Chick Corea: "I Don't Know What to Call It. I Call it Creative Music..."

Chick Corea is one of the most recognized names in jazz, and for damn good reason. He played with Miles Davis, and has explored avant-garde, fusion, and classic jazz since the mid-sixties.

You can hear Corea's Manhattan heritage in his voice. His thick accent gives his words a musical quality as we speak over the phone, discussing his decision to bring back his jazz fusion supergroup Return to Forever (with guitarist Frank Gamble filling the shoes of former guitarists Bill Connors, Earl Klugh, and Al Di Meola) and the state of jazz today.

Return to Forever IV is scheduled to perform with Zappa Plays Zappa on Saturday, September 17, at the Mesa Arts Center.

Chick Corea: So, is it hot there?

Up on the Sun: We just finished our hottest August on record.

I'm glad to hear that. I've been chasing the cold everywhere I've been touring. I've been waiting for the hot hot summer, but it hasn't come yet.

Well, you'll get that when you're here. Though I wouldn't mind if it starts to cool off by then.

Yeah, yeah [laughs.]

Forever, your new record, features you, Lenny White, and Stanley Clarke in two different modes.

That's the release, a two CD set to trace what happened to us during those months [laughs].

Well, what happened to you guys during that time?

Well, it was a two fold thing. It was a bunch of little things. We were fulfilling a invitation to perform at the Hollywood Bowl, with some guests. Stanley [Clarke] and myself and Lenny [White] invited Billy Connors, who was the original electric guitarist from Return to Forever, who we hadn't played with in years and years and years, and we invited him to come and play with us. And Jean Luc-Ponty -- Stanely and I had been talking about wanting to play with Jean-Luc sometime, and Chaka Khan, who's a favorite of ours. Lenny and Stanley and I did a project with Chaka years ago, called Echoes of an Era, which was Chaka's first jazz record, and I still really like that record.

We rehearsed at Mad Hatter Studios in L.A., and while we were rehearsing, because we were in a recording studio, we turned the recorder on. After the concert was over, we put together an acoustic trio, and toured all the rest of that fall. While we were touring, we listened to those studio recordings, of the rehearsal, and decided they were pretty good, you know? That's where the idea came from to release a package.

It's great to hear to the two sounds together. They are different but compliment each other. Are you guys doing acoustic stuff on this tour?

Well, we've got what we call an 'acoustic set.' You have to put the word acoustic in quotes, because we're still very much amplified. But Stanley picks up his upright bass, which is an whole different kind of expression he gets on it. Jean-Luc has a different kind of violin, and Frank [Gamble] plays an acoustic guitar, and I'm playing a new model Yamaha that really simulates and acoustic piano. So that's our acoustic sound, and we play some of the songs we would normally play on those instruments. The recording is totally acoustic...

This lineup of Return to Forever, are you covering material from all the records? What all are you playing?

We have written some new music, but when we put the set together we decided to do a combination of songs, from several of the Return to Forever [records] from the '70s with rearrangements of course, to include the violin, and I wrote a few different little things. We're also using songs from Stanley's repertoire, Jean-Luc's repertoire...we thought we would wait awhile before we introduce the new music.

Frank Gamble is a new face in the band, correct?

Absolutely. This is the first time he's played in Return to Forever. We have a long association with the Elektric Band.

What are your impressions of the this new group? I'm looking forward to hearing new songs once they surface.

I am, too. You know, the way we put this tour together, one of the reasons why we liked to do it is that it kind of answers a pretty large number of constant requests we get from fans about wanting to hear Return to Forever. We like that a lot. We decided to just rearrange some of the Romantic Warrior album. The band has such a new fresh sound to me, even playing the old material feels like we're playing new stuff to me. We have tossed around ideas of going into the studio at some point, or another project. But that's still, like...a conversation we're having.

You've had a long and fruitful career, exploring avant-garde, fusion, classic jazz. Where do you see jazz right now? Are there young jazz groups that excite you right now?

Uh, yeah. You know, there's a tremendous amount of creativity in the world. I guess you could call it jazz. The forms of music are constantly evolving and changing, and the next generation and then the next generation creating their own fusions of this and that, you know? I don't know what to call it. I call of it creative music, but there's a lot of it. You don't see it a lot in the mainstream media, or recordings, so forth, but as I travel I meet musicians, and they give me their tapes and their new CDs, and I have a listen, and its...in fact, one of the projects I've got as a wish, but I hope my old label Stretch Records back to life to record some of these musicians. It's inspiring, man. They exist. The music is safe in their hands. It's heartening to see. It's unfortunate the that the general public doesn't see it very much, but it's there.

Why do you think that is?

Well, that's a question for an investigative reporter on his comments about the social conditions of planet earth right now. You know, I don't know. It's a social problem, of media, and where societies and governments interests are. Or are not. Certainly not focused on the arts. Whatever, man. It's another conversation. I'm not sure exactly why its that way. But like I said, it is a good feeling and I meet, a young pianist from Israel, who's 14-years-old [Gadi Lehavi], who plays like a mature, developed beautiful artists, and he 's there having absorbed all the influences I came up with, and new things. There's a lot of that in America and Europe.

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Jason P. Woodbury is a music and pop-culture writer based in Phoenix. He is a regular contributor to the music blog Aquarium Drunkard and co-host of the Transmissions podcast.