It would not be an exaggeration to say that Chick Corea (1941-2021) was a unique figure in jazz history. Not only had he long ago developed his own recognizable voices on piano, electric piano, and synthesizers and had been a major bandleader for 50 years, but he was always very enthusiastic about experiencing musical challenges. His joy at creating new music was always apparent in his playing and attitude, and he remained eternally youthful and musically curious. It seemed as if every few months he had a new band and project, yet he never really broke up any of his older ones, was very prolific, and was open to having reunions with nearly every musician from his past. During the last decade of his life, he was arguably the most important active jazz musician, playing with the youthfulness and energy of someone 1/3 his age.
Armando Anthony “Chick” Corea was born June 12, 1941 in Chelsea, Massachusetts. The son of a trumpeter, Corea began playing piano when he was four and drums at eight. As a teenager he performed locally (including a week with Cab Calloway), studied briefly at Columbia University and Juilliard (dropping out of both schools because he felt that he could learn more on the bandstand), and then never looked back.
Corea made his recording debut with Mongo Santamaria in 1962 and he worked and recorded with many greats in the 1960s including Willie Bobo, Blue Mitchell, Herbie Mann, and Cal Tjader. He debuted his classic original “Windows” on a Hubert Laws album in 1966 (Laws’ Cause). His period as Sarah Vaughan’s accompanist was cut short when Miles Davis hired him in 1968 to succeed Herbie Hancock. While with Mile Davis, although their work as a quintet was barely recorded, Chick Corea was part of the trumpeter’s highly influential fusion records with larger ensembles including In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew. In 1970 he left Miles Davis to head the avant-garde quartet Circle and then the following year, after deciding that he wanted to communicate more with audiences, he broke up Circle and soon formed Return To Forever with his new friend bassist Stanley Clarke. Other than occasional work with special all-star groups (including recording the classic Captain Marvel album with Stan Getz), Chick Corea was a leader from that point on.
# 1 – Now He Sings, Now He Sobs (Blue Note, 1968)
Chick Corea’s first album as a leader was 1966’s Tones For Joan’s Bones which found him playing everything from hard bop to freer explorations in a quintet with trumpeter Woody Shaw and tenor-saxophonist Joe Farrell. Now He Sings, Now He Sobs from two years later also covered a wide range but with a very versatile trio that teamed him with bassist Miroslav Vitous and drummer Roy Haynes. This famous album introduced Corea’s “Matrix” and included another version of “Windows.”
# 2 – Light As A Feather (Polydor, 1972)
Soon after he joined Miles Davis, Corea was persuaded by the trumpeter to switch to electric piano. At first a frustrated Corea resisted, trying to actually break the keyboard each night by hitting it hard, but he soon relented and became one of the very first to find his own musical personality on electric keyboards and synthesizers. After his period with Circle, Corea formed the first of three versions of Return To Forever, a light Brazilian fusion quintet with Clarke, Joe Farrell, Airto Moreira on drums/percussion, and singer Flora Purim. They were together for a year and recorded two albums. After their record Return To Forever, they followed up with Light As A Feather which includes the most famous version of “500 Miles High” and the first rendition of Corea’s best-known original, “Spain.”
# 3 – Hymn Of The Seventh Galaxy (Polydor, 1973)
After Flora & Airto left to form their own group, Corea and Clarke decided to form a second more rock-oriented version of Return To Forever. Lenny White joined on drums and for a year Bill Connors was the guitarist. Hymn Of The Seventh Galaxy is their one album with Connors and arguably the most rewarding of the electric RTF recordings, highlighted by the title cut and “Captain Senor Mouse.”
# 4 – Where Have I Known You Before (Polydor, 1974)
When Bill Connors departed, deciding that he wanted to play more acoustic music, his replacement was the remarkable 19-year old guitarist Al DiMeola, who was Return To Forever’s answer to John McLaughlin or Jimi Hendrix. Al DiMeola’s fiery playing helped Return To Forever to become one of the most popular of all the fusion bands. Where Have I Known You Before was DiMeola’s debut with the group and was followed by the equally exciting No Mystery and Romantic Warrior.
