Chick Corea was one of the most prolific and influential pianists and keyboardists in jazz for some five decades. His body of work stretches into scores of recordings under his own name and with others and his performance diary was consistently filled with a range of different projects from solo piano concerts to gigs with both electric and acoustic groups of varying sizes.
He is best remembered for the different incarnations of his Return to Forever group and for award-winning duos with fellow pianist Herbie Hancock and with vibes virtuoso Gary Burton. However, his dedication to his craft ensured that no sooner had one recording been released or tour completed than he would be working on another, often in a very different style to its predecessor.
Armando Anthony “Chick” Corea was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts on June 12, 1941. His parents encouraged him to play music from an early age – his father, also Armando, played trumpet and bass and led a band for many years – and he began classical piano lessons when he was four. He was still at school when he started working with his dad, playing in clubs around Boston and Cape Code but his direction in music was assured even before then when, at the age of six, he heard trumpeter Miles Davis on a 78rpm record.
Other musicians, particularly pianists Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk influenced Corea. Indeed both Powell and Monk would become the subjects of tribute projects but Davis exerted a special pull on Corea. He followed the trumpeter’s career from the release of Davis’s first album in 1951 and went on to play in his band for two years in the late 1960s, switching from acoustic to electric keyboard and appearing on the albums In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew at the birth of jazz fusion.
By this time Corea had gained considerable experience. While still at school, he worked in Latin bands, a style of music that would stay with him. Then, following two short-lived attempts to study music formally, at Columbia University and The Juilliard School, he decided to pursue a professional career. His first major job came in 1962 when he joined Cotton Club veteran Cab Calloway. From there he played with percussionists Mongo Santamaria and Willie Bobo before joining flautist Herbie Mann, trumpeter Blue Mitchell and then, in 1966, saxophonist Stan Getz.
In some ways the Getz quartet of the time was the blueprint for the first iteration of Corea’s Return to Forever. The band played with a light Brazilian melodiousness, a continuation of Getz’s pop success with bossa nova, but could also groove with hard-swinging energy. Although Corea’s time with the group was short – he left to work with trumpeters Donald Byrd and Dizzy Gillespie and singer Sarah Vaughan and to record his first album, Tones for Joan’s Bones – he and Getz reconvened in 1974 to record Getz’s Captain Marvel, an album very much in the style of the first Return to Forever line-up and mostly composed by Corea.
Corea’s electrification with Miles Davis was a major influence on the second edition of Return to Forever but between leaving Davis and forming Return to Forever he returned to acoustic music with a trio he formed with fellow Davis alumnus, British bassist Dave Holland and drummer Barry Altschul. With saxophonist Anthony Braxton added they became the free-wheeling Circle. Despite its relatively brief life span, Circle recorded three albums and along with a trio album with Holland and Altschul, marked the beginning of Corea’s fruitful relationship with the emerging force in jazz that was Munich-based ECM Records.
Return to Forever followed, initially with Brazilian couple, drummer-percussionist Airto Moreira and singer Flora Purim, saxophonist Joe Farrell and double bassist Stanley Clarke. After two albums of light, melodic but potent Latin American jazz, including Corea’s most famous composition, Spain, Corea and Clarke went off into heavier territory. With drummer Lenny White and first Bill Connors, then Al DiMeola on guitar, and with Corea and Clarke playing electric keys and bass respectively, this Return to Forever rocked mightily, taking Corea out of the jazz clubs and into the rock arena. Between tours playing an arsenal of keyboards, Corea returned to the piano and recorded a succession of solo albums and duets with Gary Burton including the classic Crystal Silence. He also recorded the jazz fantasy, The Leprechaun and the flamenco flavoured My Spanish Heart as side projects.
By 1978, Corea had taken Return to Forever as far as it could go and he began to realise an array of ambitions and concepts. His personal life and to some degree his musical one, had been influenced by Scientology and although he could throw interviewers off the scent of his relationship with its founder L. Ron Hubbard (he faxed this writer a poem that was more fog than explanation) the belief system clearly didn’t cloud his focus or get in the way of his output. Quite the reverse.
Album after album, often with groups formed specially, was released. His trio with bassist Miroslav Vitous and drummer Roy Haynes suggested one direction, while another with saxophonist Michael Brecker, bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Steve Gadd sounded capable of long-haul jazz world domination only to be superseded by a septet or a return to his classical roots or another outing with his comparatively long-lasting Elektric Band.
With the formation of his own record label, Stretch, Corea could follow his instincts, whether it be to tour and record with another friend from his Miles Davis days, guitarist John McLaughlin in the Five Peace Band or to champion younger talents. It was with two of those, bassist Avishai Cohen and drummer Jeff Ballard, that Corea gave one of the most memorable concerts in Glasgow Jazz Festival’s history.
Playing in the Old Fruitmarket before its refurbishment, this acoustic ensemble provided a reminder that, even when he was duelling, on synthesiser, with electric guitarists or, pitting his snare drum against Lenny White’s drum kit, Corea was at heart a communicator. He had all the technique and ability in the world but his ultimate aim was to send everyone away from his concerts smiling.
Chick Corea, born June 12, 1941; died February 9, 2021.