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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

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