Connector in Chief: Chick Corea, 1941-2021 (By Mark Stryker)

(Guest post by Mark Stryker, author of Jazz From Detroit.)

Like pretty much everyone else within the jazz community, I never contemplated living in a world without Chick Corea. He seemed to be perpetually 55 years old. Whenever you saw him play or spoke to him, he levitated on clouds of youthful energy, friendly enthusiasm, and positive vibrations. He appeared to have just woken up from the best night’s sleep of his life. 

Chick — everyone was on a first name basis with him — pursued so many different genres and styles, wrote so much original music, made so many unique albums, and spent so much of his life on the road with disparate bands, that wrapping all of it up in a tidy essay is a big ask. So big that I am not going to try to get to everything, opting instead for a suite of ideas and observations. The Tom Lord Jazz Discography lists some 100 recordings by Chick as a leader and more than 450 sessions overall. Those are insane numbers. The sheer aesthetic sprawl of the music, its high level of craft and sincerity, but uneven quality as art, resists quick or reductive takes.

It is a little weird. I revere Chick. He was a master. Full stop. Yet there are large swatches of his output that I dislike, find goofy, hyperactive, banal, or just meh — nearly all of Return to Forever after the first two LPs, the Akoustic Band, Elektric Band, Three Quartets band with Michael Brecker and Steve Gadd, Touchstone, high-concept productions like The Leprechaun and The Mad Hatter, most of the later solo recordings, the duets with Bobby McFerrin and Bela Fleck. 

On the other hand, Chick is responsible for some of the greatest, most expressive post-bop of the last 50 years: Tones for Joan’s Bones, Now He Sings, Now He Sobs with Miroslav Vitous and Roy Haynes (and their subsequent Trio Music recordings), and the often overlooked Is and Sundance sessions all remain state-of-the-art a half century later. It’s not all history either: The recent trio with Christian McBride and Brian Blade and the Freedom Band with Kenny Garrett, McBride, and Haynes provided consistently knockout experiences in concert and on record. Now throw in the sublime early ‘70s solo piano records on ECM; the go-for-broke duets with Herbie Hancock; the potent but short-lived quartet with Joe Henderson, Gary Peacock, and Haynes; the underrated Origin sextet with Steve Wilson, Bob Sheppard, Steve Davis, Avishai Cohen, and Jeff Ballard; and the New Trio with Cohen and Ballard.

What else? 

Oh, yeah, all of the enticing, sometimes scene-stealing sideman work with Blue Mitchell. Pete (La Roca) Sims, Sarah Vaughan, Stan Getz, Miles Davis, Joe Farrell, Eric Kloss, Joe Henderson, and others. The duos with Gary Burton that for me resulted in the vibraphonist’s best work. I respect the recondite avant-gardism of Circle though it doesn’t move me; but when the trio of Corea, Holland, and Altschul goes it alone without Anthony Braxton on Song of Singing (Blue Note) and especially A.R.C. (ECM). I warm quickly to its more clarified abstractions.

With an artist as honestly eclectic as Chick, you do not have to like everything he does, but you do have to accept its existence. He was indivisible. The music all came from the same source. There is no single road to Truth. As with Keith Jarrett, Chick’s best music was self-justifying, his worst music the price of admission.

Coming at it from a different angle, it is significant that people whose musical tastes and experiences differ from each other in practically every way may both own Chick Corea records — except they are different records. That’s a valuable part of Chick’s legacy, in addition to the part about him being one of the most influential and important pianists and composers in jazz to come out of the ‘60s and ’70s. 

The big elephant in the room when discussing Chick is his relationship with Scientology. It’s well-documented that his growing interest in the teachings of L. Ron Hubbard in the early ‘70s influenced his U-turn from the experimental free-jazz of Circle to the more melodic and populist conception of the first iteration of Return to Forever (“Spain,” “500 Miles High,” “La Fiesta,” “Light as a Feather”). Still, Chick returned periodically to free music. The trio with Vitous and Haynes often worked without predetermined structures, and straight-ahead projects like the Freedom Band and Origin can only be described as populist to the extent that Chick himself was one of the most popular and communicative musicians on the planet. 

