almost a literal family member. He became good friends with my mother. He and his wife Gayle became very close with me and my wife Melissa. But I think that most people who knew Chick Corea felt like he had become their family member. He was like that. If you spent more than five minutes with Chick, you felt like you had just met a close friend. He was just the nicest, most regular guy. But his creative talents and his skills and his kindness were anything but regular.
[as told to Lee Mergner]