Elektric Memories & More

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A deluge of posthumous Chick Corea releases focuses both on his Elektric Band forays as well as his classical leanings.

(Photo: Steven Sussman)

If Armando Anthony “Chick” Corea had done nothing more that what he produced during the 1970s, he would still be a solid candidate for both the Mount Rushmore and Mount Olympus of jazz. The sheer abundance of creative expression jammed into that 10-year span — groundbreaking work with Miles Davis, Circle and Return to Forever, duets with Herbie Hancock and Gary Burton, appearing on recordings by Stan Getz, John McLaughlin, Larry Coryell, Al Di Meola, Joe Farrell, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, Stanley Clarke — is simply staggering.

But Corea never stopped creating. His output through the ’80s and ’90s was equally prolific and included recordings and tours with the Elektric Band, his Akoustic Band, Elektric Band II, his Three Quartets group with Michael Brecker, Eddie Gomez and Steve Gadd, his Trio Music group with bassist Miroslav Vitous and drummer Roy Haynes and his Remembering Bud Powell band with Joshua Redman, Kenny Garrett, Wallace Roney, Christian McBride and Roy Haynes, along with more encounters with Gary Burton and collaborations with Bobby McFerrin.

In this century, Corea toured in 2008 as a member of the cooperative Five Peace Band with McLaughlin, Garrett, McBride and Vinnie Colaiuta (releasing their self-titled album in 2009). That same year he participated in a Return To Forever reunion tour with Di Meola, Clark and White (after a hiatus of 32 years) that yielded the live 2009 album Returns. He would also tour and record with banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck (2007’s The Enchantment, 2015’s Two), drummer Steve Gadd (2017’s Chinese Butterfly), his Spanish Heart Band (2019’s Antidote) and Acoustic Band (2019’s Live).

During his six-decade career, Corea won 27 Grammys (four awarded posthumously) and was nominated 72 times. And now, nearly three years after his passing on Feb. 9, 2021, there’s been a deluge of Corea music in recent months, courtesy of Candid Records, including a couple of previously unreleased live recordings.

First to drop was Chick Corea Elektric Band: The Complete Studio Recordings 1986–1991. Made available on streaming services over the summer, it was released as a limited-edition, five-LP box set in December. This hefty package contains 1986’s The Chick Corea Elektric Band, 1987’s Light Years, 1988’s Eye Of The Beholder, 1990’s Inside Out and 1991’s Beneath The Mask, all originally released on the GRP label.

Following his tenure with Return To Forever during the analog ’70s, the Chick Corea Elektric Band ushered in a brave new world of digital keyboard technology with its imaginative use of new Yamaha MIDI gear that had begun flooding the market in 1984. A longtime gadget geek, Corea would continue following the latest innovations in synth technology on subsequent Elektric Band outings, upping the ante from album to album with new gear from Korg, Kurzweil and Roland. “It’s always been part of my interest,” he told this writer in a 2019 interview. “A new instrument comes out and I’m intrigued. And once I take the time to delve into that direction, it becomes a commitment.”

Those state-of-the-art toys were put to the test on “Rumble,” a dynamic duel between Corea and drummer Dave Weckl, as well as on the mondo synth showcase “No Zone.” Another highlight of that first Elektric Band album was the chops-busting trio number “Got A Match?” An epic post-bop burner, the tune is defined by Weckl’s swinging groove, Patitucci’s unerring uptempo walking bass lines and the tightly executed unison lines on the dizzying head between Chick’s Minimoog synth lines and Patitucci’s incredibly facile electric bass lines. Both Corea and Patitucci turn in spectacular solos on this adrenalized romp, with the bassist quoting John Coltrane’s “Mr. P.C.” along the way. Corea and Weckl also engage in some rapid-fire exchanges midway through this show-stopping number, which would become an Elektric Band concert staple for years to come.

For the Elektric Band’s sophomore outing, Light Years, Corea recruited not one but two new players in Aussie guitarist Frank Gambale and saxophonist Eric Marienthal, both based in Los Angeles at the time. Gambale had been keyed into Corea’s music since the age of 13, when he first heard Return To Forever’s Hymn Of The Seventh Galaxy. “That literally blew my mind,” he recalled. “But it was Chick I was listening to. I mean, he just captured my heart from the first time I heard him, and I was trying to transcribe all of his crazy, amazing solos.”

The young guitarist had moved from his hometown of Canberra to Los Angeles in 1982 to study at the Guitar Institute of Technology (GIT). Four years later, through his own chutzpah and guile, Gambale got an audition for a spot in the Elektric Band. “I happened to be at Mad Hatter studio doing a session and I chatted up Evelyn Brechtlein (studio manager and personal assistant to Corea’s personal manager, Ron Moss). So I gave her my card and she said, ‘I’ve heard of you. My husband (drummer Tom Brechtlein) has played with you.’ Six months later, I got called to do an audition.”