I’ll leave it to Chick’s future biographers to unpack the full impact of Scientology on his life, music, and career. (Note to those biographers: This will not be easy, and neither will the task of sorting judiciously through all of the music.) But it is certainly fair to say that whether the motivation came from Dianetics or something intrinsic to Chick’s nature, forging a connection with audiences was of critical importance to him. This sometimes resulted in tricks like dopey audience sing-alongs or empty pyrotechnics. However, I think it also led to a profound internal barometer that allowed Chick to leverage his natural charisma and ability to make moment-to-moment choices when improvising that invited listeners, including jazz novices, inside his most challenging and sophisticated music. He made people feel that there was nothing more fun in life than playing improvised music with friends. He was right.

The idea of “play” looms large in Chick’s cosmology. He was all about the sheer joy of making music, of connecting with his fellow musicians and audiences in real time. Herbie Hancock told Hank Shteamer this week that playing duets with Chick was like joining him in a sandbox. Chick loved playing the imp, and his improvising is full of humor — clever melodic or rhythmic pirouettes, a dash of unexpected harmonic dissonance, hide-and-seek games with the beat. These were all invitations to his partners on stage to jump into the sandbox with him.

Chick was also fearless. One of the things that was most astounding about him was that for an improviser who took so many chances, who really went for it, Chick never seemed to make a mistake. His fingers never got tied up, he never had to restart or abandon an idea like a mortal. The clarity of his thought, intent, and execution was otherworldly.

The solo piano performance of Monk’s “Round Midnight” in Munich in 1983, is a good example. He comes at the tune from myriad angles, building a cubist interpretation of sharp, linear right-hand geometries. He deconstructs and re-constructs the song with dazzling technique, conceptual authority, startling harmonic imagination, and surprise. You have no idea what he’s going to play because he doesn’t either until the second before he plays it. Yet he never flubs — except at 4:19 when he lands briefly on a G natural— the dissonant major third against an E-flat minor chord — rather than the written melody note, G-flat. Blink and you’ll miss it. Chick seems to be going for a Monkian half-step cluster but once he hits that G, he quickly releases the lower note to proudly commit to the “wrong” note. Truism: There are no mistakes in improvisation, only missed opportunities.

Chick’s technical command of the piano, honed by his deep study of classical music, particularly Bartok, Scriabin, and other 20th Century composers, was unimpeachable. The last time I heard Chick live in fall 2019 with McBride and Blade was the first time I noticed that, at age 78, he might be losing a whiff of finger strength; the notes didn’t always pop as they typically did. Yet he was still as spontaneous as ever, still taking risks, still never fucking up. I wondered if he had found a way to ever so slightly tame his wildest instincts, to play within himself so that he could still constantly take fliers when improvising but also keep odds in his favor that he’d be able to make whatever he tried to do. This would have been a fascinating process to watch play out if he had lived. How would perhaps the most technically secure contemporary jazz pianist of them all cope with the inevitability of advancing years?

In 1999, I wrote a story for the Detroit Free Press about the close bond between Chick and Herbie Hancock. I interviewed each of them separately talking about the other. I noted that while both pianists share similar influences (Powell, Evans, Kelly), Chick had internalized Monk’s angular rhythms and McCoy Tyner’s harmonic vocabulary of open-ended chords voiced in fourths and pentatonic scales. While Chick favored the percussive modernism of Bartok among his classical influences, Hancock leaned on the softer impressionism of Ravel.

Chick assimilated his influences, including Hancock’s fluid conception, into a distinct voice at once romantic and muscular, serious and playful, balancing sprightly melodic ideas with rhythmic gamesmanship. “Even at an early age, Chick’s ideas seemed to be original,” Hancock told me. “And Chick really swung. There was kind of a lightness to it —like he was sprinkling magic dust on something.”

