In Memoriam: Chick Corea


Chick Corea (1941-2021)

(Photo: Courtesy

Chick Corea, one of the most beloved and decorated jazz artists in history, passed away Feb. 9. He was 79.

In a post on his Facebook page, representatives of the family reported that the legendary keyboard artist died from a rare form of cancer that had been discovered very recently.

“Throughout his life and career, Chick relished in the freedom and the fun to be had in creating something new, and in playing the games that artists do,” the post stated. It went on to say that Corea had relayed a message to his fans before passing.

“I want to thank all of those along my journey who have helped keep the music fires burning bright,” Corea said. “It is my hope that those who have an inkling to play, write, perform or otherwise, do so. If not for yourself, then for the rest of us. It’s not only that the world needs more artists, it’s also just a lot of fun.

“And to my amazing musician friends who have been like family to me as long as I’ve known you, it has been a blessing and an honor learning from and playing with all of you. My mission has always been to bring the joy of creating anywhere I could, and to have done so with all the artists that I admire so dearly —this has been the richness of my life.”

It’s quite possible that no jazz musician ever conceived, composed and/or performed with more top-notch bands than pianist-keyboardist-composer Armando Anthony “Chick” Corea, who was born on June 12, 1941. An NEA Jazz Master who won 23 Grammy awards, and a treasure trove of Downbeat Readers and Critics poll honors, Corea’s conception of jazz was, as he told Downbeat in 2017, “a spirit of creativity.” He continued: “Great art is made when the artist is free to try whatever techniques he wants, and combine things any way he wants. That makes life interesting and a joy. I try to live that way as best I can. I don’t always succeed. I would like others to acknowledge my freedom to be myself and try new things any time I want to, and I try to treat other people that way.”

Corea once said of himself, “I was, and still am, a blotter for creative music and new ideas in music.” He created a hybrid vocabulary all his own that embodied a global range of reference—Bach and bebop coexisted with Bartók and the blues, Mozart and montunos, Ravel and rumba, Stravinsky and samba, all tempered with the Spanish tinge. He was master of his instrument, able to caress a lyric passage with the delicacy of a bel canto singer or articulate a wide array of grooves with the precision and grace of a tango dancer. His hands were completely independent, and he tossed off fleet embellishments with no apparent effort, though he never showed off, never deployed his enviable technique as an end unto itself. In any context, Corea was above all a musical storyteller, deploying whichever keyboard he used as a sound carrier, a tool of his imagination.

Corea’s music was the sum total of his personal journey, which began in Boston, where his father Armando, a trumpeter, led a successful dance band. Coming of age, he soaked up the radical stylistic and compositional strategies of Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk and Horace Silver. He applied these lessons on jobs with his father’s band and with Boston’s community of progressive musicians. He moved to New York in 1959. While studying Bartók and Stockhausen at Juilliard, he played Afro-Cuban music with legendary conguero Mongo Santamaria and funky bebop with trumpeter Blue Mitchell. He made his first recording, Tones For Joan’s Bones, in 1966, the same year he started touring internationally with tenor saxophonist Stan Getz, who recorded his compositions “Litha” and “Windows” on Sweet Rain. In 1968, after a summer tour with Sarah Vaughan, Corea recorded more original music with bassist Miroslav Vitous and drummer Roy Haynes on Now He Sings, Now He Sobs, a modern classic that became a signpost for every subsequent generation of pianists.

Soon after, Corea replaced Herbie Hancock in the Miles Davis Quintet on the recommendation of drummer Tony Williams, a Boston friend. During the next eight months he participated on the transitional albums In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew, which established the template within which, over the next decade, the fusion movement took shape. In performance with Davis, Corea experimented with electronic instruments barely out of the beta-testing stage, and stretched form to the limit within the band’s freewheeling flow. Then he spent a year exploring ways to improvise freely on atonality and timbral extremity in the collective acoustic quartet Circle, which included Anthony Braxton, Dave Holland and Barry Altschul.

While in Los Angeles with Circle in 1971, Corea assimilated the precepts of Scientology, left the group and transitioned abruptly to a populist conception, making a permanent commitment to melody, structure and consonance, as documented on two intensely meditative solo albums for ECM (Piano Improvisations, Volumes 1 and 2) and on the ECM albums Crystal Silence—an extraordinary duo recital with vibraphonist Gary Burton—and its 1979 followup, Duet. In 1972, he recorded the eponymous album Return To Forever, named for the Latin-inflected fusion super-group for which he composed such enduring favorites as “Spain,” “La Fiesta” and “500 Miles High.”

Inspired by McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra, Corea formed a second, plugged-in version of Return To Forever that included Bill Connors and then Al DiMeola on electric guitar with which he recorded the funk-rock inspired Hymn of The Seventh Galaxy, Where Have I Known You Before, No Mystery and Romantic Warrior. In 1976, Corea presented his personal jazz-flamenco hybrid on My Spanish Heart, which included Jean-Luc Ponty on electric violin, vocalist Gayle Moran and drummer Steve Gadd, who also propelled Corea’s hit LPs The Leprechaun, The Mad Hatter and Friends.

