On The Cutting Edge
By Dennis Polkow
“Origin: The beginning, the source, and the original first thought that all subsequent action is dependent on.”
“Origin: The person who is the spiritual captain of his own life, as in what people really think when they say and do things.”
“Origin: Where all things begin and where all things that are lost are actually located, so they may be found again.”
“Origin: The first time you thought you’d like to do something, and felt excited about the prospect of doing it.”
“Origin: Spirit, the Creator -- God. Where all things spring from -- thoughts, ideas, actions. It is said that an artist is ‘original’ when he’s playing from himself as a spiritual being. In that sense, everyone is basically ‘original.’”
Thus does Chick Corea describe the rational behind the name of both his new band and his new album, Origin (Stretch Records SCD-9018-2).
Recorded during sizzling sets at New York’s Blue Note nightclub over ten nights last December (1998), Origin both culminates and inaugurates unique chapters of Chick’s ever-expansive musical saga. And though Origin may seem on the surface to represent a complete rethinking and reworking of Chick’s musical roots from the ground up -- which it is -- Chick’s striking abilities as a performer, arranger, composer, improviser and band leader are reinvented every time he sits down at the piano. Such is the spontaneity, freshness, excitement and sense of discovery that Chick instinctively brings to every aspect of his creative endeavors that by the very act of making music, Chick cannot help but re-create himself anew, all over again. Now and then, if a musician is extremely talented and extremely lucky, he or she may be able to cross over into another genre altogether. Natalie Cole made a successful shift to chanteuse after years of singing rhythm and blues, and Peter Gabriel went from pop and art rock back and forth to world music, but these are the exceptions rather than the rule.
Only one artist has scaled the heights of jazz, rock and classical music with equal passion and success, and that artist is Armando Anthony Corea, a.k.a. Chick Corea. Born in Chelsea, Massachusetts, on June 12, 1941, Chick cannot remember a time when he wasn’t playing the piano and by the time he was four, he was formally studying the instrument. At the age of 17, Chick burst on the Manhattan jazz scene of the late 1950’s with his dizzying technique and uncanny abilities as an improviser, where he subsequently performed with, among others, Maynard Ferguson, Kenny Dorham, Stan Getz, The Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Big Band, Herbie Mann and Sarah Vaughan.
While working with trumpeter Blue Mitchell in the mid-1960’s, Chick’s vibrant compositional style began to emerge, which led to his first recording as group leader/composer/pianist, Tones for Joan’s Bones. By 1968, Chick had been recruited by Miles Davis for Davis’ initial forays into fusing jazz and rock which culminated in recording classics such as “In A Silent Way” and “Bitches Brew.” Working with Miles opened Chick’s mind and ears in ways he could never have anticipated, altering Chick’s musical course. As Chick’s harmonic vocabulary became more avant-garde, Miles pushed him to use electronic keyboards to create unusual effects, timbres and tone clusters.
Upon leaving Miles, Chick formed a group with Dave Holland experimental in nature -- Circle -- with Anthony Braxton and Barry Altschul. This democratic group pushed jazz beyond established limits.
By the early 1970’s, Chick had teamed up with bassist Stanley Clarke, reedman Joe Farrell, singer Flora Purim and Latin percussionist Airto to form Return To Forever, initially a delicately textured, Latin-tinged group which made the Fender Rhodes electric piano with its bell-like sonority a staple of contemporary music.
Among the classic tunes that Chick composed on and for the Rhodes were “La Fiesta and “Spain” two of his most famous compositions which owed a debt to the Latin rhythms Chick had encountered during stints with Willie Bobo, Mongo Santamaria, Cal Tjader and Herbie Mann.
“After a couple of Return to Forever albums”, says Chick, “Flora and Airto had left the band for personal reasons, and I had been hearing what John McLaughlin was doing, where he was essentially playing rock guitar, but doing things with it that no guitarist has either before or since. That was appealing to me, as was playing in a more aggressive, rock-oriented manner, so we added an electric guitar: first, with Bill Conners, and later, replacing him with Al Dimeola.”
Stanley Clarke brought drummer Lenny White into the band, and put aside his acoustic bass for an electric bass, redefining the properties and capabilities of that instrument, while Chick himself added a battery of synthesizers to his keyboard arsenal at a time when such instruments were still being pioneered.
That progressive phase of Return to Forever was eagerly embraced by young rock fans who were looking for something really on the edge, and Chick achieved rock star status throughout the 1970’s, selling out arenas and the like. Typical of successful rock bands of the era, each member of Return to Forever went on to have their own solo careers, while various personnel were brought in and out of the band by Chick.