The earliest recorded display of Chick’s mature style is his 1966 debut LP as a leader, Tones for Joan’s Bones, which introduced two of his most enduring compositions, the rhythmically beguiling “Litha” and the mellifluous title track, which sounds a bit like a cousin to Hancock’s “Dolphin Dance.” But the record that turned Hancock from a fan into a student was Chick’s 1968 masterpiece, Now He Sings, Now He Sobs, which feature the pianist’s telepathic interplay with Vitous and Haynes. Chick’s compositions, including “Steps,” “What Was,” and “Matrix,” are fleet, steeplechase structures with lots of elbow room.

“The choices Chick made in the compositions and their structures have a great beauty, and they have an openness about them and cleverness and a sense of teamwork, so that the bass player and drummer aren’t left playing in the background,” Hancock said.

Chick’s daring approach to rhythmic displacement proved particularly influential — a turnabout given that it was Hancock’s looseness that first inspired Chick: “There are some rhythmic choices that I developed from my association with Tony Williams,” Hancock told me. “Chick carried it further, and then I began to be influenced by Chick.”

Chick’s reflections on Hancock are especially interesting because they not only offer insight into his friend’s genius, but they also suggest a self-awareness in which Chick identifies his own Achilles heel. Chick said: “He really unlocked the door, or confirmed a lot of the directions I was trying to go in.  The way he was experimenting with the use of harmonies: He’d take a blues form or an ‘I Got Rhythm’ form and all of a sudden apply a completely different set of harmonies to it. Did you ever see a collection of Picasso’s work and a series of things Picasso will do? There’s this one with a bull. He starts with a pretty realistic drawing of a bull, and then he keeps drawing the bull in various ways until he really gets to some renditions that are pretty abstract. Then the last version of the bull is a very simple line drawing that probably took him 10 seconds to do. It’s just an infinite variety of approaching a basic theme, and Herbie had that kind of approach. I’m more of a collage man.”

Collage man — that’s an apt description of a man who wrote irresistible, multi-thematic compositions like “Spain” but also slipped into the overstuffed bombast of Romantic Warrior and the like. The byzantine formal architecture and brass and string writing on The Mad Hatter, My Spanish Heart, and The Leprechaun are skillfully executed. Yet you often have to wade through a lot of blarney to find the pot of gold, such as the seductively polytonal waltz tucked inside the “The Leprechaun’s Dream.” When focused, Chick’s improvisations dazzled you with their endless stream of substantive invention, but sometimes he darted between ideas so fast without developing any one of them that they all blur together into highly polished surface flash.

Hancock’s point about Chick having an original voice at an early age is well taken. He was just 25 when he recorded Now He Sings, Now He Sobs. But that does not mean that Chick came out of the womb fully formed. He had a seven-year gestation period in New York. He came to the city at age 18 in the fall of 1959. His first record dates (Mongo Santamaria and Willie Bobo) were not until three years later, and if you listen to his work with Sonny Stitt on Stitt Goes Latin in November 1963, Chick sounds great but a long way from being fully formed at age 23. On “Amigos,” there’s still undigested Bud in Chick’s playing, and his time feel is way behind the beat, whereas mature Chick is much more on top of the time. (By the way, that’s a helluva a solo by Thad Jones on “Amigos” — so much expressive dissonance and a truly wild sequence in the bridge!)

Chick’s recording schedule picked up in 1964 and his profile started to rise by working with Herbie Mann and Blue Mitchell. Certainly, by July of that year when he records his own “Chick’s Tune” on Mitchell’s The Thing to Do, he’s well on his way to being himself: That puckish, stuttering motif in piquant whole steps at the start of the piano solo is unmistakably Chick; so are those flick-of-the-wrist grace notes that skip up to a high D-flat in the sixth bar of the second chorus. Chick’s composition, based on the changes of “You Stepped Out of a Dream,” is memorable too. The shifting rhythms, breaks, pedal points, and two-horn voicings recall Horace Silver, but Chick assembles them with his own personality and the attractive melody is imbued with markers of his emerging language like 4ths and pentatonic scales. The ebullient phrasing and attack in the piano solo are still very beboppish, and Chick’s swinging 8th notes are not quite as even as they would become in just a few years. A year later, on the shuffle blues “March on Selma” from Mitchell’s Down With It, the piano comping and soloing sound like a combination of McCoy and Herbie in their down-home modes.

