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JJ 05/80: Beyond the Mainstream – Chick Corea

The influences (Powell, Tyner, Ellington), the bands (Return To Forever and Circle) and those clueless critics. A 1970 interview with the pianist and composer by Elliot Meadow. First published in Jazz Journal May 1980

“I’m exactly where I want to be – I no longer feel in conflict. I love travelling and meeting people. I froth at the mouth to perform – I love playing. My life is full and rich with many different experiences.”

Pianist Chick Corea is an intelligent and aware individual. His concerns, as he indicates, reach beyond just the immediate needs of his music.

‘Bud Powell was one of my basic textbooks. Some musicians I simply listened to and enjoyed but with Bud I actually took his playing apart in order to discover how he achieved what he did’

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Arriving in New York from his native Boston in the early 60s, Corea soon gained prominence through his contributions to the musics of Mongo Santamaria, Herbie Mann, Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, Blue Mitchell and Stan Getz. By the time he joined Miles Davis’s band in 1968, Chick was internationally recognised as an important musician.

Looking back on his influences, Corea remembered “Bud Powell was one of my basic textbooks. Some musicians I simply listened to and enjoyed but with Bud I actually took his playing apart in order to discover how he achieved what he did. I copied down the notes of his solos and played them back along with the records. I learned an incredible amount from doing that. McCoy Tyner was another of the pianists whose playing I got inside of, learning some of the techniques he was using to produce the effects he did.

“The learning process at that time for me had to do with the notes, phrases, approaches to harmony, melody and rhythm. Today, my interest and attention goes to another aspect of the music – how musicians present themselves, how they perform, what kind of spirit they play their music with, what their motivations and goals are. In other words it’s now not so much the actual technique of making music but the technique of creating a whole kind of effect as well.

‘Miles Davis was a textbook that I lived in the page of. He’s just a master with the art of music. I learned a great deal about the certainty of creation from him’

“Duke Ellington was another textbook for me but it had more to do with what I’ve just described – the overall effect he was able to achieve. The man’s sense of ethics and of the importance of the spirit, his sense of entertainment and communication was just beautiful. I think that shortly after Ellington, that kind of communicative spirit got lost in jazz and it became a more closed circle kind of activity. Duke Ellington really communicated to audiences.”

Corea was with Miles Davis during the trumpeter’s Bitches Brew period, the reverberations of which are still being felt 11 years after the fact. “Miles Davis was a textbook that I lived in the page of. He’s just a master with the art of music. I learned a great deal about the certainty of creation from him. To me, certainty and creation are two concepts that are very much aligned. The surer you are about what you are doing, the more chance there is that you can venture forward and create something of value.”

Leaving Davis in 1971, Corea from then on became established as leader of his own groups. Circle, which had been initially formed during Chick’s stay with Davis, was a musically uncompromising quartet that featured Anthony Braxton, Dave Holland, Barry Altshul, and Corea.

That band was followed by several successful editions of Return To Forever with players like Stanley Clarke, Joe Farrell, Lenny White, Al Di Meola, Flora Purim and Airto Moreira involved at one time or another. As the music of Circle was radically different from that of the various RTFs, it’s obvious that Corea was prepared to experiment with a wide spectrum of forms. He explains “I approached the music of Circle, and then the musics of the different RTFs in the same way I approach anything I play, meaning that they reflected the kinds of style and feeling I wanted to communicate to an audience at that particular time in my development.”

‘As far as I’m concerned the critics can go to hell. They are totally superfluous … it seems to me that a lot of them are very dishonest, taking on an authoritarian view they don’t have the credentials to back up’

Talking of audiences led to a brief examination of that group within the musical community that the public often look to as arbiters of taste – critics. Corea has generally received an excellent press over the years so it is not a sour grapes attitude that prompts his slight antagonism. “As far as I’m concerned the critics can go to hell. They are totally superfluous. Now, I admit this is a bit of a generalisation but it seems to me that a lot of them are very dishonest, taking on an authoritarian view they don’t have the credentials to back up.”

Moving swiftly on I asked Corea what comments he had on the two recent worldwide tours he had completed with fellow pianist Herbie Hancock. “I was completely thrilled with both tours. They were successful on every level I can think to mention. They were the easiest musical experiences I’ve ever had. There was no complexity in figuring out what we were going to do because Herbie and I seem to have a natural agreement about music and the effects we wanted to create. There was never any feeling of competition or of challenge – challenge in a negative sense. That, for me was one of the best things that we communicated to the audiences – our attitudes toward one another. The openness toward one another really got across through the music.”

As Corea has consistently demonstrated his interest in exploring new territory it’s not surprising that plans for the near future find him expanding again. “I’m going to do a pilot for a television show. It will be for the public broadcasting system in the States and it will allow me to do a number of different things I want to try. Also I’ve been getting offers to do film scores and I’m looking forward to getting involved with that. I’m kind of snooping for just the right configuration of elements in that area.

“I have a low but very intense burn going on to get involved with creating a situation whereby a group of artists become a team with the idea of structuring their own environment, meaning having their own record company, booking agency, recording studios and ways to put on concerts. I’ve experienced a little in my life of the joy of totally co-creating with another artist, not just contributing to his music or having him contribute to mine but where you get together and really intend for the other’s creation to grow as if it were your own. This has been a dream I’ve had since I was quite young and I’ve been able to realise it in snatches. The musical relationship with Herbie was an expression of it and the whole concept is something I quietly work on.”

As for recording, Corea discussed his most recent album, ‘Delphi One’. “There are two more volumes to be released of this project. I hadn’t made a solo piano recording since the things I did for ECM back in the early 70s. I went to a beautiful school called Delphi that my two children go to.

“In the chapel at the school there’s a piano built by a man named Mark Allen – it’s a prototype of a new concert grand and it’s the most amazing instrument I’ve ever played. The chapel has an ambience and sound that really made the piano come to life. It’s a perfect environment. We used very simple but high quality recording equipment and without any forethought as to what I was going to do, I played over a two day period and the three albums are the result. I was very, very pleased with the outcome.”

Chick Corea stated that today, he is where he wants to be. However, with his commitment toward continually extending himself it’s reasonable to assume that shortly he may want to be somewhere else. Whatever direction he chooses, Corea will undoubtedly take along all the qualities that for the last 15 or so years have made him one of the most admired and respected musicians of his generation.

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