Chick Corea, the master mixer of jazz’s past and future
By Ed Morales
When the groundbreaking pianist Chick Corea died unexpectedly, at 79, in February 2021, he left a legacy of experimentation, preserving and expanding the jazz tradition. Over more than a half-century, he deftly navigated the music’s continually shifting boundaries. Corea started his career playing with Afro-Cuban percussionist Willie Bobo and spent time with bossa nova stalwart Stan Getz. His presence in Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew” ensemble, and later, his leading role in Return to Forever, gave him a seminal role in the origins of 1970s jazz fusion.
But Corea didn’t stop there, devoting himself to straight-ahead jazz trios and quartets; duos with greats such as Herbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett; outside-the-box collaborations with the bluegrass banjo player Béla Fleck; and even to playing Mozart Concertos with Bobby McFerrin. His long stint with the Elektric Band showed he never abandoned fusion, and his 2019 release, “Antidote,” recorded with an array of Spanish and Latin American musicians, renewed his early passion for Latin sounds. Over the course of his career, he won 25 Grammy and Latin Grammy Awards and was nominated for more than 60 others.
Last month at Jazz at Lincoln Center, an all-star lineup of musicians who either played with Corea or were strongly influenced by him came together in New York for concerts that reimagined his classic compositions.
“Chick had this way of instilling in us that if someone is trying to define what jazz is or isn’t for you, you don’t have to accept it,” bassist John Patitucci, a longtime member of the Elektric Band and musical director of the shows, said in a phone interview. “He was extremely affirming with all of us, and he was funny — hysterically funny.”
The shows were more than just a tribute; they allowed Corea’s colleagues to recapture his energy, focused determination and generosity of spirit. In a recent interview, five musicians — Rubén Blades, Béla Fleck, Christian McBride, Renee Rosnes and Corea’s widow, Gayle Moran, a singer and keyboardist who was by his side till the end — discussed how deeply he connected with his collaborators when creating music and the ways he touched them personally. (All but Fleck took part in the Jazz at Lincoln Center event, which was postponed from January.) These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
How did Corea’s experiments in jazz fusion and eclecticism inspire you?
CHRISTIAN MCBRIDE I think there’s this accepted narrative, like, there was quote unquote, “no jazz in the ’70s” and people like Chick, Herbie, Weather Report, George Duke all turned their backs on jazz. I’m not exactly sure how so many critics and writers missed all these great albums that Chick did in addition to his Return to Forever albums, which were also great. Anytime you got a group with people like Bill Connors and Al Di Meola, that was the peak of Return to Forever. I mean, how can anyone not like Flora Purim and Joe Farrell [who played important roles on a few Return to Forever albums]? That band was absolutely crystalline, everything they did was just gorgeous.
RENEE ROSNES His fusion playing — electric playing, whatever genre you want to call it — was as harmonically and rhythmically complex as all the music he wrote. It wasn’t that anything was dumbed down. It was all beautiful, and from his very individual mind. He remained curious, whether it was classical, bebop, Latin, electric, acoustic. He really had a limitless range and he seemed to be fearless. He didn’t really seem to care what anyone thought, what the critics thought, he would just go ahead and make the music he wanted to make.
BÉLA FLECK It just was all music to him. So I don’t know if there was much of a line between the different styles. In terms of Return to Forever, for me, I don’t think I would be doing anything I’m doing if it wasn’t for that band. In 1975, I saw them at the Beacon Theater and I wouldn’t have gone on to try to play the banjo the way I play. I wouldn’t have had the Flecktones. Fusion has almost gotten a bad name or something, but if you go back to the original stuff, this music had a lot of intelligence to it. It was not just rock with jazz. It was its own thing. It really was a fusion.
RUBÉN BLADES Chick was always curious, and I think that that is the real definition of an intellectual, an artist constantly curious. He collaborated with a lot of different people and showed them ways that perhaps were not clear to them at the time, no matter how successful they were. The opportunities that he created for music to go forward are impossible to consider as a whole. He was just an incredibly curious and talented man.
Corea was unusually attentive in the way he worked with musicians, his sense of generosity and mentoring. Can you talk about that?
FLECK He had this thing about giving permission to everybody to do what they needed to do, or what they ought to do, which was be themselves. One of the first times he came to play with me in the Flecktones in Nashville, we did an interview and the idea of rules came up in music and he said something like: “Well, there are no rules. If there’s anybody out there who thinks there’s any rules, I hereby give you permission to ignore them.” When we were in the airports, you’re standing in a line and there’d be those barriers, and he would always walk around and pop them out so that people wouldn’t have to stand on the lines anymore.
MCBRIDE I was very fortunate to play with Chick a lot with Roy Haynes. Even though it was Chick’s band, he always put the power with Roy. We went on the road with the Remembering Bud Powell Quintet in the summer of 1996 and I remember after we rehearsed each arrangement, Chick would say something like, “Roy, is that cool?” You know, “Is that the right vibe?” And it made me love Chick even more because even though it was his band, he was checking with Roy Haynes to make sure everything was cool.