Looking back, Chick says that the most gratifying thing about the Return to Forever experience is that listeners who came to that group from a totally rock perspective would come up to him and say that they discovered jazz because of that band. Says Chick, “Kids would say, ‘You know, I heard you talking about John Coltrane, so I decided to check him out, and that stuff is awesome!”
During the 1980’s, Chick formed both The Chick Corea Elektric Band and then The Chick Corea Akoustic Band, which afforded Chick the luxury of being able to alternate his more aggressive, rock leanings with the more delicate textures of acoustic jazz. 1988’s Akoustic Band debut album achieved No. 1 Billboard album status.
Chick also never walked away from traditional jazz, as there were various albums of solo piano improvisations as well as albums featuring standards with vibraphonist Gary Burton, including their newest effort from 1997, Native Sense: The New Duets.
In 1992, Chick fulfilled his longtime ambition of creating his own record label--Stretch Records--with his longtime manager Ron Moss. For Chick, this was a way not only to ensure the creative control he had so longed for over his own recording process, but a chance to spotlight other deserving artists that might otherwise go unheard. Marketed and distributed by Concord Records, Stretch Records has thus far released such Corea albums as Three Quartets, Touchstone, Tap Step, Live in Montreux and the Grammy Award-nominated Chick Corea & Friends: Remembering Bud Powell (with Roy Haynes, Kenny Garrett, Christian McBride, Joshua Redman, Wallace Roney.) Chick is already an eight-time Grammy Award winner with 38 nominations. As for Chick’s fascination with classical music, he admits that it is a life-long passion.
In addition to constantly using classical pieces to keep up his piano technique, Chick has toured with and performed classical music extensively. In the late 1970s, Chick and colleague Herbie Hancock toured with amongst other things the two-piano music of Bela Bartok, a composer that still excites Chick and who was generously represented on Chick’s Native Sense album with Gary Burton. Mozart, too, has been a Corea trademark, Chick having performed and recorded Mozart piano concertos with conductor and early music pioneer Nikolas Harnoncourt and most recently, with jazz vocalist turned classical music conductor Bobby McFerrin and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra on Sony Classical’s The Mozart Sessions, which Time Magazine chose as one of the best classical recordings of 1996.
Realizing the power and potential of the piano concerto as a medium through performing Mozart, Chick tried his hand at writing his own piano concerto a decade ago for Mozartean-like forces, performed it three times in the early 80’s in the USA and put it on the shelf until a recent performance of the piece with the Chicago Sinfonietta which wowed audiences as well as both classical music and jazz critics.
Where does Origin fit into all of this? Typically for Chick, everywhere, and yet nowhere. The hard bop of Chick’s early years is apparent in the treatment of the three-piece brass section, which includes reedmen Bob Sheppard and Steve Wilson as well as trombonist Steve Davis. The avant-garde experimentation with Miles and with Circle are evident in the dissonance and willingness to explore, particularly in the interplay between Chick and Israeli bass sensation Avishai Cohen. And while the delicate textures of early Return to Forever can be discerned when the group plays pianissimo--particularly when a flute is supplied by either Sheppard or Wilson -- the powerhouse drumming of Adam Cruz and the energy of the entire ensemble when all six members are playing as if there were no tomorrow recalls the energy and excitement of the aggressive rock incarnation of Return to Forever.
And yes, even elements of classical music can be heard both in the contrapuntal voicings, textures and timbres across both rhythm and brass sections, as well as in the legato lyricism and percussive pianism that are juxtaposed within many of Chick’s own solo moments.
And yet, despite a return and re-examination of many of the currents and influences which have spanned and marked Chick’s four decade long career, a completely fresh and wondrous new statement is made with Origin that in many ways, bears little if any resemblance to his previous musical efforts and incarnations. As a true original, Chick Corea wouldn’t have it any other way.
(Note: Dennis Polkow is an award-winning Chicago area journalist whose work appears in publication such as the Chicago Tribune, Grammy Magazine and Musician. His weekly all-genre music column and arts reviews appear across the Press Publications, Inc. chain of newspapers.)
Selected Discography: Chick Corea, Stretch/Concord Discography
Origin (SCD-9018-2 )
Native Sense-The New Duets (with Gary Burton) (SCD-9014-2)
Remembering Bud Powell (SCD-9012-2)
Live In Montreux (SCD-9009-2)
Tap Step (SCD-9006-2)
Three Quartets (SCD-9002-2