|Chick Corea was on my turntable decades before I knew who he was. Albums like The Leprechaun and Romantic Warrior have been staples of my jazz soundtrack since critical listening became a treasured habit.|
A keyboard player who worked with all the greats and pretty much played it all, Corea has spent the last couple of years revisiting bands and compositions from across a full career. This article is far from comprehensive, limiting discussion of his vast output and talking about only a handful of his music. Having seen Corea play live in numerous settings, most of the albums reviewed here have been savored both at home and in concert.
Kicking off his career in the early 1960’s Corea played across jazz genres; Latin, straight ahead, west coast. His debut album as a leader was released in 1968 (actually recorded in 1966). At the same time, he began recording and then touring with Miles Davis until 1972. A couple of free-jazz albums followed as Corea simultaneously began recording duets with vibraphonist Gary Burton and started the ensemble Return to Forever. By the time The Leprechaun was released in 1976 Corea already had a full catalog of albums both as leader and sideman.
Okay, during his early years as a leader I didn’t catch any concerts. In fact, much of this music from the 1970s still doesn’t do much for me. But The Leprechaun did, and it is only recently that I began to appreciate why. In the liner notes Corea says making this recording was, “…a way of working that was unusual for me at that time.” It is more than just a tuba and cello mixed with Moog synthesizers that shine on this jazz album. It is a surprisingly coherent blend of the many influences Corea had been exposed to over the first decade of his career.
Another release from 1976 was Romantic Warrior by his band Return to Forever. Granted, I didn’t see Return to Forever live until just a few years ago at the Portland Jazz Festival. But the original band – Corea, Al DiMeola, Stanley Clarke, and Lenny White – played the entire album and it sounded wonderful. Yet Romantic Warrior is distinct from The Leprechaun and the follow-on albums for Polydor that have been described as “belonging together.” In contrast, albums by Return to Forever, both preceding and following Romantic Warrior do not form a cohesive sound.
Herein lies the magic of Corea’s oeuvre; much like Miles Davis, Corea is a musical chameleon whose compositions cannot be constrained by traditional labels. His art needs different forms of expression, a variety of musicians, and distinct themes. Whether derived from the formal, lowkey sound of Crystal Silence duets with Burton, the bombastic recasting of books by L. Ron Hubbard, or the classical jazz sound on Like Minds with an all-star cast of jazz giants, Corea is a consummate tour guide of very different musical landscapes.
I have seen Corea and Burton perform live on two occasions. Corea on the piano (mallets bouncing off metal wire) and Gary Burton on the vibraphone (mallets bouncing off metal plates) with this instrumentation creating a sound unlike any other. Crystal Silence (1973), Duet (1979) and Native Sense (1997) are all thoughtful albums. Crystal Silence is a special favorite, with its cerebral, lyrical music. Like Minds from 1998 is another remarkable recording with Pat Metheny, Dave Holland and Roy Haynes joining Burton and Corea, and features original compositions by both. Here we have more strings – guitar and bass – with one of the hardest working men in jazz keeping the beat. To my ear, this album is neither traditional nor contemporary, but simply timeless. A must-listen for any fan of any of the band members.
The Ultimate Adventure from 2007 is a very good album, but it was the live performance that caught me by surprise and upped my appreciation. The flamenco dancing was a particularly entertaining segment of a show filled with visual surprises. Jazz shows as a theatrical enterprise are not something I’ve much encountered (Jason Moran’s tribute to Fats Waller being another outstanding example). Along similar lines, and my preference of the two albums, To The Stars featuring Corea’s Elektric Band, is also based on an L. Ron Hubbard book. As Corea has reportedly said, Hubbard was a very good science fiction writer, and these albums do a great job of describing the narratives musically. Both remind me of The Leprechaun, a sound of summation after much experimentation.
The latest addition to my collection is Chinese Butterfly, a double album from Chick Corea & Steve Gadd in 2018. Gadd has recorded with Corea for decades and appears on a couple of the albums listed above. One of the best journeyman drummers, and a true jazz gadfly who can play smooth, straight ahead, Avantgarde and all jazz in between, Gadd is joined here with a group that includes guitarist Lionel Loueke, sax man Steve Wilson and even former Earth, Wind & Fire vocalist Phillip Bailey. Hopefully, there’s still time to catch this one live. A playful album full of surprises, Corea is still the chameleon 50-years after his first recording as a leader.
Finally, check out the DVD Miles Electric; a different kind of blue. Released in 2004 it features the live performance of Miles Davis and band at the Isle of Wright Festival from 1970 in front of an audience estimated at 600,000 people. While Corea is featured playing electric keyboards during the performance, more interesting is the interview he gave. All surviving band members of the concert performance were asked to talk about their time with Davis while sitting with/at/around their respective instruments.
In the early 1980’s I was heading to a concert and spotted Chick Corea crossing Broadway, also on his way to the venue where he would shortly be playing. I pointed him out to my friend Paul, who had joined me for the show. Seeing us point in his direction from the opposite side of the street, he raised his eyebrows, then made a break for the theatre entrance. That’s as close as I ever got to being able to tell Corea just how much joy his music has brought me over so many years. No hard feelings, but it would have been nice to tell him personally.