Chick Corea’s Musical Universe

Reviewing Corea’s formidable discography, one is struck by the sheer diversity and boundless energy of his musical imagination. Includes a six-hour Spotify playlist of Corea highlights.

I have created a six-hour retrospective playlist of Chick Corea’s music which I’ll likely add to in future weeks. Just listening to the variety of music Corea created goes a long way to alleviate the grief of his passing.

by Marshall Bowden

As a serious piano student learning to play jazz in the late seventies and early eighties, Chick Corea was one of my top two role models and influences, the other being Herbie Hancock. These were guys who were schooled as jazz pianists and had managed to develop their own voice in traditional jazz environments but who were nonetheless fascinated by the places where jazz was beginning to travel. Both played with Miles Davis during his crucial juncture with electric music that came to be known as fusion, and I’d say that the musical language of the Fender Rhodes electric piano was laid down for jazz, and a good deal of pop music as well, by Hancock and Corea (with maybe an assist from Ramsey Lewis). This past week Vernon Reid tweeted about the influence of Corea and Hancock’s fusion playing on Stevie Wonder, citing the instrumental “Contusion” from Songs in the Key of Life as being influenced by their work, and you can hear it on a song like “Too High” as well. 

Both pianists are also musical polyglots, moving easily between straight-ahead jazz, avant-garde, electric fusion, funk, rock, classical, and popular music, leaving their imprint on any genre they touch. And, of course, they recorded and performed together numerous times and had a deep love and respect for each other. Losing one of these masters is like losing an arm or an ear.

Corea’s career really took off during his time with Miles, and he sought to bring the rhythm section further and further outside of time, aided by a strong musical connection to bassist Dave Holland. Between 1968 and 1970 he participated in recording sessions with Miles Davis for Filles de Kilimanjaro, In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew, Live-Evil, and Live at Fillmore East. He also played with Davis at the Isle of Wight Festival, a turning point in the acceptance of jazz fusion by popular music fans, after which both he and Holland left Miles, forming a free improvisation group, Circle, with drummer Barry Altschul and saxophonist Anthony Braxton. They recorded three albums that are well worth seeking out, and the trio (without Braxton) also recorded the album A.R.C., where the three musicians experimented with taking the whole rhythm section ‘outside,’ something Miles had never allowed them to do. 

Corea’s next move was characteristically restless: he recorded a series of solo piano improvisations for ECM Records. Many of these are based on compositions or themes that became familiar to Corea’s listeners. A track like “Sometime Ago,” a song that he recorded with Return to Forever along with lyrics sung by Flora Purim, has the feel of a folk melody about it that helps put it over even if it seems a tad simplistic. Corea went even simpler (more minimal) for Children’s Songs in 1984, a series of simple themes with little development that seems heavily influenced by Bela Bartok.

Interestingly, Corea recorded the tracks that became Piano Improvisation V. 1 & V.2  on April 21 and 22, with the first volume released in 1971, while Facing You, Keith Jarrett’s first album of solo piano improvisation was recorded in November of ’71 and released in March of ’72. I don’t think it’s a question of artists copycatting each other so much as, in all likelihood, Manfred Eicher discovering a partial early niche for his fledgling record company. In 1972 Eicher recorded and released Paul Bley’s gorgeous Open, To Love, and the idea of solo piano as a musical genre was firmly in place. 

But Chick Corea was already moving on, forming the first incarnation of his fusion band Return to Forever, whose first ECM record is a fusion classic. Featuring Stanley Clarke, Joe Farrell, Airto Moreira, and his wife, vocalist Flora Purim, with Corea on electric piano, the group had a light, somewhat Brazilian-tinged sound, with Farrell frequently playing flute or soprano sax. The same group recorded a second album, Light as a Feather, and were the backing band on Stan Getz’s excellent record Captain Marvel. Corea then disbanded this group to create a second version of Return to Forever that was, in essence, a prog-rock band. Guitarist Al DiMeola, Clarke, and drummer Lenny White were all excellent musical technicians as well as composing and leading groups on their own, and the classic RTF albums, Where Have I Known You Before and No Mystery, combine jazz, rock, and funk to create some truly great music. The classic lineup’s final album (until a later reunion) was Romantic Warrior, an album that is way more like an Emerson Lake & Palmer or Rick Wakeman record than anything on the jazz side of the fence. 

