by Ian Mann
March 08, 2021
Ian Mann's personal memories of the music of the late, great Chick Corea, as experienced via a rich seam of classic recordings and live music performances.
Photograph of Chick Corea by Tim Dickeson
REMEMBERING CHICK COREA (1941 – 2021)
I was both shocked and saddened to hear of the recent death of the great pianist, keyboard player, composer and bandleader Chick Corea, who passed away at the age of seventy nine.
Shocked because Corea was one of those perennially youthful human beings who seemed to be immortal. I’d last seen him performing live in 2017 when he played at that year’s Cheltenham Jazz Festival in the company of bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Brian Blade.
Corea was then aged seventy five and my coverage of that event included the following observation “looking at least twenty years younger than his actual age Corea was a sprightly, vivacious presence on the bandstand”.
He looked to have plenty more years of music left in him and for me his demise was totally unexpected. I have heard that the cancer that claimed him was comparatively rare and the end was fairly swift. I just hope that he didn’t suffer too much.
It was gratifying to see that Corea’s passing attracted so much mainstream media attention with the news featuring on BBC Radio 4’s “Front Row”, while fellow pianist Julian Joseph devoted an entire edition of BBC Radio 3’s “J to Z” to Corea and his music.
The official obituaries have all been written, and I don’t intend to write a complete overview of Corea’s long and illustrious career. Nevertheless Joseph’s excellent retrospective did lead me to reflect on my own relationship with Corea and his music and to remember some stand out recordings and live performances.
It’s remarkable to think that I’ve been listening to Corea’s music for over forty years. In 1976 I was eighteen years old and studying for my A Levels (remember those) and musically speaking had been raised on what used to be known as ‘progressive rock’.
I’d already been exploring some of the jazzier corners of the genre, notably the bands associated with the so called ‘Canterbury Scene’ (Soft Machine, Caravan, Hatfield & The North etc.) plus the UK jazz rock outfit Isotope. After listening to some pretty complicated music during my teens the simplicity of the punk revolution initially left me rather cold and as the prog ‘dinosaurs’ began to either simplify their output or disappear completely I found myself increasingly drawn towards the sounds of ‘fusion’.
I wasn’t the only one in my peer group to feel the same way. One day in 1976 a mate, Paul, brought the Return To Forever LP “Romantic Warrior” into the sixth form common room. Our small coterie of prog rock fans (Paul, Mike, Steve & myself) were knocked out by it, the complex writing, the dazzling playing and the use of those then new fangled synthesisers. It was more obviously ‘jazz’ than anything else we’d listened to so far, but by this stage we were ready for it.
We began to work our way through the RTF back catalogue. “Hymn Of The Seventh Galaxy”, featuring guitarist Bill Connors, became something of a favourite, but we found both “Where Have I Known You Before” and “No Mystery”, both of which featured Connors’ successor Al DiMeola, to be less inspired.
DiMeola really came into his own on “Romantic Warrior” and of all the albums recorded by the Corea, Stanley Clarke, Lenny White, Connors / Dimeola electric edition of RTF this is the one that started it all for me and which remains my personal favourite.
We subsequently discovered that there was another, gentler version of Return To Forever. The group took its name from a 1972 solo album recorded by Corea for the ECM label. Even though Corea concentrated on electric piano this still had the feel of an acoustic recording, with Clarke sometimes featuring on upright bass alongside saxophonist Joe Farrell and the Brazilian pairing of vocalist Flora Purim and drummer / percussionist Airto Moreira. This album, with its beautiful cover shot of an albatross on the wing, features some of Corea’ most enduring compositions and despite its very different style we grew to love it almost as much as “Romantic Warrior” - and of course we were all besotted with Flora Purim!
This line up went on to record “Light As A Feather” for Polydor, another fine album featuring some more Corea classics, but ultimately the nod just goes to the ECM recording.
Our investigations continued, sideways into Stanley Clarke’s solo career - “School Days” was an appropriate common room favourite – and backwards, notably Corea’s work with Miles Davis.
Even then we weren’t afraid to criticise our heroes. We all found “The Leprechaun” to be twee and pretentious. Trite lyrics, whether written by Neville Potter or later Gayle Moran, were often a feature of Corea’s work, but on the albums “Return To Forever” and “Light As A Feather” we were prepared to overlook these and just concentrate on the magnificence of the tunes.
After A Levels our little gang dispersed into the worlds of work and university, but we’ve always remained in touch. Corea remained on our individual and collective musical radars. As my interest in jazz continued to grow I worked my way even further back to early acoustic Corea albums such as “Now He Sings, Now He Sobs” and “Tones For Joan’s Bones”. However I found the freer Circle and A.R.C. recordings rather too intense and impenetrable for me at the time, and haven’t listened to them since. I suspect that I would understand them so much better now.