# 5 – My Spanish Heart (Polydor, 1976)
By 1976, Return To Forever had largely run its course although there would be a third version of RTF (a nine-piece group with six horns and Corea’s wife Gayle Moran on vocals) for a period in 1977. With the end of the second Return To Forever, Corea was free to work on any projects that he desired with whoever he chose. He had already recorded his first of many duet albums with vibraphonist Gary Burton and in 1978 he would perform and record acoustic piano duets with Herbie Hancock. My Spanish Heart was one of his finest freelance projects of the era, a Spanish-flavored outing that focused on his keyboard work in a variety of settings. Most memorable is the three-part “El Bozo” and “Armando’s Rhumba” which co-starred violinist Jean-Luc Ponty.
# 6 – Three Quartets (Stretch, 1981)
Corea recorded several outstanding acoustic sets during this period including separate quartet albums with tenors Joe Farrell and Joe Henderson. Three Quartets teams him with the great tenor Michael Brecker, bassist Eddie Gomez, and drummer Steve Gadd including on originals dedicated to Duke Ellington and John Coltrane. Brecker’s unaccompanied playing on Charlie Parker’s “Confirmation” reminds one of the huge void caused by his premature death.
# 7 – Eye Of The Beholder (GRP, 1988)
A decade after the end of Return To Forever, Corea formed a new permanent group, the Elektric Band. By 1987 the personnel had solidified with bassist John Patitucci, drummer Dave Weckl, altoist Eric Marienthal, and guitarist Frank Gambale all benefiting from being part of Corea’s band. They recorded several albums, including Inside Out and Beneath The Mask, and had regular reunions with further recordings during the next 25 years. The Elektric Band’s brand of fusion was less rock-oriented and more melodic than Return To Forever although they often appealed to the same audience. Eye Of The Beholder was arguably their definitive set. In contrast, Corea also performed and recorded with his Akoustic Band, a trio with Patitucci and Weckl.
# 8 – Origin – (Stretch, 1997-98)
By the early 1990s, the Elektric Band was more of a part-time affair and Corea was jumping from one rewarding collaboration to another including leading a quintet that paid tribute to bop pianist Bud Powell with modernized arrangements (it included trumpeter Wallace Roney, altoist Kenny Garrett, bassist Christian McBride, and drummer Roy Haynes), duets with the adventurous and witty singer Bobby McFerrin, solo recordings, and additional meetings with Gary Burton. Origin was one of Corea’s most straight ahead jazz groups, a quintet with trombonist Steve Davis, Steve Wilson and Bob Sheppard on reeds, bassist Avishai Cohen, and drummer Adam Cruz. Their self-titled recording is an excellent single disc snapshot of the band while A Week At The Blue Note is a six-CD set that never lets up. The combination of jazz standards and originals always sounds fresh when played by musicians of this caliber who were clearly inspired by Corea’s presence and ideas.
# 9 – Five Peace Band Live (Concord, 2008)
Chick Corea’s final 20 years found him constantly alternating between new collaborations and reunions that emphasized new ideas without ever trying to merely recreate the past. To celebrate his sixtieth birthday, in 2001 Corea performed with nine different groups at New York’s Blue Note over a two-week period; the two-CD set Rendezvous In New York (Stretch) has some of the highlights. In 2008 a long hoped-for reunion of the classic version of Return To Forever (with DiMeola, Clarke and White) took place, resulting in a tour and the two-CD set Return To Forever Returns (Eagle). But more importantly for Corea, in 2008 he led a new all-star group, the Five Peace Band. Joined by John McLaughlin, Kenny Garrett, Christian McBride, and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, Corea blended together aspects of Miles Davis’ early fusion band with some bebop, pushing and challenging McLaughlin (and vice versa) in memorable fashion.
# 10 – Antidote (Concord, 2019)
Corea’s last decade included The Musician (a three-CD set with highlights from his 48 shows with 10 different bands in celebration of his 70th birthday at the Blue Note), a tribute to Bill Evans (Further Explorations on Concord in 2010), leading Trilogy (a trio with Christian McBride and drummer Brian Blade), orchestral projects, and solo sessions. Chick Corea’s last significant group (the Spanish Heart Band), which is showcased on Antidote, featured three horns, Latin percussion, and music that reflected its composer’s love for Spanish music.
There are dozens of other very worthy Chick Corea recordings, but these ten diverse yet equally satisfying albums are a perfect way to start exploring his remarkably vast musical legacy.
Scott Yanow, jazz journalist/historian and author of 11 books including The Jazz Singers, The Great Jazz Guitarists, Trumpet Kings, Jazz On Film, and Jazz On Record 1917-76.
10 Essential Chick Corea Albums article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2021
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