“ I require a certain amount of ethics from anybody I work with. ”
Like his hero Thelonious Monk, Chick Corea's presence in jazz is impossible to avoid. Anyone who takes interest in Miles Davis' fusion groups of the 70s is aware that Corea played on Davis' monumental 1969 record Bitches Brew. Avant-garde-ists interested in Anthony Braxton will be familiar with the 70s group Circle, with Corea, Dave Holland and Barry Altschul. Acoustic jazz lovers will certainly be acquainted with Corea's great trio featuring Miroslav Vitous and Roy Haynes. 1981's Trio Music: Live in Europe is, for me, one of the records that justifies Corea's reputation as one of the four or five best contemporary jazz pianists. His handling of the tunes on that date was masterful to the degree of seeming sorcery. His dexterity is in top form, his touch light but sure, the notes produced with astonishing freedom, like little birds released into flight.
Throughout his career Corea has maintained a connection to Latin music. It's well known that, as a young musician, he worked in Mongo Santamaria's band and with others in the Latin scene. Corea himself made the point more bluntly years later with his album My Spanish Heart. Yet, what seems to me to be an under-examined aspect of his later music is a marked return to Latin sounds. If one listens carefully, this strain is unmistakably present in a lot of his music since the 60s, including his latest work.
Having been in on jazz fusion's beginnings in the 70s with Return to Forever, which blended jazz with classical, Latin, and other styles in a highly original manner, Corea returned to fusion a decade later, launching his Elektric Band's debut recording in 1986 and quickly releasing two more in the succeeding years. Jazz purists were mostly dismissive of these records, but they sold well and Corea stayed with the Elektric Band, releasing two additional albums of new material and a live recording before retiring that group, only to return a few years later with a new incarnation of the quartet. His latest Elektric Band release, To the Stars, based on the L. Ron Hubbard science fiction novel by that title, is perhaps Corea's message to the planet: "Get over it, purists. I'm going to keep doing this stuff!" He has reinstated the flashy guitarist Frank Gambale, John Patitucci (who, since leaving the original Elektric band has become one of jazz's busiest bassists), and the nimble Dave Weckl on drums.
The Elektric Band has dominated Corea's discography since 1986, and it dominates his thoughts today. I met with him at the recording studio in Sirius Satellite Radio's impressive Rockefeller Center facility. Copies of To the Stars, the CD, the L. Ron Hubbard novel, and an audio book version, all clad in metallic silver packaging, were arrayed on a coffee table nearby, materially emphasizing the main topic on Corea's mind these days. He had performed a few nights before at Lincoln Center's free Out of Doors series. Scientology is another topic Corea is more than willing to discuss. As we talked about the new record, L. Ron Hubbard and other topics, I noticed Chick still has his Boston accent, pronouncing art "aht" and New York "New Yahk." When something is said that registers strongly with him he snaps two fingers sharply and points as he seizes on the topic. In his sixties, his torso has expanded and rounded, one of the few outward signs of his success, and his longish hair is as much salt as pepper, but he shows no other serious signs of aging. He radiates a calm energy, and has the comportment of a well-liked university professor.
All About Jazz: You've been interviewed many times. What do you like to talk about?
Chick Corea: To be blatantly honest with you, the reason why I do interviews is to, mainly, let the public know what I'm doing, kind of like a newsletter. Right now I'm thoroughly immersed in this live performance music you heard the other night.
AAJ: With the exception of the space interludes, I heard a lot of Latin music in the record. I haven't listened to much fusion in a while, so I was hearing it fresh and didn't have much attitude or prejudice about it. What struck me was that some of it sounds like accomplished microtonal composing. I've heard you're a fan of Bartok.
CC: There are so many technical elements that go into making what you heard in the live performance, hundreds, maybe thousands that we could focus on, like the styles and rhythms, the orchestration, the fact that there's an electric guitar, etc. My comment on all this is that the best way to listen and understand music is just to listen to it real straight and try to get what it is and how it affects you rather than try to put it in a box. I personally don't know what to call this music. Call it what we want: jazz, fusion, rock, easy, hard, light, backwards, forwards. The music is constructed with a good deal of composition. Its definitely scored, but then we open up and improvise.