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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.

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Dave McElfresh