In 1979 I got to see Corea performing live for the first time. I went to stay with Mike in London and went to the JVC Capital Jazz Festival, which was held in the grounds of Alexandra Palace. On a glorious sunny summer afternoon I got to see Corea playing in a duo with fellow pianist Herbie Hancock. The pair were touring to promote the album of piano duets that they had recorded the year before. As a callow youth I don’t think I quite appreciated the enormity of this event and the sophistication of their pianistic interplay was way beyond my fledgling jazz tastes and to be honest much of it went way over my head. Other members of the audience absolutely lapped it up and I remember the late Michael Garrick, who was sitting nearby and who even then I recognised, positively whooping with delight.
I was still more into fusion at this time and remember that seeing Jeff Clyne’s Turning Point quintet being a particular personal highlight. Ironically this was a group that owed more than a little to the style of the Flora and Airto edition of Return To Forever.
Nevertheless that afternoon was an important one in terms of my overall jazz development and I remember enjoying acoustic, straight ahead jazz performances from such veterans as pianist Jay McShann, trombonist Vic Dickenson and saxophonist Illinois Jacquet.
It’s perhaps a little ironic that as my jazz taste continued to burgeon during the 1980s (the ECM and Blue Note catalogues, Loose Tubes, Jazz Warriors and their various offshoots) that Chick should drop off my musical radar a bit, possibly because I had him pigeon holed as a ‘fusion’ musician and I was starting to move on from that.
But in 1991 a call came from Paul, now living in the Lichfield area, who suggested that we meet up in Birmingham for a gig by Chick’s Elektric Band at Symphony Hall. We were both in our thirties by now and this opportunity to revisit a fondly remembered aspect of our youth was grabbed with both hands. I was pleasantly surprised by just how much I enjoyed this show which saw Corea, surrounded by a bank of keyboards, and his colleagues give a high energy performance that combined power, precision, good humour and some absolutely terrific playing.
The line up included Frank Gambale on guitar, Eric Marienthal on saxes, John Patitucci on bass and Dave Weckl at the drums. I remember being particularly impressed by Gambale, “Mr Thunder from Down Under”, who delivered some seriously scorching guitar solos, but they were all great. This was at the time of the Elektric Band’s “”Beneath the Mask” album (writing this in 2021 the title seems scarily prescient) and the power and excitement of the live performance really struck me. This was at a time when most ‘fusion’ albums tended to be over produced and were sometimes slick to the point of blandness. The Electrik Band were signed to the GRP label at the time, who were frequently guilty of this. The best place to hear such groups (Steve Smith’s Vital Information is another that comes to mind) was in live performance, where the power and excitement could really cut through. The Birmingham performance was enhanced by the high quality acoustics of the then relatively new Symphony Hall, a venue where high volume levels don’t necessarily lead to a lack of clarity. Paul and I were suitably impressed and I still have the T-shirt, alongside literally dozens of others, although this one doesn’t fit quite so well these days.
It was to be eight long years before I saw Corea in concert again. This was at the 1999 Cheltenham Jazz Festival when Chick brought his acoustic sextet, Origin, to the Town Hall. I’ll admit that after the excitement of the Electrik Band performance this rather more low key offering passed me by a bit, particularly as it was just one event in a whole weekend of music. I wasn’t writing in those days so have no recorded details of the event.
To be honest I recall it all being very worthy and frankly a little dull. I do remember being impressed by bassist Avishai Cohen, this being my first sighting of a musician who has since gone on to lead his own bands and who has become something of a personal favourite in the process. I don’t think Tim Garland had started working with Chick at this stage so I’d guess that the rest of the line up included saxophonists Steve Wilson and Bob Sheppard, trombonist Steve Davis and probably Jeff Ballard at the drums. This, of course, was over twenty years ago and my appreciation of acoustic jazz has continued to mature in the meantime. I suspect that I would find this line up a whole lot more interesting now.
Something I did enjoy though was a 1998 album release called “Like Minds”, ostensibly made under the leadership of vibraphonist Gary Burton. It was released on Concord Jazz, which was Burton’s label at the time, and was essentially an all star collaboration featuring Burton, Corea, guitarist Pat Metheny, bassist Dave Holland and drummer Roy Haynes. All of the musicians had worked together in a variety of combinations, but never within the realms of a single group. With Corea, Burton and Metheny all bringing strong compositions to the table this was an album that was far more than a casual ‘superstar jam’, and which remains a substantial and satisfying piece of work that justifiably won a Grammy Award at the time of its release. Given their previous associations perhaps it shouldn’t have come as a total surprise to discover that this all star quintet was such a well balanced unit. It’s just a shame that they never found the opportunity to take the album out on the road.
Talking of Gary Burton takes me on to the next Chick Corea live performance that I saw. Fast forward to 2007 and the duo of Burton and Corea at The Barbican. Corea and Burton were first brought together by ECM producer Manfred Eicher for the 1973 release “Crystal Silence”, a ‘chamber jazz’ recording that is now acknowledged as something of a classic. It’s a partnership that has continued to flourish on albums such as “Duet” 1978, the live set “In Concert, Zurich” (1979) and “Lyric Suite for Sextet” (1982), which augmented the core duo with a string quartet.
