Chick Corea: Farewell To My Mentor

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“In equal measure, he was super-disciplined and playfully childlike,” says Tim Garland.

(Photo: Steven Sussman)

EDITOR’s NOTE: Throughout an international career starting in the late 1980s, Tim Garland has become known as a shape-shifter on the international music scene. As a saxophonist, his first break was joining Ronnie Scott’s band age 23. Later, he teamed with Chick Corea as a regular member of several globetrotting projects over a 17-year stretch, including Corea’s 2013 project and album called The Vigil (Concord). Playing tenor and soprano saxes, bass clarinet and flute, Garland also won a Grammy for his symphonic orchestrations on Corea’s 2008 release, The New Crystal Silence (Concord). Shortly after Corea’s passing on Feb. 21, 2021 Garland penned this tribute to his friend and mentor. DownBeat is proud to publish his tribute here in honor of the readers selecting Chick Corea once more as Artist, Pianist and Keyboardist of the year as well as naming the Chick Corea Trio (with Christian McBride on bass and Brian Blade on drums) as Group of the Year. This interview was originally published in the December 2021 issue of DownBeat.

For 21 years, I was lucky enough to call Chick Corea both my mentor and my friend.

His insatiable appetite for live music and, crucially, its communication, was infectious, inspiring those around him to produce their very best, most heartfelt music.

His incredibly full schedule was, of course, a result of his huge popularity. Some of the promoters that we shared post-gig meals with would seem like his oldest friends, harkening back to concerts from the late ’60s on! As a band leader, Chick’s experience seemed unparalleled, and there are precious few who toured to the extent that he did.

In equal measure, he was super-disciplined and playfully childlike.

His discipline showed up in his respect for the efficiency of those around him. During those inevitable “rise and shine,” early morning, hotel-lobby-to-airport calls, he would set a great example of good-natured punctuality. His hotel room was always equipped with a full-sized keyboard for regular practice before, and often after, a concert. Leaving a venue we’d sometimes have to wait as Chick would be up on stage again practicing Mozart while the cleaners swept their brooms around the stage.

Early on, Chick was patient when there were things us newbies needed to learn and quickly forgiving of errors of judgement. He taught us how to communicate on larger stages and how to minimize barriers between yourself and the music, as well as the music and the audience.

On one of my first performances with him, Chick beamed at me as I walked past the piano after taking a solo, and shouted over “That’s the shit, Tim!” I was so pleased to have heard the word “the” in there. As if a foil to Chick’s sense of discipline was his sense of playfulness. He was playful in his sense of mischief and endless inventiveness on stage. I can’t think of one concert when he wouldn’t have played some phrase that would produce a kind of joyful laughter from his sidemen, something so hip and fresh, so individual and so locked-in with the groove. I remember after my first gig with him at The Stables Theatre in Wavedon, England (When it was still actually a converted stable), we were discussing how it felt to be locked in rhythmically, his groove was so visceral, crisp and decisive that it pulled you into its orbit. In his company, one was made aware of how to place notes and phrases, how to be truly playing as part of the band and never simply over it.

On our many long bus rides, he’d be talking to one or other of the band. The subject matter was always fascinating, Chick’s attitude and ear always open and questioning. He was eager to share his experience and to learn new things. He was still stretching his wings and growing along with the rest of us.

He had a passion for the drums being a drummer himself, his talks with Marcus [Gilmore] would bear the impression of two music students sharing experiences and digging what they love. Forget the 45 years that lay between them, it certainly had no place in that conversation. He gave exceptional regard to his drummers, they were “the High Priests” of the music, and he sometimes referred to the piano keyboard, for obvious reasons, as an extended drum kit.

With me, Chick might talk about orchestration, composition and approaches to getting the very best out of everyone on stage. He also gave exceptional respect to composers. My great buddy, the composer Billy Childs, who first introduced me to Chick, was quick to remind me of how he often spoke of us in the same sentence. What a blessing.

In these personal moments, I was deeply honored to hear so many stories of musical heroes first hand, like when Miles’ band members all swapped instruments on stage before he came out. “You guys are crazy” was the raspy reaction he gave when they played him on. Chick’s playfulness was there back then and it stayed. He got fed up at one point during a tour of Europe — playing in lavish halls threatened to make the listening experience stuffy and overly polite — so he tried to break out by having us all actually set up our gear at the beginning of the gig in front of the audience, cases everywhere, whilst he sat at the piano improvising his way into the first piece of the set.

