Chick Corea - Biography

By Stuart Kremsky


            One of the most influential piano stylists to come into his own in the Sixties and leader of successful fusion bands through the ensuing decades, player/composer Chick Corea is one of the most significant jazz artists of the late 20th century. As so many artistic giants, he has adamantly refused to be pigeonholed, continually exploring and involving himself in a range of settings and styles. He’s also one of the few musicians to achieve a truly individual voice on electronic keyboards.


            Armando Anthony Corea was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts on June 12, 1941. His nickname “Chick” came from an aunt who called him “Cheeky” for his habit of pinching her cheeks. His father, also named Armando, was a trumpet player who led a Boston-area Dixieland band in the Thirties and Forties. He introduced his son to the piano at the age of four, and the youngster never looked back. Thanks to his dad’s record collection, he was exposed to plenty of piano players, with Bud Powell and Horace Silver making the greatest impression. He was also actively encouraged by his father, who would write out simplified arrangements of pop songs for him to play. Another influence was concert pianist Salvatore Sullo, who introduced Corea to classical music when he was eight. Corea started doing gigs when still in high school, playing at a variety of social functions in the area.


            After graduation from high school, Corea moved to New York to attend Columbia University, but he left after a month. Instead, he devoted himself to a regimen of eight hours daily at the piano, studying intensively for an audition at the Juilliard School of Music. They accepted him as a piano student, but he studied there less than six months, realizing that formal music education was not for him. Instead, he turned to the academy of the bandstand.


            Back in Boston, Corea had worked with local bandleader and trumpet player Phil Barboza and conga drummer Bill Fitch, who had introduced him to Latin music. In New York’s active Latin scene, there were plenty of opportunities. Corea found work in the bands of Willie Bobo and Mongo Santamaria, with Go, Mongo! (1962 Riverside) marking Corea’s first appearance on record. By 1964, Corea was busy working and recording with leaders like vibraphonist Dave Pike, flutist Hubert Laws, percussionist Montego Joe, flutist Herbie Mann, and tenor saxophonist Stan Getz. He also began a two-year stint with trumpeter Blue Mitchell. Corea got his first chance to record as a leader in 1966 with Tones for Joan’s Bones (1966 Atlantic) which featured trumpeter Woody Shaw, tenor saxophonist and flutist Joe Farrell, bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Joe Chambers.


            Corea continued to gig and record at a steady pace. In 1966 and 1967 alone, he expanded his circle of peers to appear alongside such stars as drummers Elvin Jones and Roy Haynes, bebop pioneer trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, vibraphonist Cal Tjader, and, in a Mercer Ellington sextet, saxophonists Johnny Hodges and Paul Gonsalves. After accompanying vocalist Sarah Vaughan in 1967, Corea went to work on his second album as leader. Now He Sings, Now He Sobs (1968 Solid State) found him at the helm of a hard bop trio, tending toward free jazz, with Haynes and bassist Richard Davis.


            In the spring of 1968, Corea received a phone call from drummer and fellow Bostonian Tony Williams. Williams was in the great Miles Davis quintet with saxophonist Wayne Shorter and bassist Ron Carter. The line-up was changing, and Dave Holland on electric bass was about to take over for Carter. Williams wanted to know if Corea was interested in replacing pianist Herbie Hancock in the group. Corea only had to be asked once, and joined the group on the road in Baltimore. At his first studio session with the legendary trumpet player, for Filles de Kilimanjaro (1968 Columbia), Corea was directed to play an electric piano. He didn’t like it at first, but grew to enjoy being able to compete on stage with loud drummers like Williams. Corea stayed with the Davis group until the fall of 1970, participating in such genre-busting albums as In A Silent Way (1969 Columbia), Bitches Brew (1969 Columbia), and Live/Evil (1970 Columbia). Somehow, Corea also found time not only to make his own albums as a leader, with the quintet album Is (1969 Solid State; complete session reissued on Blue Note in 2002) and The Song Of Singing (1970 Blue Note), a trio with bassist Dave Holland and drummer Barry Altschul, but also to continue working as a sideman on records by Wayne Shorter, Eric Kloss, and others. To an unusual degree for a well-known bandleader, Corea has continued to record as a sideman throughout his career.


            Shortly after the Davis group’s appearance at the Isle of Wight Festival on August 29, 1970, Corea and Holland decided to strike out on their own. At the time, the departure of a prominent Davis sideman meant instant stardom in the jazz world. But Corea elected to follow his own muse, and with Holland, Altschul and saxophonist Anthony Braxton, formed the cooperative avant-garde quartet, Circle. The band started recording for Blue Note that October, although the tracks remained unissued until they appeared on Circling In (1975 Blue Note) and Circulus (1978 Blue Note). Circle went on to release three concert recordings before Corea decided to leave the group. He later said that he left the band because the music was too introverted, and that he wanted to communicate more with his music. As he told interviewer Maarten de Haan in 1994, he “grew up kind of only thinking how much fun it was to tinkle on the piano and not noticing that what I did had an effect on others. I did not even think about a relationship to an audience, really, until way later.” Corea was introduced to Scientology during the late Sixties, and by the early Seventies, it had become a significant and lasting influence in his life.


