Music to My Ears

Chick Corea Returns to Forever

Issue 131

Armando Anthony Corea, known to the world as “Chick,” passed to the other side on February 9. We’ve been losing music icons in the last few years because of an aging population. But this one hurt. The news was shocking because not only had he just released Trilogy 2 at the end of 2018, but we had no idea Chick was ill and the sad event took everyone by surprise. Sure, he was 79 years old. But the closer I come to that maturity the younger it sounds.

Chick Corea could have died at 105 and that would have been a sad day. But 79? Nope. No sir, way too soon. He was in no way done sparkling. There is a YouTube vid of him playing the Blue Note with Patitucci, Weckl, Marienthal, and Gambale on Chick’s 75th birthday and he was finer than frog hair.

Wait! Here it is!

 

Shiver me timbers. Smiles all around. Except Weckl, who always looks like Mitch McConnell back there. Flippin’ Patitucci still looks like a kid.

Chick’s father was a working musician. The lad was exposed to jazz and other forms at an early age. Chick remembers his dad and friends listening to Miles with tears coming down their faces. One of my favorite stories was related by Chick himself in an interview. At four years old his sleeping area was the couch in the living room. He remembered hearing workmen outside the third-floor picture window. The window had been removed, and an upright piano appeared on a block and tackle. His mom had bought this for little Chickie for $45 including cartage. Those were the days. The upright was installed in the living room and as Chick related, “that’s where it all started.”

As with most musicians, Corea started playing with high school groups. He later moved to New York and studied music at Columbia and eventually Juilliard. Amazingly, he was disappointed in the experience and quit formal education. You know, I have heard that story from others. Interesting.

In 1962 at the age of 21 years, Chick was playing for Mongo Santamaria, then Herbie Mann and Stan Getz. Corea started getting attention quickly. He released his first album, Tones for Joan’s Bones in 1967. Here is the title track. I love this. That’s Steve Swallow on bass and Joe Chambers on drums. A review of the album at the time stated, “at a time when the popularity of jazz has waned there are still examples of real beauty and this album is one.” You already hear the “conversation” style of Corea’s music that would wind through his music his entire life. Note the drums are one side and piano on the other, with bass full on like it’s the lead. That is classic Chick man, even early on.

 

I am not going to do a Chick Corea discography. That has been done many times and by better men. I’d rather touch on periods or compositions that influenced me and millions of others.

In 1968 he released Now He Sings, Now He Sobs, which contained a song that would become a jazz standard, “Windows.”

 

In mid-1968 Chick got lucky when Herbie Hancock, who had been playing with the Miles Davis Quintet, contracted food poisoning on his honeymoon in South America. Tony Williams contacted Chick and told him Miles wanted Chick to fill in on a date in Baltimore. Chick played and impressed Miles enough that Miles kept Corea on. Sorry Herbie. I have heard Hancock tell this story completely without rancor. Hancock was a big fan of Corea’s and was happy for him. Herbie had some exploding to do anyway and commenced to do just that.

Corea left Miles in 1970, along with Dave Holland, to form an avant-garde group, then Chick did a few solo albums. By 1971 he had put together one of his most iconic bands, Return to Forever.  Their first album was Latin-theme influenced, but by the third album, Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy, Corea had been blown away by John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra. He heard the power of the fusion of rock and jazz and Corea wanted to go exploring. He replaced earlier members of Return to Forever with Lenny White on drums/percussion, and kept Stanley Clarke on bass and Bill Connors on guitar.

This period of 1973 – 1976 saw the release of five more albums which, along with albums by Weather Report and the Mahavishnu Orchestra, were quintessential jazz-fusion staples and turned all of us on our ears.

Weather Report was my first exposure to fusion and Jaco was my hero. (He joined the band in 1976.) Because of Jaco, I even pulled the frets out of my Fender Jazz Bass to make it fretless, and changed to Rotosound roundwound strings. Still my precious.

When I listen to some of these works today I still get that chill, the sense of being in another reality, a need to study and immerse and revel. Return to Forever will continue to delight the senses.

