Chick Corea: Hear 12 Essential Performances
Chick Corea, the pioneering keyboardist and bandleader who passed away Tuesday at the age of 79, will forever be seen as a key architect of jazz-rock fusion.
It’s a fitting one-line homage. Whether alone, as the leader of the Return to Forever collective or as a companion for giants like Miles Davis (on pioneering albums such as “In a Silent Way” and “Bitches Brew”), Corea has enriched the jazz lexicon and its harmonic language with heaviness merged (and strengthened) rock and funk. But no description, not even so broad, can encompass such a limitless vision.
“After all, formal styles are just an afterthought – a result of the creative impulse,” Corea told the New York Times in 1983. “Nobody sits down and decides to specifically write in a given style.” A style is not something you learn, but something you synthesize. Musicians don’t care whether a particular composition is jazz, pop or classical music. They only care if it’s good music – if it’s challenging and exciting. “
For more than five decades Corea has modified his sound to follow this simple maxim – whims from bebop to free jazz to fusion to contemporary classical music. He recorded almost 90 albums as a band leader or co-leader. And he’s always prioritized melody and musicality over calorie-free showmanship (though few have matched his raw skills on the Fender Rhodes).
Here are 12 of his elite studio and live performances.
“Miles lets down the voodoo” (1970)
Corea and Joe Zawinul form a wall of Rhodes on this creeping, funky cut from Miles Davis ‘”Bitches Brew,” punctuated by John McLaughlin’s ice pick guitars and Davis’ sighing trumpet. The rhythm section is so dense that you can hardly enjoy everything: two electric basses (Dave Holland and Harvey Brooks), two drum sets (Don Alias and Jack DeJohnette) and the congas by Juma Santos. Good thing it takes 14 minutes. The keyboard players switch from question mark to exclamation mark – one moment that hits the groove, the next that plays solo in colorful bursts of noise. “Trust yourself,” Corea said in 2020, was Davis’ philosophy. “When he says, ‘Play what you can’t hear,’ he means, trust your imagination. Trust yourself to say, “I don’t know what I’ll do next, but I’ll only do it because it’s fun. Because I love it. ‘”
Corea sprinkles this nine-minute monster with an electric piano from Larry Coryell’s “Spaces”, a pillar of the early fusion. The arrangement seems to fluctuate between structure and improvisation, straight groove and cosmic freedom. The line-up is the definition of a supergroup: Corea and Coryell as well as John McLaughlin on guitar, Miroslav Vitouš (later from Weather Report) on double bass and Billy Cobham on drums.
“Spain”, the rare fusion melody with a durability as a jazz standard, remains Corea’s characteristic composition – covered by artists like Stevie Wonder and Béla Fleck. The original of Return to Forevers “Light as a Feather” is untouchable: The keyboardist’s hands pirouette happily over Rhodes for almost 10 minutes, his melodious melodies match Flora Purim’s calm coo and Joe Farrell’s fluttering flute. The choir, with its truncated keyboard phrases and enthusiastic hand clapping, is one of the catchiest moments in the history of the merger, along with Weather Reports’ main theme “Birdland”.
“Space Circus, Part I” / “Space Circus, Part II” (1973)
Return to Forever was in its infancy with the intensity of most rock bands of the 70s. But it sounded positively massive on his third album, added two new recruits (powerhouse drummer Lenny White and guitarist Bill Connors) and made Stanley Clarke switch to electric bass. The group showed off their full dynamic range on this two-part track from Return to Forever’s “Anthem of the Seventh Galaxy,” which began with Corea’s dreamy Rhodes theme before breaking out into tightly packed funk. Connor’s bloody guitar and Clarke’s distorted bass drift into the realm of psycho-rock – but even when the keyboardist leans back a little, his steady chords remain the ensemble’s heartbeat.
“Song to John (Part I)” / “Song to John (Part II)” (1975)
Corea’s acoustic piano enters lush New Age territory in the first half of these tracks of Stanley Clarke’s “Journey to Love,” which features fanfare with Clarke’s Bowed bass and John McLaughlin’s acoustic guitar. The group strikes an intense Latin groove in the second half, with McLaughlin and Corea triggering fireworks. In the liner notes, Clarke dedicated the two-part piece to John Coltrane – and it does justice to the bill.
The final Return to Forever line-up – Corea, Clarke, White and guitarist Al Di Meola – split up after the 1976 album “Romantic Warrior”. But as this funky odyssey proves, they almost went out at the peak. White is considered a composer here, and his fidget drum groove definitely keeps the engine running. But Corea also finds “Sorceress” in its most versatile, keyboard-technical form – weaving in atmospheric pads, straightforward synth leads and Latin American themes on acoustic piano.
“Spanish Fantasy” (1976)
Corea has always been influenced by Latin music, and in 2019 he told Billboard that “that flavor is mostly in everything I do”. “It’s part of me. I don’t know how to tell the difference. “But he never went deeper than on his 10th solo LP” My Spanish Heart “. The record reaches its climax with this four-part whiplash suite, which ranges from elegant string and brass instruments to acoustic piano interludes and the tastiest jazz-rock rave-ups on this side of Steely Dan’s “Aja”.
“Short stories from the Black Forest” (1976)
This mini-epic was composed by Corea for the solo debut album “Land of the Midnight Sun” by his band colleague Di Meola and uses his virtuoso lightning bolt – both players sound as if they could drift off their instruments into the sky. But there are many graceful melodies in those five and a half minutes. Halfway through, Corea slips into a gentle chord composition while Di Meola ascends and descends the scales. Corea can even show off his marimba skills and add extra drama to a climatic boom.
Corea and Herbie Hancock, two of the Fusion’s elite keyboardists, embarked on an acoustic duo tour in 1978, and the pair, both veterans of the Miles Davis bands, make amazing use of the two live LPs that resulted from these dates are. A highlight is a 19-minute version of “Homecoming” by “CoreaHancock”, in which your instruments are expertly brought together to form an organism. You move from beauty to ugliness in the twinkling of an eye – halfway the piece turns into a section of guttural grunts, percussive knocks and prepared piano madness.
Like most fusion giants who survived through the mid-80s, Corea took on the colors and contours of the time and formed his Elektric Band with drummer Dave Weckl, bassist John Patitucci and alternating guitarists Scott Henderson and Carlos Rios. The rhythm section runs freely on this neon-coated track from “The Chick Corea Elektric Band”, defined by its twisted, zappa-like rhythms and Corea’s weirdly bright synthesizer.
“Spain (live)” (1992)
Corea stretched “Spain” out over the decades like Taffy and kept his interest by reworking it for various settings and band configurations. (“In 1976 or so I got tired of the song,” he told The Atlantic in 2011. “I started playing really perverted versions of it – I would relate to it for just a second, then I would go” on an improvisation . ”) One of his most impressive later interpretations is this acoustic live duet from“ Play ”with singer Bobby McFerrin, who breathes new life into the piece with its divine falsetto, rumbling bass lines and body percussion. For all sublime engineering, the greatest revelation is that these two giants snap into place in perfect symmetry with the main theme.
Corea teamed up with vibraphonist Gary Burton on the Grammy-winning double-CD live LP “The New Crystal Silence,” which is largely based on revised tracks from Corea’s back catalog. The duo had worked together for decades, and the music here feels appropriately natural and alive – even full-blown Zen, like the expanded version of Crystal Silence. The Sydney Symphony Orchestra is recorded with razor-sharp fidelity at the studio level using the trading phrases and counterpoint patterns of Corea and Burton and rounds off the airy conversation.