Armando Anthony “Chick” Corea, named after his musician father, is a living legend of jazz. One of the few that remains – he’s worked with Miles Davis and Sarah Vaughan, with Stan Getz and Herbie Hancock. You will find him on a stage playing solo piano, or composing for full orchestra. You will find his music in various sub-genres of jazz and classical – there are flamenco-infused and fusion-influenced/influencing albums. You can hear him playing with a trio or quartet or in a duo – he’s playing in Wellington early next month with Gary Burton; they’ve worked together on and off across 40 years, they’re one of the headliners of the Wellington Jazz Festival.
The sporadic partnership with Burton creates, as Corea explains, “a magic that happens and it’s hard to explain. There’s something special about my relationship with Gary that keeps going – we rarely rehearse and yet it always falls into place each time we perform together. It’s a collaboration we both enjoy and it works every time. So we keep doing it”.
For their Wellington show Corea says it will be a case, as it always is, of Gary “coming in with an idea, then I’ll add my ideas – and we come up with the show. It doesn’t matter much what our repertoire is as it’s always fun no matter what we play”.
Corea’s musical path was “a decision” but one that seems to have been predestined. “My dad Armando had his own orchestra and I remember when I was very young getting to stay up late, my father would come home with his musicians and my mother would fix them a late-night pasta dinner, she was a very Italian mother; amazing cook. My dad was my initial music teacher but he never pressured me – I just took to it and it looked like fun. And then it kept being fun!”
“My mother, Anna, was at a neighbour’s funeral and it was a gather at the deceased’s family home. She saw an upright piano and decided later to buy it for me. I was only four years old and I liked it very much. And continued to like the best of any other instruments – except maybe drums”.
Taking up the drums around the age of eight, Corea was playing trio jazz in high school before studying, briefly at Columbia and Juilliard. Those acclaimed programs couldn’t keep Corea interested – it was the actual playing, not studying, that he craved. Even now, he says the chance to perform solo is “the chance to practice; to rehearse”.
And though he has retained an interest – and ability – in drums and percussion he made the switch to piano in that high school band. “I had a trio with friends – I played drums. There was a bassist and pianist. The piano player quit the band we had some gigs to do, so I went ahead and played piano. And kept playing. I guess it just happened that way, I kept getting attacted to the piano to work things out”.
The early influences, largely from his father, included the classical artists such as Beethoven and Mozart, the musicians in his father’s band also and then – more specifically – the music of Horace Silver, Duke Ellington and Bud Powell.
Corea’s first big gig was backing Cab Calloway, he points to work with Blue Mitchell as being the real start of his career as a composer and then, just as he was taking his own tentative steps as a leader, he found further work with big-name players, Stan Getz and Sarah Vaughan. And then of course with Miles Davis.
“Having those experiences and performances with the likes of Stan, Sarah and Miles really set me up on the road to do my own solo career and become a leader of my own band. They showed me different ways how to inspire and instil and, to be honest, performing with them was thrill after thrill – just the best experiences ever”.
Of working for Miles, Corea says, “he had great artistic integrity – I really admire that! He never asked for a license to survive, in the face of all the critics and jazz purists he was changing the form of his music by adapting and integrating what he heard and saw. Miles set the pace!”
The deep, dark funk of the Miles Davis band across the last 1960s and early 1970s would have a huge influence on Corea’s next moves. There was the band Circle, formed with Dave Holland – also from the Miles band of that time. And then it was on to Return To Forever.
When those records are mentioned, that time in Corea’s career, he says simply, “I feel very proud of them [the Return to Forever records] and it was a whole new direction for me certainly, a great and exciting time of my life”.
It was around this time that the duo work with Gary Burton first started.
Corea explains further his approach, saying, “I don’t have a set way of working – and for each and any project the thrill of it has been what has dictated. In terms of remembering particular albums and settings, that’s difficult and also a task for memory. Each one has its own memories and at the time I’m recording, whether as a sideman or leader it is always something I’ ve wanted to do and have loved doing”.
That fondness for the craft, for the need to perform, extends over to the live setting. Corea’s been prolific as both recording and touring artist and says he can’t think of anything else he’d rather be doing (“I enjoy it immensely”). He says “there’s nothing mystical about it – you just keep at something that you enjoy. And I enjoy this. It gives me great pleasure to work – so I’ve always continued to work”.
“I don’t have a set way of working and composing and arranging; it comes as it seems it must. There’s really no pattern – I am always writing so sometimes a tune can be sitting around in my files for years and I’ll bring it out and realize it’s perfect for a current project”.
“There’s an intimacy about it – I enjoy it. And I feel like I’m in my living room playing. And, as I said, it give me a chance to actually practice the piano”.
Corea’s first live show in New Zealand was in 2007, a solo performance. Reviewing it for The Dominion Post I was won over by Corea paying tribute to Ellington (Sophisticated Lady), Thelonius Monk (Monk’s Mood, Four In One) and the recently departed Paco de Lucia (The Yellow Nimbus). There were quaint pieces from Russian composer Alexander Scriabin, references to Debussy and Satie and a set of Corea’s own Children’s Songs as well as a gorgeous tracing of Bill Evan’s Very Early. The concert was warmly received and Corea seemed to play for hours. He was energised, focussed and he remembers a happy time on that first trip.
We were a good audience for him too.
“Absolutely. I love playing for audiences of all kinds. There’s certainly no lack of diversity among audiences. Each night, each venue is a new experience – a new set of people in the audience and so a new challenge. Hard to categorize one audience to the next. I never know”.
But there’s no high-mindedness from Corea in terms of the audience and his expectations. He wants just one thing: “that they show up and be themselves”.
Corea is excited to be returning to New Zealand (“I look forward to performing there once more”) and says the main thing that distinguishes his music, the translation from page to stage as it were, is that “all the music I play was written in the ‘past’ – but it always gets performed in the ‘present’”.