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Chick Corea Keyboardist Chick Corea is the epitome of musical exploration. He played with Miles Davis on projects like the legendary Bitches Brew, founded the groundbreaking jazz groups Circle and Return To Forever in the 1970s, and entertained his legions of fans with his Elektric Band and Akoustic Band in the 1980s. With his latest venture, Origin, Corea continues to explore the boundaries of contemporary jazz.

In addition to touring with Origin, Corea takes time to continue a 25-year collaboration with vibist Gary Burton. In addition, Corea is the guiding force behind Stretch Records, continually exposing new jazz sounds to the public.

(posted 6/99)


Digital Interviews: Who first influenced you to become a musician?

Chick Corea: My dad was all about music. He was a musician, leading a band when I was born. His band was active all through the 40s. He'd started it in the late 20s and 30s. According to the scrapbook, his band was doing quite well around the Boston area. During the Depression they were on radio. It was a jazz-oriented band. He was a trumpet player, and he wrote and arranged for the band. He taught me how to play the piano and read music, and taught me what he knew of standard tunes and so forth. It was a fantastic way to come up in music.

DI: When did you start playing the piano?

CC: They bought me the piano -- I guess I was almost four -- and I started messing around with it.

DI: When did you gain an affection for classical piano music?

CC: I had a piano teacher when I was eight years old that my dad sent me to; a great pianist around Boston named Salvatore Sullo. He introduced me to classical music on the piano. From there, I kind of found out, more and more as the years went on, there was a very deep well of creativity.

DI: How did you develop your obvious love for the Latin sound?

CC: I started doing gigs when I was in high school, with a Portuguese bandleader in the Boston area named Phil Barboza. There was a conga player there named Bill Fitch who introduced me to Latin music through records. We used to play together, and I liked the "extraversion" of Latin music, especially the dance and salsa style music - bands like Tito Puente's band and Machito's band. The Cuban dance music was a great kind of antidote to some of the more serious, heady jazz that I was into. I liked the "outgoingness" and exuberance of the music. I just stayed interested in all kinds of Latin music. Then I discovered Spanish Latin music, which is flamenco.

DI: Before you worked with Miles Davis, you played with a lot of different performers -- Mongo Santamaria, Sarah Vaughan, Stan Getz and others. What lessons did you receive from those experiences?

CC: I feel fortunate to have been able to be with such great musicians. I feel that's really the way I developed my own music and art form; by getting continually inspired by great musicians, and also learning various musicians' approaches -- and their way. It's the standard way anyone learns a skill, which is apprenticeship. You work with someone who does what you want to do very well, and you learn the basic ideas and then take it where you want to go.

DI: Tell us about playing with Miles Davis.

CC: Tony Williams was a Bostonian also. I knew him and played with him before he worked with Miles. So, when Herbie [Hancock] left the band, Tony recommended me, and that's how I got to play with Miles. It was a great experience from beginning to end. Miles, like many of the other artists that you mentioned, has a quality of artistic integrity. If there's something that he hears or conceives of that he wants to do, he doesn't ask the environment for a license to do it. He does it, and he follows his idea through, for better or for worse. Of course, with someone as much in touch with his art form and the mechanics of it, and communication, as Miles was, when he would try something, it would usually be powerful and effective, and communicative as well. A quality; an unexplainable, spiritual quality that creative people have, that is just inspiring, and there's no way to really describe it, except that you feel invigorated, and you want to create yourself. The arts, I feel in general, are the last bastion of that on planet Earth anyway. It's like a pinhole left on planet Earth -- of the arts, which is the idea of creativity, which is the idea of the use of the imagination in order to make up things that you present to other people, for only the purpose of wanting them to experience it. And experience the pleasure of it. The arts have that wavelength in it, and fortunately they're still allowed on planet Earth. [laughs] Because after that, there's not much left except conflict. So, people who make it through -- like Miles and Duke -- I have a lot of admiration for, and I take them as examples.

DI: Then you formed the group Circle, which went from 1969-1971. What was the mission of that ensemble?

CC: The mission was to get ourselves in a creative space where we trusted everything that we did, and not rely on pre-made structures. Most of music and jazz, even improvised music, has some form to it. There are structures that are built and composed, and the musicians then play within that structure, and give it a certain sound. We tried, with Circle, to invent structures as we went. And it was a very interesting experiment. I liked that headspace, actually, of doing that.

