Chick Corea is a certifiable musical multiple personality. The 49-year-old pianist is a jazz Sybil bouncing from one distinct character to another with nearly every album.
There's Chick the Fusion Whiz, Chick the Latin Romantic, Chick the Avant-Gardist and most recently, Chick the Conservative Standard Bearer. Jazzbos of every bias can dig through his 25 years of recordings and find discs they'll play to death as well as head-shakers either too schmaltzy, spacy or mainstream for their liking.
The only thing his myriad fans have in common is questioning why he is hell-bent on musical zigzagging, a quirkiness that has resulted in one of the most colorful careers in the history of jazz. Could Corea be the ultimate narcissist, needing to please everyone of every taste? Or maybe the pianist underneath is really just Chick Corea the Devotee, in communion with a dozen overpowering musical influences he has swallowed whole.
In 1985 Chick Corea committed himself to the formation of the Elektric Band. The group's first album received a Grammy nomination. Record label GRP came to consider the supergroup its red-carpet act. It looked like everybody was happy. Maybe even Chick Corea. But the elusive Corea wasn't ready to rest. Recently, he has turned the coin over again and formed yet another alter ego: the Akoustic Band.
GULPING THE CURIOSITIES of music began when a four-year-old Chick first pulled himself up to the family piano. His jazz musician father not only helped him in his exploration but refused to force his son into any musical mold.
Fresh from a concert held in the World Trade Center, the pianist recalled his beginnings in a midnight phone conversation from New York City.
"My father gave me instruction on how to play little tunes and how to get started. It provided the best environment for me. He did what I think a really good parent will do, which is to permit a child to have the interests he's got."
Corea milked the encouragement all the way into high school when his father let him sit in on his band's dance gigs. At the same time, he was tuning in to the contemporary sounds of a hot new jazz called bebop. From that young school of jazz, he got an earful of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and a wildman pianist named Bud Powell. The latter became a two-headed idol for the young Corea, with his uncanny balance of classical background and mean, swirling jazz lines. While still in high school, Corea also found himself surrounded by the sounds of Latin music. "I was hired by a local dance band that had a conga player who later went on to play with Cal Tjader," he begins. "They educated me, got me really interested in Cuban and Puerto Rican- style Latin music. I took it as a great complement to the more serious kind of jazz playing and classical music I was already interested in."
But another influence soon entered the young pianist's musical life. His growing fascination with classical figures like Ravel, Stravinsky, Debussy, and Bartok, one that would lead him to years of study in a conservatory, began battling against his growing jazz lust. He soon found that jazz and classical music were splitting him in half. "Even though my parents were very liberal with me in allowing, encouraging me to do whatever I wanted with music," remembers Corea, "somehow I never got the idea that I could just go straight on in and do it. I felt somehow that I needed to go to school. And yet every attempt at going to music school seemed to be the wrong direction for me."
A prominent jazz musician soon made up Corea's mind for him.
"It all came to a head the night I went down to Birdland and heard Miles Davis live for the first time. The band was excellent--Coltrane was playing with him. It was such an inspiration I decided I wasn't going to fool around anymore and just go straight for playing music."
He exited Columbia University, then the Juilliard School after only months at each. Much more enticing were the opportunities he found in the clubs of New York City. Latin bandleaders Mongo Santamaria and Willie Bobo were the first "name" bands to hire the pianist. His return to Latin rhythms would leave a lasting impression. His most famous compositions--"Spain," "La Fiesta," and "Senor Mouse"--are all Latin drenched.
In the late Sixties, the popularity of his jazz and Latin chops brought an odd turnaround. This time it was Corea who seduced Miles Davis. He was invited to join Davis' latest quartet. To make things even more exciting, the master stylist was in the process of breaking new ground when Corea first joined. Corea is understandably proud of his call to the keys.
"After the Miles band I saw at Birdland, the next influential group he had was the quintet with Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams, Ron Carter, and Wayne Shorter. And that was the band I went into. That was also the band that was beginning to change Miles' music."
Davis was in the process of mixing his first cauldron of jazz-rock voodoo, forever after known as jazz fusion. Corea soon had a hand in developing the ominous experimental fusion that ended up on the legendary In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew albums. He spent the next year and a half as a newborn fusion whiz before starting to feel a familiar itch.
