Chick Corea: Pioneering Jazz Pianist

Armando Anthony "Chick" Corea belongs to that elite cadre of pianists that includes Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, and Mccoy Tyner, pioneers who reshaped the jazz or- der starting in the early 1960s and continued to make strides into the present day.

The now-78-year-old Corea's attainments are many: composer of the standards "la fiesta," "Spain," "500 Miles High," "Matrix," and "Windows"; winner of 22 Grammy Awards (and 64 nods); founder of at least six colossal improvising units (Return to Forever I and II, Circle, the Three Quartets quartet, the Chick Corea Elektric Band, the Vigil Quintet); popularizer of early monophonic synthesizers, and recipient, in 2006, of an NEA Jazz Masters award.

Emerging from New York City's nascent Afro-Cuban scene, the Boston-area–born Corea ascended quickly through the jazz ranks, eventually playing on Miles Davis's innovative Filles de Kilimanjaro, In a Silent Way, and Bitches Brew albums. Corea's seminal 1968 trio album, Now He Sings, Now He Sobs (Solid State), with Roy Haynes and Miroslav Vitous—recently reissued as part of Blue Note Records' Tone Poet series—remains a landmark jazz recording. Extremely influential early '70s ECM releases by Corea's acoustic Return to Forever quartet are also considered classics, followed by the all-electric fusion albums Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy (Polydor) and Romantic Warrior (Columbia).

After fusion fizzled, Corea continued to blaze new vistas including solo and duo piano recordings, trio explorations, and orchestral concertos. These have been interspersed with reunions with Corea-band alumni Paul Motian, Dave Holland, Gary Burton, and Eddie Gomez.


Two things have held true throughout Corea's career and his whole discography: an instantly identifiable signature on acoustic piano, Rhodes, and synthesizer and an amazing energy level.

Corea is touring in support of the album Antidote (Concord Records), which he made with the My Spanish Heart band. The album revisits his 1976 double-LP of that name. He will release a double CD, Trilogy (Concord), with Christian McBride and Brian Blade, later this year. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Ken Micallef: Where do you keep your 22 Grammy Awards?

Chick Corea: Oh, spread all over the place! [Laughs] I don't like to keep staring at them. I put them in my studio and practice room, but they're distracting. I don't want my Grammys to be around if someone comes over. I'm proud of them though, and Gayle (Moran), my sweetheart of 47 years, takes care of them.

Micallef: What's your current project?

Corea: I'm here in Norway with a group called Made in Corea, a group of Norwegian musicians from Lillestrøm who've been playing my tunes for 15–20 years now. They're very good musicians. They put a big orchestra together, and I wrote arrangements for my '70s recordings, Leprechaun, My Spanish Heart, Mad Hatter, and Music Magic. We played that music with big orchestrations that required a large ensemble together with strings, brass, woodwinds, and a big vocal choir. We rehearsed for two days and played two solo concerts in a concert hall in Lillestrøm. It was pretty exciting. I've known them for a long time. It felt really great to perform that music with them. A documentary is being made of the whole event. Now I'm getting ready to go to Ukraine to start the tour with my new My Spanish Heart Band.

Micallef: This is a well-worn question, but why is jazz more popular in Asia, Europe, and the UK than in the US?

Corea: It's a complex question. Probably socioeconomic—not my field. [Laughs] You could do an investigative report on that. I could stab at answers, but it's too complex for me. What I notice is, anywhere I go, the United States or anywhere else, when there's an audience in front of me, it always goes great. The question is, how do you get the audience there? How is the concert promoted? Who's interested in promoting it? And so forth and so on, and there seems to be like you mentioned more interest in Europe. Here I go, stabbing at reasons. Maybe it's the cultural way the Europeans are generally brought up with more of an awareness of classical music. It's got to do with how the music gets to the people. Is it in the schools? How do people grow up with music? What is the media all about? That's why it's socioeconomic. It's a complex question.

Micallef: What is the age range of your audiences in Europe? Has it changed through the years during your various incarnations of stardom, or has it always been the same?

Corea: The older I get, it seems like more adults are there, but their families always come, there's always a wide range of ages. In fact, I see really younger kids coming, really young like tots and 5- and 10-year-olds, teenagers, maybe because their parents tell them and they come to see the music and a lot of them are musicians. I think a good portion of my audience either play music or are musically inclined somehow; a lot of piano players, different kinds of young music students come to the shows.

Micallef: You have the "vision thing" nailed. You've always made the right decision at the right time. You've released seemingly the perfect match to the times throughout your career: Light as a Feather, Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy, Crystal Silence, the Elektric Band records, they brought so many listeners from rock to jazz. And always performed by remarkable musicians, many which you brought to popular acclaim. Then the piano records with Herbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett. Where does this sense of timing come from?

Corea: No one has ever said that to me before. [Laughs] Maybe it's not always as visionary as you might think. My life is generated from my touring and my gigs because that's where my survival is. I travel and I play. Antidote is the first real studio record that I've made in 20 or 30 years. It's been all live recordings as long as I can remember. We recorded The Chick Corea and Steve Gadd Band album, Chinese Butterfly (Concord Jazz), in my home studio.