FLECK Because I play with different kinds of people, I get asked, “How do you play all this stuff?” And I say, “I really don’t. I just play like myself all the time, and it’s the people around me that change.” He was just so him, anything he did had the stamp. I mean, is there any Chick Corea thing you could hear that you wouldn’t know? It was him within three or four notes. So he just had this language.
MCBRIDE Even with the Foo Fighters.
ROSNES Or even going right back to the very beginning, you know, the beginning of when he was playing with Mongo Santamaría, Cal Tjader — I mean, he still sounded like himself even then.
GAYLE MORAN He really wanted to be a better classical player, and he worked at it. He practiced Mozart over and over and over. He said to me more than once, “If I could practice 24 hours a day, maybe someday I’ll be a pretty good piano player.” He says that to me [laughs], yeah!
What kind of things did Chick share about his influences and the musicians he played with?
MORAN I got this little family concert together because the doctor told me it wouldn’t be long. I didn’t tell anybody that news — we were celebrating our anniversary coming up. We all started “All Blues,” the famous Miles tune, and it was really beautiful. And he just very gently raised up his hand and said: “That is so beautiful. Now I want to show you the original arrangement that Miles taught me.” And he took his time and energy to teach everybody — When does the melody come? When does the piano come? His eyes brightened up when he was talking, and we played it and he gave everybody a thumbs up and, and we were supposed to have one more concert the next night. He wasn’t strong enough. And then he had this next adventure.
MCBRIDE Chick deeply loved Horace Silver, and I don’t think a lot of people draw that line between Horace and Chick. He would talk about Horace so much and how much he influenced the structure of his writing. He was telling me the story about when he first joined the Blue Mitchell-Junior Cook Quintet, which was basically the old Horace Silver Band, and he was like, man, I always feel like the one thing I was never really that great at was playing the blues. I was like, Chick, I’m going to blindfold test you, and I played a recording of him playing with Blue Mitchell and Junior Cook. And I said, this cat sounds a lot like Wynton Kelly. And he’s like, yeah, that’s swinging. And then like after about eight bars, he went, wait a second — and I said, yeah, you can very much play the blues. You funky as hell, Chick!
MORAN Oh, that’s great to hear, Christian. I heard him say that too. He didn’t think he really could. Of course Miles gave him the big compliment, and, and that made Chick just fly — it was his first gig with Miles, no rehearsal, no charts. Chick was getting a drink by the bar because he thought he didn’t do so good. And then Miles whispers in his ear. I can’t say the word Miles used … But Chick went, Oh my goodness. He was dancing around.
How did Chick influence your approach to music?
BLADES He was playing at the Blue Note and I went over and said hello. So Chick asked if I would like to do something with him. I had no idea what I was going to do to fit in this thing. You know, he goes to Mars and he goes to Jupiter, a lot of places that I don’t know how to get to. And there are no directions. I had a great time when I was with him, always respectful. It was very hard for me to call Tito Puente “Tito,” you know what I mean? That’s the way he wanted to be called, he was Chick. I knew immediately he would not bat an eye if I would do “Pennies From Heaven” with a salsa band. Right away, he would go like, oh, that’s wonderful, you know?
ROSNES He was so open, and his imagination just knew no bounds. He had a desire to cross all those lines, musically, and play anything. That definitely inspired me in so many ways, compositionally as well as just playing the piano and improvising. I know that when I write, I don’t really think about what genre I’m writing. I follow in his footsteps that way, in terms of just having the whole world at your fingertips. He was so focused all the time, too. One piece I’m excited about playing at the show is “Eternal Child” because I I’d heard it, but I never studied it. It’s such a beautiful composition.
MORAN Oh my, he wrote that in the middle of the night, Renee, I remember in LA. We were trying to sleep and he just said, “I hear something.” And he had to get out of bed and go down. And he said, when he wrote that down on the paper, by the piano, he was crying.
ROSNES Well, it’s beautiful. I kind of think of Chick himself as the eternal child. He has that spirit. He had an email address at one point, something with “eternal child” in it.
BLADES When I recorded “Spanish Heart,” he sent me the lyric and I’m singing on top of what the chart was, but I did the thing in my tone, and he said: “Oh, that’s great. Let’s do that.” He felt a special attachment to that song. It was a tremendous honor for me to do it. He was someone who called, he talked to you, he would prod you. He was always keeping in touch. I don’t know how his heart was big enough to be able to keep up with all this stuff. I’m terrible at that. I love people, but I don’t tell them.
MORAN You hear those lyrics and it sounds like a love song, and that’s what I thought it was. One time I said, “Oh sweetie, you wrote that for me.” And he said, “Well, yeah, but it’s for them.” And he meant the audience, a love song for the audience. That’s how it ends, he says “I give it all to you.”