How Chick Corea Changed Lives

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Christian McBride (left), Corea and Jack DeJohnette recording McBride’s Number 2 Express in 1995.

(Photo: Jimmy Katz)

Chick Corea’s passing reverberated through the jazz world with a multigenerational outpouring for an artist seen as both a creative force and a compassionate soul.

Drummer Jack DeJohnette, 78, traces his collaborations with Corea back to mid-1960s jams in the pianist’s house in Queens, New York. Those meetings, DeJohnette said, transcended the boundary between work and play: “You knew you were going to have fun and the level of playing would be the highest possible.”

Working through material that would appear on Corea’s second album—Now He Sings, Now He Sobs (Blue Note), which is in the Grammy Hall of Fame—DeJohnette said he could hear Corea’s voice emerging from the surrounding swirl of influences, like McCoy Tyner: “He’d taken McCoy and changed it into the Chick Corea sound.”

In Miles Davis’ electric band of the period, Corea’s sound, known for its lightness and brightness, could get gritty, especially on a ring-modulated Rhodes piano. “There’s this real intense edge,” said pianist Vijay Iyer, 49. “He’s not afraid to bring a whole lot of dissonance, a whole lot of noise—seeming almost-chaos—into the mix of this deep groove.”

DeJohnette, one of the players driving that groove, recalled: “There was electricity all around. You couldn’t wait to get on the bandstand.”

When Corea turned to fusion while leading the band Return To Forever, the structured compositions and soaring solos electrified the swelling crowds. But that band was just a stop on a journey. Like Davis, Corea was always searching for new modes of expression.

“He was ever-changing,” DeJohnette said.

Wynton Marsalis, 59, expanded on that sentiment in a Twitter post describing Corea: “Prehistoric instincts, super quick reflexes and deep knowledge meets an unquenchable thirst to know, to experience the present and to embrace change.”

Corea, who explored formats from solo to symphonic, often favored the trio setting, with bassist Christian McBride along for the ride. McBride, 48, recalled a driven man: “He was insanely creative, always at the piano, writing, practicing, always on output mode.”

But, McBride said, he was also modest. “In his heart of hearts, he was still a New York pianist for hire, just playing the gig. I remember on a tour bus, he said, ‘It really bothers me I don’t get called to do sideman gigs anymore.’”

The two musicians last played together in March 2020, when the European tour of Corea’s Trilogy band was cut short because of the pandemic. Also on that tour was drummer Brian Blade, another frequent collaborator.

Blade, 50, recalled that Corea was unfazed on the airplane back to the United States: “He was already planning. He was always looking for the opportunity to come together again. He shared his life with you as he shared the stage with you.”

Corea shared stages—even keyboards—with brilliant young pianists around the world. In Japan, Hiromi Uehara, 40, was 16 and a rising star when Corea summoned her onstage at Tokyo’s Nikkei Hall for a joint free improvisation. They last played together in a September duet on Zoom, trading improvised passages on Corea’s “Spain.”

“Listening to his work is one thing, really inspirational,” she said. “But when you can listen to him and play something back and have a reaction, conversing with him, it was like a real luxury.”

In Cuba, pianist Alfredo Rodríguez, 35, was a young Corea devotee. With his reputation growing, Corea called him onstage first at the Montreux Jazz Festival, the next year at Jazz at Lincoln Center and, more recently, at the SFJAZZ Center, where they played a four-hands rendition of “Spain.”

Rodriguez said he felt the loss personally: “I was crying yesterday. I’m crying for the music. He changed my life.”

Saxophonist Kenny Garrett, who worked alongside Corea in the Five Peace Band, got to know the pianist off the bandstand. “Every time we met in person or via phone, he was always positive and giving,” Garrett wrote in an email. “I used to call Chick and leave him a musical message on the piano, and he would call me back and leave me a musical idea on the piano.”

“He was a total pro,” said George Wein, 95, who founded the Newport Jazz Festival. At his last Newport appearance, Corea was the headliner, playing three shows in two days. “Every one of them was great.”

Wein also was taken by Corea’s thoughtfulness. A pianist, Wein self-deprecatingly recalled playing at a festival in Puerto Rico where Corea was also on the bill. Corea, he noted, offered some advice: “He said, ‘George, you keep playing. It’s good for you.’”

Wein recalled an underage Corea sneaking into Wein’s Boston club, Storyville, in the late 1950s to hear Davis’ group, and being disappointed to see Bill Evans in Wynton Kelly’s piano chair. But Evans became a major inspiration. “It changed his life,” Wein said.

As it happens, the last time Corea worked with DeJohnette was for a video promoting a release of material recorded during an Evans date at Ronnie Scott’s in London. In the video, recorded in recent months, Corea seemed in good health. So, his death was a shock.

“I love him and miss him,” DeJohnette said. “His spirit will always be with me.” DB



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May 2021
Shabaka Hutchings
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