Chick Corea's four-decade career is the stuff of jazz lore, an amalgamation of influential, limit-stretching musical experiences which have filled many a page in 20th century music history encyclopedias. Born Armando Anthony Corea in Chelsea, Massachusetts on June 12, 1941, Chick was studying piano by age four and enjoyed a childhood home filled with the sounds of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Lester Young and Horace Silver – not to mention the likes of Beethoven and Mozart, who inspired Chick's compositional instincts.
Chick's earliest compositions were recorded during one of his first professional stints, three years with trumpeter Blue Mitchell ('64-'66), which led up to the pianist's first project as a leader, Tones For Jones Bones. Early gigs with the likes of Willie Bobo, Cal Tjader, Herbie Mann and Mongo Santamaria instilled a love of Latin music, prevalent in much of Chick's early work. After a year accompanying Sarah Vaughan, he rose to true prominence in the jazz world by joining Miles Davis' band playing electric piano. In his years with Miles, Chick played on the groundbreaking classic fusion recording Bitches Brew and In A Silent Way. From there, Chick formed his own avante-garde improvisational group, Circle, with bassist Dave Holland, drummer Barry Altschul and saxman Anthony Braxton.
In 1971, after three years of Circle, Chick changed his focus. Jazz has never been quite the same since the birth of Return to Forever. The early edition of that group (which featured the young Stanley Clarke on bass) was a softer, samba-flavored ensemble featuring Flora Purim on vocals, her husband Airto on drums and reedman Joe Farrell. After two albums with this lineup and a few solo piano recordings released on the side, Chick plugged in and went the electronic fusion route, incorporating into RTF the firepower of drummer Lenny White and guitarist Bill Connors.
While Corea was forging a unique style on the Moog synthesizer, RTF (with Al Di Meola replacing Connors) spearheaded the mid-'70s fusion movement with such innovative albums as Where Have I Known You Before?, the Grammy-winning No Mystery and The Romantic Warrior. When RTF disbanded in 1975, Corea delved into a diverse series of recordings – electronic ensembles, solo piano, classical music and high-powered acoustic duos – with artists like Herbie Hancock and Gary Burton.
Other Corea projects leading up to his mid-'80s formation of the Elektric Band were the Grammy-winning The Leprechaun, My Spanish Heart and Musicmagic – the latter of which was a new Return to Forever project with vocalist Gayle Moran – followed by The Mad Hatter, RTF Live and work with Joe Henderson, Freddie Hubbard, Hubert Laws, Chaka Khan and Nancy Wilson, among countless others.
In 1992, Chick realized a lifelong goal, along with manager Ron Moss, forming Stretch Records, a label committed to stretching musical boundaries (like its founder) and focusing more on freshness and creativity than on musical style. Among its early releases have been projects by Bob Berg, John Patitucci, Eddie Gomez and Robben Ford.
"My interests change and vary as the years go along, with different emphases all the time," Chick muses. "The more I play in different situations, the more possibilities I discover for what I can do. Rather than think in terms of my music developing, I choose to bask in the glow of one thing for a few minutes, then let it go."
In 1996, as the last release for GRP Records, Ron Moss produced Music Forever & Beyond a five-disc boxed set of selected works from 1964-1996. Corea states, "The single emotion that this boxed set has left me with is a profound feeling of gratitude and thankfulness to have had the opportunity and the honor to create music with so many inspiring musicians through the years."
After Corea's relationship with GRP ended in 1996, Stretch Records became a subsidiary of Concord Records and Chick decided to be part of Stretch's artist roster.
His first release on Stretch was a tribute to pianist Bud Powell. Therefore, it was suitable to contact Roy Haynes to be a part of this project as Haynes had performed with Powell in the early '60s. Remembering Bud Powell was met with much excitement due, in part, to the participants that Corea had on the project. Along with Haynes were Kenny Garrett, Joshua Redman, Wallace Roney and Christian McBride. Corea said, "All the musicians poured themselves so unselfishly and creatively into this project...we all felt Bud's lasting inspiration during the recording and touring."
