April 15, 2014

Return to Solo Piano

by Jim Newsom

Chick Corea is one of the most highly decorated musicians of the last fifty years. He has been awarded numerous honors, including twenty Grammy statuettes; with sixty one nominations, he is the fourth most nominated artist of all time. A continuous musical adventurer, he has been an important force in fusion, free jazz, Latin jazz, acoustic jazz and has even written an ongoing series of children’s songs.

He’s played in the Hampton Roads region through the years, dating back to fiery shows at Chrysler Hall in the early ‘70s with his hard rocking, virtuosic Return to Forever. On April 17th, local jazz connoisseurs will have a chance to see him in the most intimate setting yet—alone with his piano at the Roper Performing Arts Center as part of the Virginia Arts Festival.

Like an increasing number of musicians, Chick prefers email interviews to actual conversations. When asked about the challenges of solo performance, he says, “The challenge is that of keeping an audience interested in one sound – the piano – over the course of a whole performance. I’m never sure what to expect – and so don’t know what to tell you or the audience to expect – I’m always trying different ways to present myself with just the piano.”

He first began presenting himself at the piano as a youngster, growing up with a bandleading dad:

“My father, Armando, was my guide into the music world. He and the musicians in his bands were a relaxed and fun group and I wanted to join them and play music with them from when I was a tot. My father taught me to read music and play some tunes on the piano. He also introduced me to the recorded music of Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell and many more in the ’40s by constantly playing his 78 rpm discs of these great musicians. I was enthralled and wanted to play all those notes immediately but couldn’t approach the fast bebop just yet. But in the early ’50s I came across Horace Silver’s music and began to copy his songs and piano solos from his recordings. That was a great school for me. I also played a lot of dance and wedding gigs with my father where I learned many of the standard songs that, interestingly enough, are still popular today.”

He got his first major grownup gig at the age of eighteen when he started playing with Latin jazzmaster Mongo Santamaria in 1959, and later worked with jazz legends Blue Mitchell, Herbie Mann and Stan Getz. But his star really began to shine brightly when he hooked up with Miles Davis in 1968, just as Miles was embarking on a new direction that would soon be labeled jazz-rock fusion:

“When I spoke to Miles on the phone a few days before my first gig in his band, I asked him ‘Will there be a rehearsal? How can I prepare?’ His immediate answer was ‘Nah, no rehearsal – just play what you hear.’

“Miles was relentlessly experimenting the whole two years I was in the band – trying different approaches – always working everything out on the gig. There were never any rehearsals.

“After only a few months, Miles directed me towards this electric piano he had rented – and after that night, I never played the acoustic piano again with Miles. He seemed to be searching for a sound and a new way of expression and the electric piano was part of what he was envisioning. Of course, it’s history now how that slowly developed into all the groove and electric oriented music he was to make in years to come. But at the time Miles was leaning towards rock and pop, Dave Holland and I were leaning more and more towards free improvisation and so we together left the band to form our own group, Circle. Miles was a true freedom fighter. He taught me to stay true to my own vision no matter what.”

The electric Fender Rhodes piano and the early generation of synthesizer served Corea well when he formed Return to Forever after leaving Miles and working with Circle. He and RTF were trailblazing superstars when jazz and rock merged in their most potent combination in the 1970s.

“The first two recordings I made with Return to Forever,” he explains, “had a certain sound and rhythm. The rhythm section combination of Stanley Clarke and Airto Moreira made an interesting Brazilian jazz flavor applied to the compositions I wrote for that band. The third recording titled Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy made an abrupt change of styles to a more electrified and rock sound.

“Hearing John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra in ’72 was inspiring to me. I had never heard a guitar played that way. The impact of emotion was tremendous. As a composer I wanted to write for a sound like that – and shortly after that, Stanley and I found Bill Connors in San Francisco, resulting in the electric version of Return to Forever.”

Corea has often returned to an electric fusion sound since that ‘70s heyday, first with his Elektric Band in the late ‘80s, later with revamped RTF lineups and his current band of young lions, The Vigil. But through it all, his acoustic piano work has been a constant and important aspect of his musical persona. And his positive outlook has permeated everything he’s done along the way.

“Making music is a natural state for me,” he says. “It’s what all the rest of life should be like—creative, a pleasure, and mainly an adventure.”

Chick Corea
April 17 – 7:30 pm
Roper Performing Arts Center
Tickets: $35.00-45.00

copyright © 2014 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.