After that Corea made a bunch of studio records that seemed to be trying to communicate with a wider audience–some, like The Leprechaun, featured some actual songs with lyrics that were written and sung by Gayle Moran, Corea’s second wife. My Spanish Heart went back to Corea’s roots, playing and hearing Latin and Latin jazz music while growing up, and featured some classic Corea compositions. One thing that I find interesting about Corea is that he definitely understood popular music and followed at least some of what was going on there, but he never really seemed interested in playing or collaborating with rock or other popular musicians, something that Hancock and Miles Davis did in later parts of their careers. Instead, Chick seemed intent on creating his own musical universe, even a pop music one. While many jazz fans (even fusion fans) were critical of records like The Leprechaun or Tap Step, these records demonstrate Corea creating his own brand of sunny pop featuring lyrics that spoke of the kind of world he wanted to live in, one of kindness and acceptance. 

From that point until his death this past week, Chick Corea released a dizzying array of recordings and participated in an equally stunning number of live performances around the world with musicians from every niche and category. He formed groups like Origin, and the Chick Corea Elektric and Akoustic bands to play the new music he was writing. He wrote a piano concerto and performed other classical works or improvisational playing based on the work of classical composers. He played RTF-style fusion and rock, and eventually, he reunited with RTF.

He particularly went out of his way to explore the music of Thelonious Monk, recording Monk’s compositions in both the studio and live setting a number of times, including a memorable program at Jazz at Lincoln Center. He also explored the piano work of Bill Evans on the album Further Explorations.

Though he did great work as a solo artist, part of Corea’s real genius seems to have been his ability to communicate with other musicians and to be inspired by them as well. This is apparent in each of the many bands that Corea has led. Each one seems to have its own vibe based on the musicians involved and the relationships that they share. One place where it becomes very apparent whether a musician is a good listener or not is in working in a duet with one other musician. In these environments, there is nowhere to hide, and you cannot play effectively in the moment with one other musician unless you are listening to them carefully.

Corea has recorded duets with a number of other artists, including banjo player Bella Fleck, pianist Hiromi, and his long-running duet partner, vibraphonist Gary Burton. Corea and Burton recorded the classic Crystal Silence in 1973 and have since recorded seven records together, creating a decades-long musical conversation and friendship that listeners were lucky enough to overhear. Even Burton himself was surprised by the longevity of their collaboration: “I kept thinking, ‘Surely it’s going to run out of steam here at some point,’” Burton told an interviewer. “And it never did. Even at the end, we would still come offstage excited and thrilled by what we were doing.”

You can sense that Corea was probably not too difficult a guy to work with or get along with by the fact that he maintains relationships with musicians who he enjoys working with quite readily. In 2018 he reunited with Steve Gadd, the sought-after studio drummer who powered such Corea records as The Leprechaun and My Spanish Heart, to record Chinese Butterfly, a solid album that demonstrated Corea’s continued vitality and relevance to the fusion genre. Return to Forever also reunited for a concert tour and a new album in 2008-09. 

In listening to a lot of Chick Corea albums and records where he was a sideman, I am struck by the sheer range of creativity that his discography represents. In terms of versatility and also as a composer, very few musicians of any genre can match Corea, with his fellow pianist/co-architect of jazz fusion, Herbie Hancock being an exception. Few artists have ceaselessly dedicated themselves to creating music that communicates with their fellow humans without sacrificing the core of their musical identity.

I hope that future generations discover and share aspects of Corea’s work that they find most interesting and that his musical garden will continue to grow new, ever-fresh perspectives on his work. Corea, always encouraging and supportive, left this message on his Facebook page: “It is my hope that those who have an inkling to play, write, perform or otherwise, do so. If not for yourself then for the rest of us. It’s not only that the world needs more artists, it’s also just a lot of fun.”

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