THE GENIUS OF CHICK COREA AND KEITH JARRETT
IT’S not easy keeping up with keyboard player Armando “Chick” Corea, a man who long ago earned the label of musical legend but has never shown any desire to put his feet up, wondering what to do next. One of his most popular compositions bears the title Captain Marvel. It’s kind of fitting.
The pioneer of jazz-fusion and contemporary Latin jazz is 73 next month but age has not dogged his hands or his quick wits. His fingers glide across the keys, whether acoustic or electronic, with striking agility, his more recent recordings sounding like the playing of a man several decades younger.
His relentless international touring itinerary still has him playing hundreds of concerts around the world every year in a bewildering number of formats — solo and in various duets and bands, the latter under the titles of Vigil, the Chick Corea Akoustic Band, the Chick Corea Electrik Band, and the Five Peace Band with fellow Miles Davis alumnus, guitarist John McLaughlin. His duet partners include banjoist Bela Fleck, longstanding bass partner Stanley Clarke and pianists Herbie Hancock (like Corea and McLaughlin, a Miles alumnus) and Hiromi Uehara.
His longest lasting duo, however, is the one he formed 42 years ago with vibraphonist Gary Burton on the album Crystal Silence. Besides touring sporadically, they’ve chalked up a handful of albums including 2008’s double CD set New Crystal Silence, one-half of which was recorded at the Sydney Opera House accompanied by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.
Next month, Corea and Burton return to Australia where there’ll be playing again at the Opera House (this time sans orchestra), in Bris- bane and at the Melbourne International Jazz Festival, which opens on May 30.
Apart from all his touring, Corea also somehow finds the time to record albums of his various musical projects on a regular basis — he has released two new titles this year alone, though as he explains from Naples during a European solo piano tour, “my bread and butter has always been live performance. It’s the most secure for me because it’s so classic and archetypal.
“All the technology and the means of delivery of communication, the change in that has been tremendous these past decades,” he says, “but that’s one thing that stays pretty constant, don’t you agree? You have a performer and you have an audience; and you have a location and you make your performance. I like that, it’s something I rely on and it’s something I think is not going to change in the near future. Plus I like live performance; a lot of my recordings are live recordings.”
So how does he manage to keep going at this frenetic level; does he have some closely guarded regimen? I ask this hoping this won’t trigger a lecture on Scientology, of which he has been a follower for several decades (the sci-fi background of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard explains Corea’s predilection for science fiction albums and song titles such as Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy and 500 Miles High). One need not have worried.
“I don’t know, I mean I take care of myself,” Corea says. “I sleep well. I stick to what I love to do and stay interested in what I’m doing and I love my life. I don’t know what to tell you past that. I try to stay honest with myself and only bring to the public what I’m truly interested in. I try to hone it up and present it in a way that the public will enjoy too. I try to keep a balance between what I love to do personally, and what I see goes across well to an audience, and that balance helps me stay quite vital, I think.”
While of course it’s not his only preferred format, Corea’s fondness for duets is unusual in jazz, where the standard configuration is the trio, quartet and upwards. But for him duets are “real intimate, and there’s a lot of space for each player to originate stuff and create things. There’s opportunities for sections where one musician plays alone for a while, and then the other one does. I don’t know, it’s like a conversation, its down to the microcosm of what makes the world turn around, which is communication between two people. I think when the partnership is simpatico and there’s a lot of rapport there, as there is in the duets that I play in, then I think it’s of interest to audiences, to see how that works. And it’s definitely a lot of fun for me.”
It’s intriguing how much of Corea’s legacy owes to the late 1960s and early 70s, when he not only recorded in Davis’s quietly revolutionary electric outfits (starting with 1968’s Filles de Kilimanjaro) but also formed a brief-lived, critically admired avant-garde quartet called Circle with saxophonist Anthony Braxton that he says still has a hardcore fan base and that he wouldn’t mind re-forming one day.
He then recorded his Return to Forever and Light as a Feather albums, two masterpieces featuring a delicate yet propulsive new breed of acoustic Latin jazz featuring saxophonist and flautist Joe Farrell and sensational, then unheard of acoustic bassist Clarke.
Those two albums included a handful of Corea compositions that have gone on to become jazz standards — Spain, Fiesta and the aforementioned Captain Marvel.
Tenor saxophone master Stan Getz helped canonise some of these by recording them in 1974 with Corea and Clarke in the band. (More recently, Hawaiian ukulele player Jake Shimabukuro, whom Corea describes as “quite phenomenal”, has given Spain an unexpected new sound.)
By this time the pianist had shifted once more, this time into jazz-rock with the band Return to Forever — named after the earlier acoustic album — and inspired by McLaughlin’s virtuosic Indo-jazz-rock outfit the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Corea began playing synthesiser and Clarke moved to electric bass,
where he unleashed a startling new technique known as slapping and popping, invented by Sly and the Family Stone’s Larry Graham, and soon to revolutionise the sound of funk.
The extraordinary rate of musical development Corea went through in this short period was symptomatic of musically revolutionary times. In the past two or three decades the rate of conceptual innovation among jazz musicians seems to have slowed to a point where it can often seem a backward-looking music.
Corea, having invented and created several new forms, can’t be blamed for wanting to spend time exploring their possibilities, but why are younger musicians not often willing to stake out their own territory and advance the music?
Corea’s view is more optimistic. “I think in a lot of ways it’s a subjective thing, it’s what you’re exposed to … If you travel like I do, and go into the nooks and crannies of New York, visit the clubs, you will find another incredible source of new conceptions that younger musicians are developing. But it hasn’t made it out into the stream of information yet. There’s a lot of creativity going on, man, but it’s just that it hasn’t reached us yet.
“For instance I have some young musicians in my band Vigil who bring some incredible new ideas,” he says naming Marcus Gilmore, the grandson of Roy Haynes (once a Corea drums sideman), “who has a totally unique conception of playing the drums. He comes from a tradition of jazz drumming from the 40s and 50s, but he’s got an approach that I’ve never heard before. I’m intrigued every night when we play.”
On his latest album with Burton, Hot House, the pair play the Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby. It’s a lovely version of a great song, but unusual for Corea. Like so many jazz musicians of his generation, he took the electricity from the 60s but not the era’s rich pop songbook. “I had a kind of tunnel vision with music when I was growing up,” he explains. “I grew up during the age of Elvis Presley and the Beatles, and I was totally not interested in either one. I was listening to Horace Silver and Bud Powell, and Dizzy Gil- lespie and Charlie Parker, and later on Miles Davis and John Coltrane.
“Then I started listening to classical music — the modernists, Bartok, Stravinsky and Berg, and in the 70s the only pop musicians that held any interest for me were Stevie Wonder and Joni Mitchell. Then as I got older I began to stretch out and listen to more. I mean, right now I’m performing some of my Stevie Wonder’s music in concert — Pastime Paradise and Overjoyed, I love those songs. Stevie is a beautiful songwriter, that’s really classic music.”
Chick Corea and Gary Burton appear at Melbourne International Jazz Festival on June 8, in Sydney on June 10, and Brisbane on June 11.
Chick Corea, main picture, and below with long-time collaborator Gary Burton