As the ’70s and ’80s progressed, Corea continued to contribute consequentially to the canons of plugged-in fusion and acoustic hardcore jazz. In 1981, he recorded Three Quartets with tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker, bassist Eddie Gomez and Gadd, as well as Trio Music, on which he reunited the trio with Vitous and Haynes to play a suite of collectively improvised trios and duos along with seven Thelonious Monk compositions. In 1982 he recorded three double piano improvisations with Friedrich Gulda, the Austrian jazz virtuoso and Mozart specialist on The Meeting. Between 1986 and 1991, Corea recorded six albums with the Elektric Band, whose members included bassist John Patitucci, guitarist Frank Gambale and drummer Dave Weckl.

As the 1990s progressed, Corea transitioned into the inclusive mindset that would inform his voluminous musical production in the 21st century, when he spent large blocks of time on the road, consistently navigating multiple stylistic environments, moving back and forth between electric and acoustic feels, writing books of music for various duo projects with old and new friends, re-contextualizing iconic units from his distinguished past and also creating new ensembles.

In 1997, he assembled a group with Kenny Garrett, Joshua Redman, Wallace Roney, Christian McBride and Roy Haynes to play his arrangements of music by Bud Powell, his early hero, as documented on the album Remembering Bud Powell. In 1999, he formed the Origin Sextet with members of bassist Avishai Cohen’s band, which included saxophonist Steve Wilson, trombonist Steve Davis, drummer Jeff Ballard and Cohen. The group also included woodwind players Tim Garland or Bob Sheppard. This setting motivated Corea to compose a new book of harmonically sophisticated music that melded Spanish, North African, and Pan-American flavors with blues and bebop as documented on the studio album Change and the location album Live At The Blue Note.

After 2000, Corea recorded solo piano CDs of standards and original music; piano duos with Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Béla Fleck, Hiromi Uehara and Stefano Bollani; and trios with Cohen and Ballard, McBride and Steve Gadd, Patitucci and Antonio Sánchez, Gomez and Jack DeJohnette, McBride and Ballard, Gomez and Airto Moreira, Hadrien Feraud and Richie Barshay. In 2013, he convened Gomez and Paul Motian on an homage to Bill Evans titled Further Explorations.

In 2001, Corea celebrated his 60th birthday by presenting nine bands in two weeks at New York’s Blue Note documented on the double-CD, 9-DVD package, Rendezvous In New York. In 2011 he observed his 70th birthday with a 10-band extravaganza at the Blue Note from which Corea culled material for The Musician, a 3-CD release that includes a penetrating DVD documentary by Norwegian director Arne Rostand. In 2016, he Corea again returned to the Blue Note, marking his 75th birthday by interacting with 15 different personnel configurations over an eight-week span.

During his 2016 Blue Note residence, Corea revisited and re-contextualized the Elektric Band, the Three Quartets band (with saxophone wunderkind Ben Solomon), and his Leprechaun Band of the 1970s. He honored his Miles Davis tenure in highbrow flow with Kenny Garrett, Wallace Roney, Mike Stern, Marcus Miller and Brian Blade. He reprised a project with Gary Burton and the Harlem String Quartet and reimagined Return To Forever in two iterations—acoustic, with Hubert Laws, Ravi Coltrane and Cohen; electric with McLaughlin, Victor Wooten and Lenny White. He played duos with McLaughlin, Rubalcaba, Herbie Hancock, and Brad Mehldau; engaged Marcus Gilmore, Tyler McFerrin and Yosvany Terry in four tabula rasa “experiments in electronica”; navigated Erlend Skomsvoll’s phantasmagoric arrangements of his pieces with the 13-piece Trondheim Orchestra; and presented the recently assembled Flamenco Heart, with maestros Jorge Pardo and Nino Josele.

In a conversation for a 2017 article framed around the Afro-Caribbean focused album Chinese Butterfly, a DownBeat correspondent asked Corea how he kept up with his exhausting schedule.

“I don’t know how to answer other than to say that it’s a joy,” Corea said. “If I could avoid commercial airlines, I’d stay on the road the whole year. Most of the guys who played with me are friends I’ve played with before, either a little or a lot. The way a lot of us play together, the tune doesn’t matter. We’ll have a short rehearsal at soundcheck, and not worry about how perfect the music sounds. What matters is that we know what we’re doing, and then just get off into never-never-land.”

Still at the top of his game well into his 70s, that project earned him the Jazz Artist and Jazz Album of the year in the 2018 DownBeat Critics Poll. Corea was voted into the DownBeat Hall of Fame by its readers in 2010.

Survivors include his wife, the vocalist, keyboardist and songwriter Gayle Moran Corea. DB

Correction: In an earlier version of this story, the name of guitarist Frank Gambale was misspelled. DownBeat regrets the error.

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