The big leap forward is between 1965 and ’66, because by the time you get Tones For Joan’s Bones, you’re hearing Chick as we know him. That record is a full seven years after he arrived in New York, so he was no overnight sensation. Contrast that with Tony Williams, who really did sound fully formed at age 17, when he made his first records in the winter and spring of 1963 with Jackie McLean, Kenny Dorham, Herbie, and Miles. Or Joe Henderson who was already mature on his first recorded appearance on K.D.s Una Mas and, according to those who knew him in Detroit, was playing much like he always did as early as 1959-60.

Tones For Joan’s Bones with Woody Shaw, Joe Farrell, Steve Swallow, and Joe Chambers is an astonishing debut, even in an era of remarkable debuts. Now He Sings, Now He Sobs is a career-defining LP. That’s one of the most remarkable one-two punches out of the gate as a leader in jazz since the introduction of the 12-inch LP. Chick’s third record, Is — along with its cousin, Sundance, recorded at the same sessions in 1969 — are not as well-known but they are deep, authoritative statements. The flexible ensemble is packed with young lions of the day: Shaw, Bennie Maupin, Hubert Laws, Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette, and Horacee Arnold. The music spins along an inside-outside axis. Sometimes the players explore gestural, free-form improvisation. Sometimes they address more defined structures but with freedom still a lodestar. On “The Brain,” a ferociously swinging modal burner over a G minor pedal point, Chick forges one of his most exciting solos on record. His scampering post-bop lines are saturated with chromaticism and integrated into a vortex with rhythmic displacement, textural abstraction, motivic development, atonal passages and furious sparring with Holland and DeJohnette.

Some other thoughts, links, and recommendations… 

*I interviewed Chick many times. He was unfailingly warm and gracious. He seemed to be exactly the same person on and off stage, and I can’t think of another musician of his stature who was so approachable. The last time we spoke in 2018, the topic was Detroiters past and present with whom he had significant musical relationships, among them Thad Jones, Joe Henderson, Ron Carter, Elvin Jones, and Kenny Garrett. Here’s a lovely anecdote about another Detroiter he admired that didn’t make it into the story: Chick was playing at Birdland with Mongo Santamaria in the early ’60s. Tommy Flanagan, whom Chick idolized, came in one night and complemented the young pianist after the set. Chick was so over the moon that Flanagan liked his playing that he drew strength from the compliment for years.

*Speaking of Thad, a rare bootleg tape exists of Chick playing with Thad’s quartet in Rochester, NY, in 1967, with Richard Davis and Mel Lewis. The band even plays some of Chick’s tunes. I’ve never heard the tape, so if anybody reading this has access to it, you are hereby obligated to send me a copy. In the absence of the tape, here’s TV footage of Thad playing “Autumn Leaves” with Chick and the gang on the Downbeat Poll Winners Awards Show in 1976. This was filmed in Chicago and aired on public television. I remember watching it at age 13. 

*Speaking of Chick on television, I also remember seeing Chick and Herbie play duets on the “Mike Douglas Show” in 1979. They played Gershwin’s “Liza” and then accompanied Douglas (an old band singer) on Duke’s “I’m Beginning to See the Light.” Douglas interviewed them at piano and prompted each to individually play bits of their well-known songs, ”Maiden Voyage” and “La Fiesta” if I recall correctly. Then they played improvised musical sketches of the other guests on the show. This footage has never shown up on YouTube, but hope springs eternal.

* Chick’s debut as a leader in Detroit was a weekend stand at the Strata Concert Gallery in October 1971. Chick flipped when I showed him this flier.

He definitely remembered the gig and said this trio with Stanley Clarke (amusingly just “Stan” on the flier) and Horacee Arnold (missing the extra “e” on the flier) was ground zero for what morphed into Return to Forever, which made its formal debut at the Village Vanguard in late November 1971.

* I’m not certain I would call the fierce piano fill Chick plays behind the horns between 1:34 and 1:38 on “Litha” my favorite four seconds of music ever, but it’s on the shortlist. 