He ended up winning a spot in the Elektric Band after performing a scorched-earth rendition of “Got A Match?” at a sink-or-swim audition with Corea on keys and Brechtlein (who had played on Chick’s Secret Agent and Tap Step) on drums. Gambale joined the Elektric Band on tour in October of 1986 and did a tour of 30 U.S. cities that fall. Following a winter break, they all assembled at Mad Hatter Studios in early 1987 to record Light Years.

The Elektric Band’s more heavily produced sophomore outing contains several sequence-driven tracks — Corea’s bid to appeal to a wider audience with a brand of music that was funkier and eminently more communicative than the more complex music on The Chick Corea Elektric Band. “The way that we approached that record was almost with a pop mentality,” said Weckl, who was given an associate production credit on Light Years. “On the title track, for instance, I recorded the drums separately. I played the kick, snare and hi-hat first, and then I overdubbed the toms.”

But that experiment would prove fleeting. “From then on out, Chick wanted to make sure that we played everything live,” said Marienthal.

Eye Of The Beholder was the perfect antidote. This third Elektric Band album reflects a tightening of the ensemble playing and a greater showcasing of the individual virtuosity of these consummate musicians. And Corea lets them rip in no uncertain terms on “Cascade, Part II,” “Trance Dance” and the dynamic title track. The Spanish-tinged “Eternal Child’ harkens back to Corea’s 1976 album My Spanish Heart and features brilliant solos by Corea, Gambale and Marienthal, with synths providing orchestral seasoning rather than fronting as a solo voice. Piano also figures prominently on the catchy groove number “Passage,” featuring some saxophone heroics by Marienthal, as well as on the suite-like “Beauty,” which is comparable to the title track of RTF’s 1975 Grammy-winning album No Mystery. Eye Of The Beholder concludes on a visceral note with the blazing, quintessential fusion showcase “Amnesia,” essentially an electrified bebop romp that turns Gambale loose to shred in unfettered fashion and has Corea channeling his inner Bud Powell.

Taking it Inside Out

Corea explored a similar tack on the Elektric Band’s fourth outing, Inside Out. Again writing to the band’s individual strengths, in classic Ellingtonian fashion, he highlights them on pieces like the driving, Latin-tinged swinger “Make A Wish, Part 2,” the intricate stop-time vehicle “Kicker” and the epic four-part suite “Tales Of Daring,” which rivals the grandiosity of Corea’s “Duel Of The Jester And The Tyrant” suite from Return To Forever’s Romantic Warrior. This is intelligent fusion with a capital “F,” but without forsaking the “M” word — melody.

“For Chick, it was never a soloist versus band thing, it’s a constant communication with everyone in the band,” said Marienthal. “It was always a conversation, and Chick was always listening.”

“That was Chick’s feeling about making music, that it was a dialogue,” added Weckl. “He liked that sense of being there in that moment … where it’s that moment and it’ll never happen again. He thrived on that communication and the dialogue and the interaction, and just the joy of making music.”

The fifth Elektric Band album is the aggressively fuzoid offering Beneath The Mask, where Corea’s arsenal of keyboards — Kurzweil, Synclavier, Minimoog, Korg Waveframe, Roland Super Jupiter D-550, Prophet VS, MIDI Rhodes, Yamaha KX5 and Yamaha SY-99 synthesizers — dominate the conversation. Marking a return to the more commercially viable jazz-funk of the Elektric Band’s second outing, Light Years, it also marks the end of the first stage of the Chick Corea Elektric Band. Chick would field an entirely new lineup, which he christened the Chick Corea Elektric Band II, for 1993’s Paint The World (scheduled for a spring reissue on Candid).

Less thematic than Corea’s more auteur undertakings like Eye Of The Beholder and Inside Out, Beneath The Mask finds the five virtuoso musicians engaging in a highly sophisticated-yet-accessible set of music while soloing without inhibition. Corea shared composer credits with Patitucci and Weckl on six of the 10 tracks, which travel from heavy grooving funk-fusion (“Beneath The Mask,” “Little Things That Count,” “Jammin E. Cricket”) to lively West African township jive (“One Of Us Is Forty”) to mellow smooth jazz (“A Wave Goodbye,” “Lifescape”) to flirtations with a reggae one-drop feel (“Free Step”), salsa (“Illusions”) and grandiose ’70s-styled prog-rock/fusion (“Charged Particles”).