Sometimes he’d surprise an unsuspecting band member, suddenly inviting them to introduce the next song, or he might just leave the piano, pick up a percussion instrument and start an impromptu rhythmic party. He got the audience involved, too, inviting them to sing, to come up on stage, to call out suggestions; no wonder thousands of music lovers felt they knew him beyond just his music.

His five decades of musical creation and risk-taking, that did not diminish with age, led to fans from 75 to 25 united in grief at his parting. I remember occasions at band rehearsals for The Vigil when Chick would walk in, clutching sheet music for brand new compositions, throwing them up on our stands with maverick enthusiasm.

To think of the scope of the music that came from him, could there be any jazz composer that hasn’t assimilated a part of Chick into the very marrow of their bones? And such diversity. Think of well-known pieces like “Litha,” “La Fiesta” or “Humpty Dumpty,” the knotty mischief of his orchestral pieces such as “The Continents” or the episodic romping fusion themes of the Return To Forever band.

Chick’s eclecticism was truly unparalleled, and in this I am reminded by my buddy, Kris Campbell, our road warrior tour manager and unsung backstage hero, saying that “Everyone has their own book they can write about Chick.”

As often the only one traveling in from Europe on a tour or project, my jet lag was the reverse of the others. One time I was nodding off in the hotel after a long-haul flight and at about 2 a.m. Chick calls up and says, “I’m having a steak downstairs, they kept the kitchen open, see you in five?” — and one had to weigh up issues of personal health regarding sleep, against hanging out in deep conversation with the Chickster, talking about Henri Dutilleux or Art Tatum or how there was not enough good humor in contemporary music.

Humor was central. He’d often quote the comedians he’d grown up watching, as well as Monty Python, and old jokes of Ronnie Scott’s. But I remember a time when I tried to get him into Alan Partridge (a blast of self-deprecating Brit humor). That went down like a lead balloon. Why so? Chick had limited time to identify with the humor of self-pity or self-destructive behavior. His central modus operandi was appreciation. He was totally attuned to lifting everyone’s feeling of self-worth through his attentive appreciation. Just look at the amount of people sharing selfies with him, and how often he’s pointing at them, the fans, acknowledging their importance, encouraging us all to feel inspired in our own endeavors.

Chick not only believed in us as his fellow artists, but genuinely relished the input we could offer and with that came the possibility that we might take a risk of our own that he didn’t actually dig, and you’d realize later that his interest was centered chiefly around the band, and that within risk-taking there had to be dialogue. Music for him was communication.

His investment in the talents of others meant he never ran out of things to say as a musician with such a long career. I remember sitting next to him on a flight to Tokyo and mentioning, “This is my fourth time now,” his reply being that he’d been at least twice a year since 1966 (the year I was born).

In Chick’s later years, he was still incredibly resilient. During a potentially violent uprising in Argentina, we were forced to leave our hotel in the dead of night driving off in a rickety bus headed for our next venue 14 hours away. There were rumors of buses being forcibly boarded by strikers in Buenos Aires. We took a heavily bumpy ride through the outbacks of the country. Chick bore the lack of comfort with such resilience that I didn’t dare make any complaint myself.

He always asked after Amanda, my wife, and my kids Rosa and Joe and we, of course, got to know Gayle, the love of his life. The last time I played at the Blue Note, Gayle took Mandy for a surreal 1 a.m. Chinese foot-massage just over the road “while the boys did their thing.”

How very New York, and how very Gayle.

Chick, you have left a gaping hole that we are all left staring into. We never imagined a world without Chick Corea in it, without him sending songs with Gayle singing as Christmas gifts, or releasing project after project (I was just in four of them, but that was life-changing enough) or sharing his life’s wisdom. Thank you for lifting the spirits of millions and reminding us of what is possible.

Thank you for showing such fearlessness in a world so wracked with fear, and my humble thanks for believing in me, a lad from Kent who was as hooked on music as you, and who was privileged to share just a fraction of your experience. You have been the most inspirational man I am ever likely to meet and our global musical family within and beyond the world of jazz has been stunned into silence. Yet I can hear your voice saying that you have merely Returned to Forever, and there you are just pointing at our instruments saying, “C’mon, man — let’s hear what you’re working on now!” DB



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