That same year, Chick released a recording with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra with Bobby McFerrin as conductor. This was their second recording for Sony Classical, entitled, The Mozart Sessions. Their first duet recording, Play, was honored with a Grammy Award.
Also, in 1997, Chick teamed up with Gary Burton. It had been over 20 years since their Crystal Silence duet recording and the two thought it was time to do another. Native Sense – The New Duets was released on Stretch Records and gave Chick his ninth Grammy Award in 1998.
Moving forward is something at which Chick is well adept. Toward the end of 1997, Chick decided to once again form a new group – a base through which he could once again perform on acoustic piano. The band's self-titled debut release was a live recording at the Blue Note club in New York City. Chick's strategy behind the recording was to try to capture the band's sound and feel as it is in a live performance. "When we play to an audience, as opposed to playing in a recording studio, there's never a thought of playing perfectly or making no mistakes," Chick comments, "so the music flows more freely and there comes a comfort in stretching out. So what you hear on that recording is the unedited performances."
Those shows generated so much enthusiasm that the veteran bandleader took another leap, after the initial release of Origin – Live At The Blue Note. In 1998, Chick released the six-disc set A Week At The Blue Note. The boxed set, featuring music played during three of the four evenings that heralded the debut of Origin, caught the band in all its spontaneously combustible glory.
The sextet took on Miles Davis' "Four," Thelonious Monk's "Blue Monk," "Straight, No Chaser" and "Four in One," Bud Powell's "Tempus Fugit," Charlie Parker's "Bird Feathers," the Rodgers & Hart standard "Bewitched, Bothered And Bewildered" and Corea's "Matrix,""Hand Me Down" and "Sifu," not to mention alternate versions of tunes heard on the first album.
In the summer of 1999, Chick released Origin's third recording, Change. This was recorded within the relaxed confines of the home Chick shares with his wife and singer Gayle Moran in Florida. Chick and the band went to work on a set of material written specifically for Origin since the release of the debut.
"The first record was a mishmash of all kinds of stuff – old tunes, standards, jam-session tunes and new written music – whereas Change is focused on music specifically written for a known group that has become an entity. With this record, I wanted to try more thorough writing with the band. Everyone responded to it very well."
Change brings Origin one step closer to Chick's conception of a dream ensemble, a group of musicians unusually attuned to each other's playing, united under the like-minded goal of bringing to life the music of a leader able to compose and arrange challenging material with specific instrumental voices in mind.
Chick completed a recording with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Corea.Concerto, for Sony Classical released October 1999. Back in the early '80s, Chick was introduced to Mozart's music by Friedrich Gulda. Since then, Chick was determined to write a piano concerto of his own. This was completed in 1984. Over a 10-year period, Chick performed the piece with various orchestras in New York, Japan and Italy but had not had the opportunity to record it. In 1998, Chick was invited to perform in Vienna with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, for a special 1999 Easter event. This concert opened up an opportunity to record the concerto. After a successful evening in Vienna, Chick, group members from Origin and the London Philharmonic Orchestra went back to London to do the recording.
The recording features "Piano Concerto No.1" – dedicated to the spirit of religious freedom – and a new version of Chick's tune "Spain" (arrangement for sextet and orchestra).
"I chose almost the exact same instrumentation as the Mozart piano concerto orchestrations for my concerto. I figured that I could perform the Mozart and my own piece with the same size orchestra, and that would be a good practical start for me. So, with the spirit and sound of Mozart's piano concerto music, I wrote this piece and dedicated it to the spirit of religious freedom which, for me, is on the same level as the creative freedom that is the basic right of all people."
Chick also speaks about why he chose to do a new version of "Spain." "If there is any one song that listeners seem to know me best by, I guess that song is "Spain," as I get the most requests for it and hear it mentioned more than any of the others. I wrote the song in 1971 and played it frequently with RTF and many other bands of mine. I reharmonized the theme and made a brand new arrangement of it for the Akoustic Band trio in 1988, and have generally turned the song inside out through the years. This is a final visit to "Spain" in grand fashion and a tip of the hat to the art cultures of Spain, Cuba, Brazil, Argentina and New York."