            Corea stayed away from electric instruments in Circle, and while on a European tour with the group in 1971, recorded two albums of solo Piano Improvisations (both 1971 ECM). In the latter half of year, Corea formed the first edition of Return To Forever, featuring Joe Farrell on soprano sax and flute, Stanley Clarke on acoustic bass, Airto Moreira on drums and percussion, and Flora Purim on vocals. The group recorded their self-titled ECM debut in February 1972, which included Corea’s popular “La Fiesta.” Just a month later, Corea was back in the studio with Stan Getz, working alongside Tony Williams again, plus Clarke and Moreira, on Captain Marvel (1974 Columbia). Corea wrote most of the material, which included the title track, “La Fiesta” and “Five Hundred Miles High.” Later in the year, Return To Forever recorded their popular second album, Light As A Feather (1972 Polydor), which introduced Corea’s best-known composition, "Spain," plus new versions of "500 Miles High" and "Captain Marvel." Corea capped a busy 1972 by recording a album of duets with vibraphonist Gary Burton, Crystal Silence (1973 ECM), in November, and playing on Stanley Clarke’s Children Of Forever (1973 Polydor).


            Return To Forever went through several permutations in the next five years. The first incarnation was a Brazilian-flavored jazz band. It changed to a more fusion-oriented outfit when guitarist Bill Connors (later replaced by Al DiMeola) and drummer Lenny White came aboard in 1973 to join Clarke and Corea. The final version was a horn-oriented group with Joe Farrell back in the band. Beginning with Where Have I Known You Before (1974 Polydor) and continuing with No Mystery (1975 Polydor), Romantic Warrior (1976 Columbia), and Musicmagic (1977 Columbia), the band’s albums made it into the Billboard Jazz and Contemporary Jazz Top Forty charts. No Mystery also won a Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Performance by a Group, the first of Corea’s 14 Grammy winners. Corea disbanded Return To Forever after a 1977 tour that culminated in a New York performance that was released both as a single album (Live, 1979 Columbia) and as a four album box of the entire show.


            At this point, Corea started to balance his acoustic and electric work . On acoustic piano, Corea was involved in duets with Hancock, Burton, and pianist Friedrich Gulda, more solo playing on Delphi I (1979 Polydor), a quartet with tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker, bassist Eddie Gomez, and drummer Steve Gadd (Three Quartets, 1981 Warner), and several bands featuring tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson, caught both in the studio and on the road (Live In Montreux, 1994 Stretch). On the electric side, there were projects like My Spanish Heart (1976 Polydor), Tap Step (1978 Polydor), and The Mad Hatter (1978 Polydor).


            The early Eighties found Corea expanding his musical horizons with releases including Lyric Suite for Sextet (1983 ECM), a collaboration with Gary Burton and a string quartet; Septet, a five movement suite for piano, flute, French horn and string quartet (1985 ECM); and Voyage (1985 ECM), a series of duets with flutist Steve Kujala. In 1986, Corea returned to the fusion arena by forming his Elektric Band. Heard on the group’s self-titled first album (1986 GRP) were Carlos Rios or Scott Henderson on guitar, John Patitucci on bass, and Dave Weckl on drums. Saxophonist Eric Marienthal soon joined the group, and Frank Gambale took over on guitar in 1987. The quintet went on to record Light Years (1987 GRP), Eye of the Beholder (1988 GRP), Inside Out (1990 GRP) and Beneath the Mask (1991 GRP). Corea formed the Akoustic Band in 1987, a trio with Patitucci and Weckl, to counter-balance fusion sound of the electric ensemble. A second edition of the Elektric Band premiered in 1993 with Marienthal, guitarist Mike Miller, bassist Jimmy Earl, and drummer Gary Novak.


            Corea created his own Stretch Records imprint in 1992. At the end of his contract with GRP Records in 1996, the label became affiliated with Concord Records. His first release for the new venture was Remembering Bud Powell (1996 Stretch), featuring a group of young all-stars with trumpeter Wallace Roney, saxophonists Joshua Redman and Kenny Garrett, bassist Christian McBride, plus veteran drummer Roy Haynes. Corea also renewed his duo relationship with Gary Burton on Native Sense: The New Duets (1997 Stretch). Although it’s primarily a vehicle for Corea’s music, the label has released sessions by John Patitucci, Robben Ford, Bob Berg, and Bud Powell, among many others.


            In 1999, Corea introduced his new acoustic sextet with a splash by releasing the six CD boxed set, A Week At The Half Note (1998 Stretch). The band, Origin, featured Steve Davis on trombone, Steve Wilson and Bob Sheppard on woodwinds, Avishai Cohen on bass, and Jeff Ballard on drums. After a recording of his “Concerto No. 1" in London with Cohen, Ballard, and the London Philharmonic Orchestra (Corea.Concerto, 2000 Sony Classical), Corea embarked on a solo world tour which yielded two CDs of Solo Piano, Originals and Standards (both 2000 Stretch). His 60th birthday was celebrated with a series of shows at the Blue Note in New York in December 2001, uniting the disparate strands of his music with appearances by Origin, the Akoustic Band, a trio with Miroslav Vitous and Roy Haynes, the Remembering Bud Powell band, the Three Quartets group with Brecker, Gomez and Gadd, the New Trio with Cohen and Ballard, and duets with Gary Burton, Bobby McFerrin, and Gonzalo Rubalcaba. A two disc compilation, Rendezvous In New York (2003 Stretch), was taken from the nearly 60 hours of music that were taped. During the Blue Note stand, Corea took the opportunity to join Marian McPartland on her Piano Jazz radio show, an appearance subsequently issued on CD by The Jazz Alliance. Corea’s most recent projects include two works directly inspired by the writings of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, To The Stars (2004 Stretch), and The Ultimate Adventure (2006 Stretch), plus a new collaboration with Gary Burton on The New Crystal Silence (2007 Concord). In 2008, Corea unexpectedly reformed Return To Forever with Stanley Clarke, Al DiMeola, and Lenny White for a wold tour.


            It’s safe to say that the abundantly talented and restlessly creative Chick Corea will continue to surprise and delight his many fans around the world for as long as he can.

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