In 2007 the duo undertook a massive world tour, playing some seventy five duo concerts across the globe. The London date was fairly late on in the proceedings and by the time of the Barbican show the always impressive rapport between the two brilliant musicians was verging upon the telepathic.
You could have heard a pin drop as Corea and Burton kept a near 2000 seater auditorium spellbound for close on two hours with just a piano and a vibraphone. Quite, quite brilliant, and undoubtedly one of the best, and most remarkable live performances that I have ever seen.
Ironically we’d only been to the Corea / Burton show because we had tickets for the Pat Metheny / Brad Mehldau performance the following night and decided that as were already going to be in London we might as well see the Corea / Burton gig too.
In effect Chick and Gary were meant to be the ‘undercard’ but such was the chemistry between the two performers that they essentially blew Pat and Brad out of the water. The Metheny / Mehldau concert was good, but as a duo Pat and Brad never achieved anything like the same level of communication as Chick and Gary, while the quartet episodes were somewhat marred by the overly loud drumming of Jeff Ballard. Interestingly the Pat and Brad experiment was never repeated, whereas the duo of Chick and Gary lasted for some thirty five years.
The 2007 Corea / Burton tour was documented on the excellent two disc set “The New Crystal Silence”, released on the Concord label. In addition to the live duo footage the album also features the pair augmented by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in a series of arrangements written by Tim Garland.
Fast forward again, this time 2017 and my last sighting of the great Chick Corea at the previously mentioned Cheltenham Jazz Festival appearance with Eddie Gomez and Brian Blade. I wasn’t sure whether Corea’s acoustic music would work in such a vast venue as CJF’s Big Top but it succeeded admirably thanks to a combination of warmth, wit, excellent material and great musicianship. The performance was a celebration of Corea’s back catalogue delivered with great élan by the man himself in the company of a stellar trio .
Corea himself was in great form, a sprightly, vivacious presence on the bandstand, instantly engaging the audience, laughing and joking, playing brilliantly and generally giving off the air of a man who was thoroughly enjoying himself. As I’ve said he looked about twenty years younger than his then seventy five years and one got the impression that he had drunk from the fountain of eternal of youth and that he would go on making music and entertaining audiences forever.
It’s a good way to remember him, still at his peak, alongside those other brilliant performances with Gary Burton and with the Electrik Band.
I feel lucky to have seen this giant of the music performing live on so many occasions, and in a completely different format every time. Musical diversity was one of Corea’s great strengths, and also arguably a weakness as he threw himself whole heartedly into whatever took his fancy. Not everything worked, but there were far more hits then misses in a career that embraced jazz, rock, latin, free improvisation, classical music and more.
As a composer many of his pieces have become modern day jazz standards, widely played across the globe. His legacy will undoubtedly live on through the hands of others.
Corea’s insatiable curiosity and his sheer love of music remained with him right until the end of his career. As a stage performer his vivacity and sense of fun readily transmitted itself to audiences, and despite the occasional lyrical and musical pretensions he remained a refreshingly down to earth character when it came to communicating with his many listeners.
In a highly productive career he produced a huge body of work that straddled many different genres, and I’m sure that everybody who has ever considered themselves a Chick Corea fan will have their own ‘musical picture’ of the man and his music. Such is the diversity of his output that he will inevitably represent many different things to many different people.
This is not intended to be an official obituary or a comprehensive career overview. Instead it’s my own very personal ‘musical picture’ of Chick Corea and his impact upon my own listening experiences. He will be much missed.
From MARK ALBINI via email.
Absolutely gutted! Musical genius with a jazz history as long as your arm. Never short of creativity. Always brought in new and amazing talent and let them shine.
Chick Corea Elektric band last year at the Royal Festival Hall - off the scale.
So, so sad.
The legends are ageing and I don’t really know who will ever replace them.
It’s funny that you found a rare dull performance. I did too! I’ve actually walked out of his Acoustic Trio gig when the amazing support act Michel Petrucciani was so amazing - and stole the show - that I’d heard enough. About 1000 of us left the Royal Festival Hall that night.
That last Elektric Band tour was off the scale. Musicians at the top of their game and so comfortable in each other’s company. Playing the most intricate and ‘rapid‘ music and yet, amazingly, still melodic and that’s why I think Chick always ticked all my boxes. ‘Got a Match’ springs to mind here. The musicians having SO much fun. My Spanish Heart is a double album of melodic, Spanish joy and Return To Forever’s Romantic Warrior is still the greatest, truly electric jazz rock fusion album there’ll ever be.
I’m delighted that the broadsheets have been generous and full of justified praise for a truly glorious career. I’m glad he didn’t slip away unnoticed. He is a legend as far as I’m concerned.
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