It was exciting being back at Mad Hatter studios with the 80-channel Neve board and a great crew. That was generated for a tour.


Micallef: Even your early career is marked by firsts. You were one of the first to play the Rhodes piano in jazz. Your sound and touch is unique on that instrument; it's instantly recognizable.

Corea: The first time I heard that instrument was when Miles Davis threw it in front of me at a gig. We were walking toward the stage. I was headed toward the piano and Miles saw me and grabbed me by the shoulder and he said, "No. Play that." And then I looked over on the other side of the stage and there was this thing sitting there. I went over to it, I didn't even know how to turn it on. So that was the first time, in '69 or something like that, playing the Rhodes. So after going through love and hate with the thing, I tried to figure out how to work it. Finally, after my stint with Miles, I started to get used to it and I played it for my first Return to Forever album combined with the flute. That was the orchestration that I was hearing. Then the Rhodes became part of my sound.

Micallef: When you record, do you think about the sound of the record? Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy was kind of distorted and noisy. Romantic Warrior was such a beautiful and lush sounding record.

Corea: I do think about it, but my ace in the hole in that regard has been Bernie Kirsch. I met Bernie when he was the staff

engineer at Electric Lady Studios in 1975, when I recorded Leprechaun. He recorded that album and we became friends. He's been with me ever since and recorded all my records. He's on tour with me all the time. We discuss sound and because of the diverse things that I do, from nightclubs to a concert hall to an outdoor venue to a recording studio to a little room, Bernie has all that experience of knowing how to get the best sound. We've got so much experience that when we go into a venue or a studio with a certain group of sounds or group of instruments, he takes care of that for me after we've talked it over and decided what we want to do. We go for the acoustic approach as much as possible.


JRT's picture

"Micallef: This is a well-worn question, but why is jazz more popular in Asia, Europe, and the UK than in the US?"

Well worn question? Maybe. Or, maybe the question is just not yet adequately well-answered, good answers not yet well-promulgated.

I am not a social scientist. I would very much like to see some good science applied to that question, and would like to see if there are strong correlations to other trends, if cause/effect relationships can be established. The answers might extend well beyond the simple observations at the root of the question. If approached well, it may be a good subject for master's theses and doctoral dissertation.

I like that you ask the question and provoke the thoughts, regardless that the question may seem well-worn.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

"By and large, Jazz has always been, like the kind of a man you wouldn't want your daughter to associate with" ......... Duke Ellington :-) .........

ken mac's picture

Did you read it? He answers the question perfectly. "How is the concert promoted? Who's interested in promoting it? And . . .there seems to be like you mentioned more interest in Europe. Maybe it's the cultural way the Europeans are generally brought up with more of an awareness of classical music. It's got to do with how the music gets to the people. Is it in the schools? How do people grow up with music? What is the media all about? That's why it's socioeconomic."

JRT's picture

I did read his comment, his viewpoint. And I would not disagree, but also I think that it really is a bigger question worth probing, a worthwhile question on your part, and suspect that it has a very much bigger answer than that.

None of that attacks or denigrates any fraction of this interview.

ken mac's picture

Are you in the US? Europe? I would love to hear your thoughts on the subject, as it's only getting worse. The average American knows the word "jazz only in the context of some basketball team! Please, interested in hearing your thoughts.

mmole's picture

From Billboard, 2017:

"Jazz fusion legend Chick Corea is a longtime Scientologist, thanking founder L. Ron Hubbard in the notes to many of his later albums. In 1982, Corea contributed to Space Jazz: The Soundtrack of the Book Battlefield Earth, the companion album to Hubbard's 1982 book Battlefield Earth."

ken mac's picture dislike the art of Michelangelo because he was a Catholic? Or Denzel Washington because he's a devout Christian? Or Woody Allen for various reasons? Judge the artist on his or her art. The rest is social media.
Chick Corea is a great jazz composer, pianist, bandleader, and personality. Nothing can change that.

dalethorn's picture

That's really interesting, as I once lived in a Scientology house with several others in North Hollywood. What struck me about the header photo was the strong resemblance to Vince McMahon of the WWE.

mmole's picture

Are you really equating the pseudo-religion (cult) scientology with Catholicism and Christianity?

I am not.

If you can "judge the artist (solely) on his or her art," more power to you. I for one struggle with it.

JRT's picture

His personal beliefs are just that, his personal beliefs, and are unrelated to this article.

He has the right to believe what he wants to believe.

As to the cult commentary... At what needed number of adherents does any one of the very many manufactured sets of shared delusions transition from an organized cult to an organized religion? Who chooses that threshold level?

ken mac's picture

Good question.

mmole's picture

..."he has the right to believe what he wants to believe." Chick Corea is a master musician. Wagner was a great composer. Ezra Pound was a great poet. Woody Allen (to me) is a master director.

I personally have trouble relating to the work, great as it is. As someone who has personal experience in "deprogramming" a relative from a cult situation; as a person who despises anti-semitism (as we all do) ; and as a person who abhors child abuse (as we all do), I simply cannot see the art as separate from the artist.

Robert Zohn's picture

I enjoy seeing Chick Corea every year at the Blue Note Jazz Club in NYC! One of my favorite concerts.