By Danny R. Johnson – Jazz and Pop Music Critic
Chick Corea, the virtuosic keyboardist who broadened the scope of jazz during a career spanning more than five decades, died on February 9, 2021, from a rare cancer form. Corea was 79.
This was the paradox of Corea: Throughout the years of his most significant exposure, he was, at the same time, was one of the most challenging and accessible pianists. His work bristled with thorny dissonances and sizzled with rhythmic energy. He drew from an eclectic well of inspiration from Bartok to salsa, cerebral now and then burning with montuno spice.
The last time I talked with Corea and witnessed this masterful musician in action was in New York City at the May 11, 2013, memorial service celebrating the late Dave Brubeck’s life.
During my discussions with Corea on a myriad of musical subjects, I marvel at his adventurousness which could not be denied, but neither could his listenability. No matter how he roamed in his reharmonizations, Corea never left the listener behind. Though at times in some of his recordings, his tune was not always apparent in his solos, fidelity to the idea of melody persisted. For all the polyrhythms and sharp staccato attacks, something in his playing invited audiences to create their melodies around his fragmented improvisations. His music was musical, and he brought out the best in his listeners.
From the first moments of his career as a pianist, Corea’s formidable talents were evident. But for quite a few years, he affiliated himself with the avant-garde; on his early work with the iconoclastic first incarnation of Circle, he seemed unconcern with catering toward the mainstream. It was a tribute to his artistry that he could find a way to extend his reach as an artist without significant compromise.
In the beginning, Corea drew almost exclusively from the post-bop tradition. After his father, he was born with the name Armando, who worked in the Boston area as a trumpeter and bandleader. Corea was just four years old when he started picking out familiar tunes on the piano. By that time, he had already demonstrated enthusiasm for percussion instruments. In later interviews, Corea would insist that all pianists learn how to play the drums; in his case, the connection between rhythm and melody proved central to his creativity.
There was plenty of influence in the air as he was growing up. Spirits of Bud Powell, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, and Dizzy Gillespie mingled with those of Beethoven and Mozart. Piano lessons with Salvatore Sulo encouraged his appreciation for divergent traditions. Corea applied his education to gigs with jazz and Latin dance bands and meticulous transcriptions of solos by Horace Silver during high school.
Eventually, Corea knew he was equipped sufficiently to work professionally. He won admission to Columbia University in 1959, then dropped out to start playing in New York clubs. Like Miles Davis, he briefly attended Julliard School of Music; years later, he would remember Peter Schickele, known for his P.D.Q. Bach parodies, as a favorite teacher. Though he had practiced intensively to get into that top school for virtuosos, Corea bailed out in 1960, moved into a flat on 71st Street, and submitted himself entirely to the musicians’ life. Opportunities presented themselves almost immediately as the word of the young pianist spread. He spent 1962 and 1963 backing up Willie Bobo and Mongo Santamaria. From 1964 through 1966, he worked with Blue Mitchell, the first artist to record something written by Corea called “Chick’s Tune” on “A Thing to Do” album. He made his debut as a leader in 1966, with “Tunes for Joan’s Bones,” accompanied by saxophonist Joe Farrell, trumpeter Woody Shaw, bassist Steve Swallow, and drummer Joe Chambers. For a year, he toured as Sarah Vaughan’s accompanist. Then, in 1968 he produced his second album, “Now He Sings, Now He Sobs,” backed by bassist Miroslav Vitous and drummer Roy Haynes.
Corea’s break came that same year when he accepted an invitation to follow Herbie Hancock in the keyboard chair with Miles Davis. His tenure marked a crucial period in Davis’ movement from post-bop to collective improvisation, and on such albums as “Filles de Kilimanjaro,” “Bitches Brew,” “Miles Davis at the Fillmore,” and “In a Silent Way,” Corea occupied ground zero during a tumultuous period of jazz exploration. The lessons he learned on these projects, about listening to his colleagues at a higher level of perception and fewer preconceptions, would affect him musically and philosophically as the era of fusion jazz began.
In terms of Jazz piano tradition, Corea based his work on respect for his audience’s discernment. His approach to rhythm in solo settings is tempered by ample experience at playing within rhythm sections; he keeps the momentum flowing through free interaction between his hands rather than articulating any pulse. The bebop element is emphatic in his left-hand comps; one can imagine bass and drums laying down a pattern without significantly changing Corea’s performance. He hears a rhythm section in his head, and because of his lively sense of pulse, the listener heard it too. His interpretation of the ballad “My Ship” on the 1994 solo album “Expressions” shows how Corea’s harmonic sensibility extends to the fullest possible range of intricacy without ever abandoning the melodic and accessible essence of the tune. Unlike melody, the rhythm is to be implied rather than articulated; it is Corea’s nature to suggest the beat through allusions to the piano’s role within a rhythm section, with full chords and breathing rubato.
Even so, the furor over Corea’s fusion experiments is long past. And in recent years, as demonstrated in recent albums with jazz luminaries such as Joshua Redman and Christian McBride, Corea proved that his vision was correct after all. His lesson is that one can achieve greatness without alienating the public. Musicians and audiences alike are forever in his debt.