Gambale’s scintillating fretboard pyrotechnics throughout this offering hold fusion fans in awe. “Charged Particles,” written by Corea specifically with Gambale’s unique guitar gifts in mind, recalls some of the composer’s more adventurous writing from his RTF days. A grinding, grandiose number that might fit nicely in the middle of sets by Deep Purple, Yes or King Crimson, it turns Gambale loose for mind-boggling feats of sweep-picking midway through the aggressive piece.

The longest track on Beneath The Mask, and easily the most challenging, is the closer, “Illusions.” The driving collective muscle of the Elektric Band is put to the test on this suite-like number underscored by Patitucci’s crisp arpeggiating and Weckl’s polyrhythmic thunder. And it features the usual burst of exacting unison passages and dizzying exchanges of eights between Fender Rhodes, soprano sax and guitar. “The Elektric Band was the product of Chick’s energy,” noted Patitucci. “And every gig was a master class, if you paid attention.”

A Futuristic Elektric Outing

While those seminal recordings encapsulate one era of the Elektric Band, Chick Corea Elektric Band: The Future Is Now documents another. A previously unreleased live album, The Future Is Now highlights performances from August 2016 to May 2018 during the group’s reunion tour. Compiled by Corea before his passing in 2021, it rolled out early last November as a two-CD set and three-LP vinyl set. As stated in the album’s packaging: “While we acknowledge the sadness of his passing, this album was not intended to be a posthumous tribute, but rather a joyous toast to the decades-spanning music of the Elektric Band in a triumphant live setting that Chick was so excited to bring to listeners. We hope you, too, may feel the music fires burning as bright as ever as you listen to The Future Is Now and experience it in the way Chick intended for it to be heard.”

The album is marked by crackling performances of three tracks (“Alan Corday,” “Jocelyn–The Commander” and “Johnny’s Landing”) from the Chick Corea Elektric Band’s 2004 album To The Stars (inspired by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard’s 1954 science fiction novel of the same name) along with classic Elektric Band fare like “Got A Match?,” “Charged Particles” and “Trance Dance.” They also deliver a scintillating version of Jimmy Heath’s bop anthem “C.T.A.” and a freewheeling “Ished” (both of which appear on the Elektric Band II’s Paint The World).

The previously unheard Sardinia: A Night Of Mozart & Gershwin was released on Sept. 15, 2023, meeting the eligibility deadline to be considered for the 66th Grammy Awards on Feb. 4. (It was indeed nominated for Best Classical Compendium, a category created for the 2013 Grammy Awards). A collaboration with the Orchestra da Camera della Sardegna, under the direction of conductor Simone Pittau, this concert in Moldo, Sardinia, was the final stop on a European tour of solo performances that Corea played in November 2018.

Chick, the Classical Improviser

Sardinia documents Corea’s distinctive approach to a classical program, adding a touch of playfulness to the proceedings while still upholding the integrity and reverence for the music. He takes great liberties with Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24, inserting improvisational flourishes, while adding personal touches throughout Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue. As Corea’s longtime engineer Bernie Kirsh, who worked on every one of Corea’s albums since 1978’s The Leprachaun, noted: “Chick concluded that Gershwin was basically a jazz musician and that Rhapsody In Blue was definitely a jazz piece. And so he took that to heart in his interpretation here. He improvises on the cadenzas throughout the piece and he just wraps it all in a jazz mode. Then near the end of the piece he interjects a little bit of Gershwin’s ‘The Man I Love’ before segueing back to the ‘Rhapsody’ theme. So he’s intertwining the pop and so-called serious pieces into one, and even incorporates bits of stride piano playing and a whole Latin section near the end of the piece. It’s what he does. He makes everything his own.”

According to Kirsh, Corea thought of himself as a composer who played piano and didn’t see a distinction between improvising something that was a piece of music and taking a pencil and writing it out on paper. “It was all the same creative process to him. That idea of ‘just creating something’ really defines Chick. And throughout his interpretation of Rhapsody In Blue you can really hear how much fun he’s having by taking playful liberties with it. It was just his creative spirit in action … just Chick doing his fun stuff.”

Project manager Jordin Pinkus added that Corea brought a casual vibe to the 1,500-seat concert hall that night in 2018.

“This was winter in Sardinia, and when we showed up to the hall, there was no heat,” Pinkus said. “For the performance, Chick actually came out in a heavy-duty hoodie, and he had a heater right nearby to warm his hands up and a little wastebasket by the piano to put tissues after blowing his nose in between pieces. This all added to the air of informality that Chick was trying to create for this concert. His concept of what a classical performance should be was very different from what a traditional conception of that might be, where there’s a particular sequence of how everybody goes out on stage in a certain order and everybody has to be dressed in black.