* I wish that Chick, Miroslav, and Roy had released a lot more records and Keith, Gary, and Jack had released a lot fewer. (And I’m a big fan of Jarrett’s early Standards Trio records.) There are only four recordings by the Now He Sings, Now He Sobs trio: the seminal LP from 1968 (Solid State), plus eight short tracks totaling about 28 additional minutes first issued on Circling In (Blue Note) in 1975; Trio Music, a double LP on ECM recorded in 1981 that devotes one record to Thelonious Monk songs and the other to free improvisations; Trio Music Live in Europe (ECM) recorded in 1984; and a recording I just discovered this week: The Trio Live From the Country Club, recorded in 1982 in Reseda, Calif, and issued in Japan in 1996 on Chick’s label, Stretch; it’s available now as a download and streaming. There’s also a DVD of the trio at the Blue Note as part of Chick’s 60th birthday celebration in 2001. 

Chick, Miroslav, and Roy created an iconic sound in jazz. Chick’s pinging articulation finds its perfect match, a friendly doppelganger, in the snap-crackle of Roy’s ever-changing cymbal beat. Miroslav’s springy bass comes and goes as it pleases. The sound is loose, swinging, effervescent. There’s so much room inside their collective beat for play. The musicians sound like they are carrying on a conversation while bouncing on a trampoline. Whether playing tunes or free form, the music making is intuitive and communicative. Roy is the ideal drummer for a piano trio because his cymbal beat is firm but light, never drowning out his partners.

At the risk of blowing my credibility, I have to admit that my favorite music by the trio is not Now He Sings, Now He Sobs but the first side of Trio Music Live in Europe, because it sings and swings with such open-hearted lyricism and Chick plays with laser focus. His gleaming waltz “The Loop” is followed by three standards — a brisk “I Hear a Rhapsody,” and a 14 minute medley comprised of a lilting “Summer Night” (more 3/4) and an exuberant “Night and Day.” Chick plays a striking chorus up front on “I Hear a Rhapsody” with just his right hand. A quick wink at the tune ignites flames of improvised melody of irregular length and rhythm. The three piano choruses that follow the head are a topsy-turvy ride of snaking lines, melodic and rhythmic rhyme, harmonic adventure, and Chickisms — the pungent half-steps and rhythmic bite in bars 9 and 10 that recall his opening salvo on “Chick’s Tune,” the rising chromatic texture in the second chorus that momentarily suspends time and harmony. After a rubato intro, Harry Warren’s “Summer Night” glides into a broken-time waltz that shows off the quick reflexes and polyrhythmic flexibility of all three players. It’s an aggressive reinvention of the Bill Evans Trio language without mortgaging an elegant elan. Cole Porter’s “Night and Day” strikes the kind of airborne groove that sounds like it could remain aloft forever. The pristine ECM sound gives you enough concert-hall ambience to put you in an orchestra seat but not enough to lose sonic definition. I never stop smiling while listening to this record.

I can’t find any convenient links to Trio Music Live in Europe, but it is available on CD and via streaming services. Instead, here’s the trio working out in vigorous fashion on “So in Love” (more Porter) from The Trio Live From the Country Club.

* Now He Sings Coda:  I also just discovered that Chick, Miroslav, and Roy back Japanese alto saxophonist Toshiyuki Honda on Dream (East World), a 1983 recording issued only in Japan. I could only find one tune to sample and it is not that impressive. Somebody must have paid Chick and the cats some serious money to make the date. (Chick is credited as co-producer.)

* There is a bootleg tape of Chick with Sarah Vaughan in Las Vegas in 1968 that is unbelievable. Herbie Mickman plays bass, and Steve Schaeffer plays drums. A copy of this tape (two club sets) used to be on YouTube, but it has disappeared. I’ve never heard a quality dub. Does one exist?  I wish it could see commercial release. It’s revelatory.

What is so brilliant is how Chick is always making the gig. He’s doing what he needs to do, when he needs to do it at all times — but he’s still able imprint his own personality on the music. Nothing is by rote. He  throws all of this complex harmony at Sarah, and she just eats it up on ballads like “Lover Man” and “Round Midnight.” What a musician she was! Total command. Chick swings his ass off, and even quotes Joe Henderson’s “Isotope” on a blues. As a trio tune, Chick plays his arrangement of “Summer Night” — this isn’t the waltz version he would later favor but rather an arrangement that starts out of tempo, moves into a swinging 4 with rhythm section hits and a pedal-point, modal coda. Chick brought this chart to Stan Getz, who played it throughout the ‘70s and recorded in on The Master in 1975.  