In 1974 a 19 year old (!) Al Di Meola had joined the Forever lineup and it was this ensemble that released my personal favorite, Romantic Warrior. Here doing the title track are Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke, Al Di Meola, and Lenny White. Lenny White…crisp as a fall apple.

 

Ridiculous.

Return to Forever had developed within Chick Corea a lyrical style that no longer needed vocals, a conversational style that was really evident in all of Corea’s live performances, and a melodic sensibility that came through no matter the style he would utilize to express himself for the remainder of his career.

Besides Corea’s virtuosity, his magnificent approach to melody and grandeur, I will always cherish watching him live. With a band he will alternatively watch the other members and the audience constantly, his lips moving as if speaking, even while ripping off amazing riffs and solos. He rarely looks down at his instrument.

Listening to his groups I am always reminded of Duke Ellington. Both surrounded themselves with the best musicians they could find, then wrote for them as soloists, recognizing their unique styles and incorporating each into their music.

By the mid 1980s he had formed a new and exciting direction. With Elektric Band he released an album of often rowdy arrangements that were just a blast to listen to. He had changed to a new lineup with Scott Henderson and Carlos Rios on guitars, John Patitucci on bass and Dave Weckl on the kit. I had their first CD and I forced my son to listen to it so many times I get the eye roll when I talk about this band to this day. Eventually Rios and Henderson were replaced with guitarist Frank Gambale. We have here a rendition of the lineup with Gambale doing a song from the first Elektric album called “Rumble.” Dig the horrific robot imitations.  Remember, we’re talking mid 1980s here. Check out the monster 6-string bass Patitucci’s playing.

 

An offshoot followed called Chick Corea Akoustic Band featured a pared-down lineup with Corea, Patitucci and Weckl. Here is the first song off the first album, “Bessie’s Blues.”

 

Yep.

I was immersing myself in all things Chick after his passing (isn’t that always the way?) and came across an interview with Corea, Stanley Clarke and Lenny White, ostensibly discussing the Return To Forever band. They were talking about a piece from Romantic Warrior, “Medieval Overture,” and Chick was saying how he liked to use overture concepts at the beginning of his works as a bombastic opening fantasy, which of course is what an overture is. White remembered a favorite overture that they had never recorded. Chick leans over Clarke and says, ”I recorded that with the Elektric Band.” Lenny fakes an ice pick to the neck and slumps over. Clarke leans back and says, “Oh. Those guys.” Clarke then pulls the imaginary ice pick out of White’s neck. Hilarious. I’d never thought of it before, probably because Corea had so many different lineups, but these guys probably had a bit of a rivalry going on.

Chick Corea constantly played in duet situations as well. In the 1970s he worked with Gary Burton and that musical relationship went on for 40 years. Chick worked duet performances off and on with Herbie Hancock as well. In 2007 he recorded an album with Bela Fleck, The Enchantment, just the two in a studio. I have that CD and it’s a monster.

Corea’s spirit encompassed all forms and all folks. His generosity in music is documented in his works and his friends. Carlitos del Puerto, a wonderful bass man who played with Chick for years and finally in the Spanish Heart Band, talks of Corea’s rehearsal persona. “You’d make a mistake, and Chick would stop and start laughing. Then, ‘OK let’s go again,’ still chuckling.”

Chick Corea would play with anyone who asked, and who had talent. I wish I had his phone number in the day. Alas, I neither the number nor the talent.

Chick Corea went on to follow his muse with classical, Latin, and fusion themes his entire career. Every time I poked my head in to see what he was up to he was doing something marvelous. His was a talent of giant stature and as a true jazz icon leaves us breathless.

I would be remiss to not send condolences to his family, especially his wife Gayle. Chick and Gayle were loving, kindred spirits. Gayle’s reminiscences of Chick working on something in his studio, then running upstairs to haul her downstairs to show her something astounding, were heartwarming and now heartbreaking.

Let’s leave with a sense of wonder and another pair of kindred spirits. This last is Herbie and Chick live in Germany in 1978. They start out plucking inside on the piano strings. Watch for Chick using the top support as a percussion instrument.

 

Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Ice Boy Tell, cropped to fit format.

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