DI: With Return To Forever, you really became one of the originators of modern fusion. The group started off, though, with more of a softer sound. Only later did it evolve into the real rocking fusion sound.

CC: Well, I had two bands. The first band had a softer sound, which was Airto on drums. Stanley Clarke was playing upright bass. I was playing the Fender Rhodes, but I was playing it in an acoustic way, sort of. It was on stage and Flora was singing. Joe Farrell played a lot of flute, giving it a light touch. The rhythm was intricate and gliding and jazz-like and, of course, with Airto there, it was also a lot of other things from his Brazilian roots. But then, when the band changed, and Lenny White came in, and we decided to put a heavier sound to the band with electronics, then the band became just different -- heavier and more electric. The writing became more dramatic and so forth.

DI: And riskier?

CC: I don't know. Risk is one of those factors that goes on a monitor, up and down. Even if you have the same program with the same band, the risk factor changes performance to performance, depending on how much risk the musicians are taking with what they're playing. Even a free-form ensemble can play it safe. [laughs]

DI: In the late 70s, you came out with a 13-piece band. Was that the biggest ensemble you'd played with?

CC: Up until that time, yes. As I was writing, I was hearing orchestral things, and I was very much influenced by the great orchestral writers, like Bartok and Ravel. The sound of the orchestra is one of the most magnificent musical sounds that has ever existed. I'm so happy that the institution still exists where you have 70-100 musicians all playing beautifully together. As a composer and arranger, it's a great palette to use. I made a recording called The Leprechaun, which was my first attempt to try and write for a string quartet. I added brass. We took some of the music from The Leprechaun and put it together that way.

DI: You recently evolved into an orchestral project with the London Philharmonic.

CC: With a 75-piece orchestra, plus the sextet as soloists out front, on an arrangement of mine. That's the largest ensemble I've ever worked with.

DI: You started writing this type of music earlier, but you didn't perform it until now. Was it done just for your enjoyment?

CC: Of the two pieces we just recorded for Sony Classical with the London Philharmonic, one of the pieces I wrote in 1983 -- a piano concerto for piano and chamber orchestra. I performed it a number of times, but then put it away for 10 years. I dusted it off more recently and wanted to give it another attempt. I re-orchestrated some things, found out the few points I didn't like about it and changed them, and found that it wasn't such a bad piece of music. I got it going again, and it started sounding good, so that was one of the pieces that we put on the recording. The other piece is my big orchestral arrangement of "Spain," which I did in 1995 for a Japanese production in the summer. It was a four-hour program I produced with orchestra and jazz musicians, called Chick Corea, From Jazz to Classical. It was an experiment in bringing together classical music with jazz music and any combination thereof.

DI: In the 1980s you started Stretch Records. What did you feel you could provide with your own label?

CC: I have a partner, Ron Moss, who was my road manager for Return To Forever in 1974. We've never stopped working together since. He started managing, helping me with all my business affairs around that time. We've hung as partners since then, and he's a very, very creative guy. When I do records, I've never had an outside producer. I've always produced my own stuff. We've developed a staff through the years. We've got management, we've got touring, we have a recording studio in Los Angeles. We learned the ropes. I have a great scene going. It was noticed by GRP, and they needed input to find the musicians, because I'm always meeting and coming across new musicians. So I thought, "This is a good opportunity to help the musicians that come in my band establish recording contracts and get their careers going." It gives us a chance to do our thing, and present to the public the kind of music that's produced in a way that I like, and I think it should be done.

DI: What are some of the releases you've put out?

CC: We have a new recording by Dave Weckl that's doing very well. Avishai Cohen has made two records for our label. I'm recording all of my band's stuff for the label. We have a past catalogue for the past four years that's pretty nice, with John Patitucci stuff, Bob Berg, Vinnie Colaiuta, Eddie Gomez -- yeah, really great productions. Billy Childs made a great record for us. Steve Wilson just made a new recording. He's getting ready to make a second. Robben Ford has a couple nice pieces.

DI: In the 1980s you were involved with the Chick Corea Elektric Band and the Chick Corea Akoustic Band. Tell us a bit about those two bands.