* Chick and Lee Konitz died just 10 months apart. Other than one stray studio track their only recording together was a 1981 concert at the Creative Music Studio in Woodstock, NY. They play duets on “Round Midnight” and “Stella by Starlight.” I prefer the former, where you can hear an interesting connection between mid-career Lee and Ornette Coleman — both play with a puckery tone, their pitch runs sharp, and both favor intuitive, melodic paraphrasing and motivic development. On “Stella,” I think Chick way overplays, though the full 16-minute track comes off better than the 9-minute edited version on the concert video.

* Here’s a deep-cut fave from the 1970s: “Speak Low” from Joe Farrell’s Skate Board Park in 1979 with Chick, Bob Magnusson on bass and Larance Marable on drums. Terrific piano comping gooses the action and Chick’s solo scampers along inventively. Best is the exuberant dialogue between Joe and Chick in the long tag. I talked about this in my 2019 Do The Math interview focused on saxophonists. As I said then, Joe and Chick talk back and forth like Miles Davis and Wynton Kelly. When this came out, it was a slice of jazz purity at the height of fusion.

* Back to 1967 for another deep cut of Chick as a sideman: “Marjoun” from drummer Pete (La Roca) Sims’ exotic Turkish Women at the Bath with John Gilmore on tenor sax and Walter Booker on bass. Chick takes no prisoners in the pentatonic universe. Look out! Obviously, McCoy’s shadow looms, but Chick has his own spin on things. It was just 11 months ago that we said goodbye to McCoy. Now Chick. (Heavy sigh.)

*Introduced on My Spanish Heart in 1976, “Armando’s Rhumba” became one of Chick’s most popular songs. He recorded it 10 times, and there are some 50 additional cover versions by others. However, the Spanish-tinged piece by Chick that I wish were better known is “Armando’s Tango,” which made its debut on Change, the first Origin recording in 1999. Chick recorded it only once more, and no one else has taken a swing at it. That’s a shame, because it’s a mesmerizing piece. The sinuous clarinet melody and hypnotic rhythm evoke the sultry night air of Buenos Aires. The deft counterpoint for trombone and bass clarinet in harmony is a masterful bit of orchestration. Steve Wilson shines on clarinet, and note the atmospheric touch provided by drummer Jeff Ballard who uses his hands rather than sticks.

* Let’s go out with a reminder of how fresh and compelling Chick remained in his last decade. The first Trilogy recording, a 3-CD set issued in 2014, documents his final trio with Christian McBride and Brian Blade in concert performances culled from multiple cities in 2010 and 2012. The repertoire covers the waterfront. There are standards like a beguiling “You’re My Everything” dressed in one of Chick’s meticulous arrangements with suspensions, pedal points, rhythmic hits, and substitute harmonies. There’s Monk (“Work” and “Blue Monk”). There are his familiar hits “Spain” and “Armando’s Rhumba.” And there are ambitious new or unrecorded compositions including “Piano Sonata: The Moon,” an extended-form piece with oodles of written material indulging Chick’s classical influences. I especially like “Homage,” another Spanish piece, dedicated to guitarist Paco de Lucía. The brooding melody, Phrygian harmony, and insinuating beat create an evocative landscape for group interaction, and Chick takes you on a trip. Just like he always did. .

Mark Stryker is the author of Jazz from Detroit (University of Michigan Press).

Also on DTM:

One That Got Away: Steve Grossman, 1951-2020 (by Mark Stryker)

Interview with Mark Stryker — Part one about a career in journalism and Jazz in Detroitpart two is about saxophonists.

The Bard of Bebop: Ira Gitler (by Mark Stryker)

George Walker: Dispatches from Detroit (by Mark Stryker)

Traps, the Drum Wonder: on Buddy Rich (by Mark Stryker)