“And right from the get-go, Chick wanted it known that he didn’t want to do any of that,” Pinkus continued. “His concept was more like these were all musicians on a stage and it’s like a jazz band. Chick punctured the seriousness of the event, which relaxed the audience and allowed his natural playfulness to come through, which you hear particularly in the Gershwin piece.”

Paint it Elektric

As mentioned, this spring will also see the reissue of 1993’s Paint The World by Elektric Band II, featuring a brand new lineup of guitarist Mike Miller, bassist Jimmy Earl and drummer Gary Novak with saxophonist Marienthal the lone holdover from the first incarnation. Recorded at Mad Hatter Studios in Los Angeles and consisting primarily of first takes, Paint The World is marked by the usual proficiency, spontaneity, impeccable execution of ultra-challenging unison lines and jaw-dropping displays of chops that had characterized Corea’s previous five Elektric Band albums. And with Novak’s powerful and highly interactive approach to the kit, Earl’s deeply grooving six-string electric bass lines laying a solid foundation, Miller scorching the fretboard with an uncanny legato approach to the guitar and Marienthal blowing forcefully and lyrically from track to track, the results are thrilling. Corea leads his remarkably flexible Elektric Band II through an eclectic collection of originals ranging from urgent funk to shuffle blues, searing fusion, uptempo swing, flamenco-tinged suite, infectious Afro-Caribbean grooves and ambient soundscapes.

Much of Paint The World is defined by the warmer, more inviting sounds of Corea’s Yamaha S-CF III Concert Grand Piano and Fender Rhodes electric piano. “The overall idea for the album was ‘a little more piano and Rhodes, a little less stage volume,’ so we could use the piano a bit more,” said drummer Novak, a Chicago native and longtime Los Angeles resident. “So Chick requested me to play an 18-inch bass drum and try to mix a bit of a jazz sound with a modern fusion edge on this recording. That was the only direction given.”

Guitarist Miller, a chopsmeister of the highest order, alternates between showcasing his shredding aesthetic on electric (“Space,” the suite-like “Ritual” and a re-imagining of Jimmy Heath’s oft-covered bop staple “C.T.A.”) with a warmer, more lyrical approach on a Gibson Chet Atkins nylon-string acoustic (on “Paint The World” and “Tone Poem”). As he said, “I found myself sometimes being the non-jazz foil, trying to bring in that rock flavor to the band sound rather than the vocabulary of what a jazz approach would be. And I do believe that I’m the only guy who ever played Chuck Berry licks with Chick (on ‘Blue Miles’). I just had to sneak them in.”

On other tunes like “Paint The World,” the buoyant “Tumba Island” and the meditative “Spanish Sketch,” saxophonist Marienthal soars on soprano (an instrument he had introduced as his main voice on Beneath The Mask), while his alto solos on “Ritual” and “Ished” (short for “diminished”) reach Breckerian levels of intensity.

“One of the many great things about the Elektric Band was that Chick always encouraged us to ‘go for it’ in our solos,” said Marienthal. “The more we stretched and experimented, the more he liked it. It was all about how we expressed ourselves individually while at the same time communicating as a group. Solos in the band weren’t really ‘solos,’ per se; it was more like one of us would lead the conversation while always listening to what the others had to say. That’s what kept the music so fresh night after night. It was always wide open and different every time we played it live.”

Elektric Band II guitarist Miller stood in awe of Corea’s musicianship. “There was maybe a handful of players with the kind of power that Chick had at his disposal,” he said. “One of the scariest things ever for me was to be playing live and you look and suddenly here comes that guy with a keyboard around his neck … and he wants to trade fours! It was like being Mike Tyson’s sparring partner. And yet, in spite of his obvious virtuosity, one of the things that impressed me the most was the restraint he would use. Sure, he could flatten you one night, but the next night he would play super melodic, like Ravel. He was that comfortable in any kind of music.”

“With each new project, Chick was always changing, constantly creating,” said bassist Earl. “He encouraged his musicians to reach new heights not only individually but as an ensemble as well. He was also a super-fun person to be on the road with, always supportive. I’m very grateful to have known him and to have played with him.”

Added drummer Novak, who was 23 at the time he recorded Paint The World, “Chick was such a prolific composer as well as a master improviser, but the goal with him was to be wide open and enjoy the playfulness. His freedom to hit the stage with zero composed music was incredible to me. Not only was he an American icon and jazz legend, but also the kindest leader, supportive artist and friend. I can’t explain the gratitude I have for my time in his band.”

The venerated maestro, 27-time Grammy winner and National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master and DownBeat Hall of Famer tapped into a rainbow of musical expression throughout his remarkably productive career. And he did it all with unbound joy.

“You don’t have to be Picasso or Rembrandt to create something,” Corea once famously said. “The fun of it, the joy of creating, is way high above anything else to do with the art form.” DB



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May 2024
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