CC: Return To Forever stopped performing around the end of 1975. From 1976-1978, I did a couple of special projects -- the 13-piece band and so forth. But after that, between '78 and '82, or so, there was a three year period where I was without a regular band -- my own band. I was doing projects. I did the project with three quartets with Michael Brecker. I did some projects with Gary Burton and string quartet. I did a bunch of different things, and I missed having a band. A band that's a band -- that we just go and play, and it's not just a project for the summer. So I put one together. I wanted to put something electric together with the Rhodes again. So I found Patitucci and Weckl, and we started out and played trio gigs for a couple of months. When we went in to record, first thing I added was guitar -- actually, before saxophone -- and Carlos Rios was the first guitarist that came and played. Then, during that recording, Scott Henderson played one piece on the recording. And then I met Eric Marienthal, the saxophone player. So the electric band came together, and stayed together about six years.

Out of that band came the acoustic group. I got requests for trio -- I had a trio with Roy Haynes and Miroslav Vitous years ago that was fun, and I was missing playing the acoustic piano, as well. So the trio gave me an opportunity to get back with the piano again, which I was missing. Also, Patitucci and Weckl enjoyed the different sonic setup, in terms of it being an acoustic setup rather than electric. So we had those two performances going almost simultaneously year after year for a while. It was a very creative period, I think. I enjoyed working with all those guys. I kind of burned out on the road at the end and wanted to take a break. I don't know, it seems like Return To Forever had about a six year span, from beginning to end. And the electric band had about a six, seven year span. And one of the similarities was that the musicians I was working with all grew into bandleaders. And needed to have their own minds about what they wanted to do. And really, I encouraged that to happen and didn't want to try and turn them around. Because there was a point at the end of the electric band, that I wanted to lean it more acoustic again, and write more jazzy music. I made one record, actually, called Paint The World -- the last one we did, with Gary Novak on drums, and Mike Miller. It was new personnel. I put the piano back in, and it was headed toward a real mix of jazz and rock and classical music and all kinds of different stuff.

DI: And your latest project is Origin.

CC: It's the group that we started with, except for the drums. Adam Cruz started with the group about a year-and-a-half ago, and then Jeff (Ballard) joined the group shortly after that, and has been the drummer since then. We've actually done a lot of recording. We did one week of recording at the Blue Note -- the second gig we ever did with the band -- and we recorded the whole week. It was a way to quickly get out our first CD release, so that the band could be promoted the next summer on gigs. Very little preparation, but I thought it came out very well -- so well that we produced a six CD box set called A Week at the Blue Note with those tapes, because they were so fresh and the improvisations, I thought, were really worthy to check out. That was our second release, and then after another six months of playing, I began to write new things, and we put our second recording together, called Change. We recorded it in my living room down in Florida, with no editing and no baffles and no over-dubbing and just straight to tape. But it's a really different approach than the first record; it's more composed.

DI: People look at the groups that you've been involved with, like Return To Forever. They continually clamor for reunions. You say that's not going to happen, even though it would be very lucrative. The exceptions are your dates with Gary Burton. They seem to cut through the years.

CC: Yeah, but it's never been a reunion. Me and Gary continue to just play. It's always been, "Oh, let's do another gig." There was never a point where the group broke up and then we reformed. It's always been a sideline with us, in the sense that we've always had main groups that we do, and then we've always gotten together with the duet. It's kind of worked out very, very nicely. It's a special little place that's all its own -- just me and him. And then we recorded this new CD recently that's called Native Sense, and we have other plans to record. Now he's joining us for the summer tour as a special guest. That aura's worked out real nice.

DI: So throughout what you're going to be doing in the future, you see that duo collaboration continuing?

CC: In the same way as I see other things I do. I continue to play piano solo concerts -- not that many, but enough to keep the juices flowing. It's something I like to do. It's a separate thing. As a musician, I don't have one thing that's "my thing." I like to create, and have a lot of outlets for it. Dustin Hoffman is one of the guys that sets a model for me, because of how good he is at being such different characters. Every time you see DeNiro, he's pretty much DeNiro -- great, but DeNiro. Hoffman is different every time, depending on his character. That's how I see myself as a performer.

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