"Miles was pulling the band in the direction of a more fixed rhythm, a rock kind of music, which was the opposite of where I wanted to go rhythmically," reminisces Corea. "My influences at the time were players like Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, and John Coltrane--musicians who were experimenting with even freer form."
The brave new influence waiting in the wings was avant-garde jazz, or free jazz, a seemingly anything-goes style even king innovator Miles slammed as being too far out. Corea and bassist Dave Holland left Miles for the open fields of free jazz.
Corea and Holland formed a quartet called Circle in 1970, built on the wacko alto sax of Anthony Braxton (who titled his compositions with mathematical diagrams no less puzzling than most of his honking) and some serious piano stretching by Corea. While the squealing and keyboard rape made for meaty dialogue among the band members, Corea noticed the music was clearing out the concert halls faster than a fire alarm. The pianist had found an important new face but was devastated to find few takers.
After a brief stint with saxophonist Stan Getz, where he met bassist Stanley Clarke and percussionist Airto Moreira, Corea was ready to bring attention to one of his own projects.
"I realized I needed to work on making contact with an audience," Corea says. "I had spent years developing certain musical techniques, but the one technique I had never paid much attention to was performance. My formation of the Return to Forever band, and the guiding principle behind every band since, has been to get my message across to people in a way that creates a powerful performance."
Return to Forever gradually grew from the feather-light Latin feel supplied by percussionist Airto and vocalist Flora Purim to the later inclusion of the Evelyn Woods of Speed Guitar, Al Dimeola. Even today, fifteen years later, the group's boldest album, Romantic Warrior, still conveys an eerie medieval aggressiveness that present-day metal bands only attempt with loin thrusts and chain-mail codpieces.
But Corea kissed off the bucks of the lucrative jazz-rock scene when he disbanded Return to Forever in '75. He felt the group had become an electronic effects show at the music's expense.
Corea's style hopping increased. He leaped among solo piano efforts, electric ensembles, works with a string quartet and acoustic duet albums. The dizzying flurry of Corea's different faces lasted a full ten years, with each release only vaguely like the last. Then came the Elektric band.
Five years later, that band still exists. But a new persona, the Akoustic Band, has also emerged from the restless Corea. The Elektric Band's bassist John Patitucci and new drummer Dave Weckl turn off the juice and join an unplugged Chick for concerts and albums filled with jazz standards. The Acoustic Chick is sounding more than a little like his old inspiration Bud Powell. There are no apologies from Chick for dropping the wattage.
"A return to a straight piano sound is for me both traditional and something I love very, very much. And in that form I find a lot of freedom and fun and inspiration."
The opening cut of the new Akoustic Band Alive album "On Green Dolphin Street" slyly introduces a solo Corea who momentarily flaunts his heady ideas with a weightless right-hand treble, only seconds later to be flanked by the pounces of Patitucci and Weckl. Chick plays the smart stuff while these guys pound and tear with style.
Members of the Elektric Band stated in last September's Jazziz magazine that they live in fear of the day Corea will pull the plug on their band. There's no reason to think the Akoustic Band would be any more secure. No doubt someday Chick will pull another Phantom of the Opera move and yank off his present musical mask. Audiences and band members who thought they had finally pegged the real Corea will scream in vain as he once again digs into free-jazz piano slamming, or another tribute to his early classical love Bela Bartok. Like all worthy jazzmen, he returns to his influences and plays what he knows. "Styles don't necessarily have to follow a plodding line of development over twenty years," he emphasizes. "It's possible to take techniques and styles and mix them all up, turn them around and sift through them. You just really have to come around to giving yourself the permission."
Chick Corea Akoustic Band will perform at Scottsdale Center for the Arts on Friday, April 5, and Saturday, April 6. Showtime is 8 p.m.
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Could Corea be the ultimate narcissist, needing to please everyone?
He soon found that jazz and classical music were splitting him in half. Styles don't have to follow a plodding line of development. Someday Chick will pull another Phantom of the Opera and yank off his present musical mask.
Corea kissed off the bucks when he disbanded Return to Forever.
The dizzying flurry of Corea's different faces lasted ten years.