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Chick Corea Interview

By Mark Towns
Published: May 27 2008, JazzHouston

Seventies jazz-rock fusion icons Return to Forever, with their classic lineup of keyboardist Chick Corea, bassist Stanley Clarke, guitarist Al Di Meola and drummer Lenny White, are set to perform in Houston this Saturday night, May 31 at Verizon Wireless Theatre.

I saw this lineup on their first tour together in 1974, and it was a world shaking phenomenon -- the kind of crazy chemistry and energy that only comes along -- well, every 25 years in this case, which is how long it's been since they last toured together. Houston will be the third stop on their summer-long world tour, which takes them across the U.S. as well as to France, Spain, and the Montreux Jazz Festival.

Chick Corea was born Armando Anthony Corea in Chelsea, Massachusetts on June 12, 1941 and began piano studies at age four. He quickly became one of the baddest cats to ever play the instrument, as well as one of jazz's most exciting and prolific composers.

The list of his early performing credits is nothing short of amazing. His first major professional gig was with Cab Calloway, followed by stints in the Latin bands of Mongo Santamaria and Willie Bobo. He went on to play with trumpeter Blue Mitchell, flutist Herbie Mann and saxophonist Stan Getz before making his recording debut as a leader in 1966 with Tones for Joan's Bones. Around this same time period, Chick also recorded sessions with Cal Tjader (1966's Soul Burst), Stan Getz (1966's What The World Needs Now: Stan Getz Plays Bacharach), Donald Byrd (1967's Creeper), and Dizzy Gillespie (1967's Live at the Village Vanguard).

After a stint backing Sarah Vaughan in 1967, Chick replaced Herbie Hancock in Miles Davis' band in 1968. He played Fender Rhodes on Miles' classic Filles de Kilimanjaro, and between 1968 and 1970, Corea also appeared on Miles Davis' most influential jazz-rock ventures, In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew, Live-Evil and Live at the Fillmore East. Chick also performed with Davis' band before 600,000 people on August 29, 1970 at the Isle of Wight Festival in England.

In 1971, Chick formed the first version of Return To Forever with Stanley Clarke on acoustic bass, Joe Farrell on soprano sax and flute, Airto Moreira on drums and percussion and his wife Flora Purim on vocals. In 1972, they recorded their self-titled debut album. Also in 1972, Chick, Stanley, Airto and drummer Tony Williams recorded the album Captain Marvel with Stan Getz, which featured five Corea compositions including "500 Miles High," "La Fiesta" and the title track. In the latter part of 1972, Corea was back in the studio with the original Return To Forever lineup to record the classic Brazilian jazz flavored Light As A Feather, which included new versions of "500 Miles High" and "Captain Marvel" along with Chick's best-known composition, "Spain."

In 1973, Return To Forever took a more rocking, fusion turn, as the personnel changed. Corea kept Clarke from the original lineup and added guitarist Bill Connors and drummer Lenny White (another Miles alumnus). This lineup produced the 1973 recording, Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy. In 1974, 19-year-old guitarist Al Di Meola replaced Connors in the RTF lineup, and the classic lineup was in place, producing 1974's Where Have I Known You Before, 1975's No Mystery, and 1976's Grammy Award-winning Romantic Warrior.

I spoke with Chick Corea recently about the tour, as well as about the songwriting process itself, and how he wrote his biggest hit, "Spain."

MT: Why did you guys decide to do the reunion?

CC: It's just a natural thing for us to want to play together. We'd been talking about it for years. And finally we found a way to make our schedules open up and make it happen. But the talk about it's been going on for a long time.

MT: Why did RTF break up in the first place?

CC: We never broke up. We reached a point where it felt like to do our solo bands and make our solo records was the right thing to do. And everyone really wanted to do that.

MT: Are you going to be doing any material from each of your solo records?

CC: No. The choice, from the consensus from all the guys, was we wanted to dip into the repertoire that we created for those first four recordings that we did in the 70's. So we're gonna make that be the basis of our show. There'll be rearranging and there'll be a lot of different approaches. And there'll also be some offerings of new ideas, new music as the tour goes along, I'm sure.

MT: Are you doing an acoustic portion of the show?

CC: For sure. Yeah, we all wanna do that. Stanley loves playing the acoustic bass. And piano is my basic instrument. And Al has developed a real, great love for the acoustic guitar. We're definitely gonna play some acoustic stuff.

MT: Are you going to play "Spain?"

CC: (Laughs.) I don't know. We don't have it in the plan right now but everyone knows the tune, and we might use it as a jam.

MT: How long will the show be?

CC: I can't tell at this point. We haven't played enough yet and rehearsed enough and gotten the music flow going yet. So, it ain't gonna be 10 minutes, we're gonna definitely dig in. But we don't have a set plan yet for that.

MT: Are you going to go way back and do anything from the original RTF (Chick Corea and Stanley Clarke with Flora Purim, Airto Moreira, and Joe Farrell)?

CC: I don't think so. That music kind of requires those original members, although the songs could be played in a lot of different ways. I think we're gonna start with the basic repertoire that the quartet developed.

MT: Will the band be reading music on stage? [They did on their last tour in 1983.]

CC: I hope not! (Big laugh.)

MT: How are the rehearsals feeling?

CC: We haven't rehearsed yet.

MT: Oh, really?

CC: We got together for a couple of days in L.A. It was kind of a rehearsal, but not really. It was more for the purpose of getting together to talk about the tour, and we took some photos and did some interviews to promote the fact that we were coming. But the real rehearsals are gonna begin in about a week and a half to two weeks. [Just a few days from the beginning of the tour, which commences May 29 in Austin. - MT]

MT: Will there be a new RTF CD?

CC: Not right away. There wasn't time to really develop new music. What we did was a wonderful remix of (our recordings) from the 70's -- an anthology of all of the best of those tracks remixed and remastered. And really, I had been wanting to do that for so many years -- to enhance the sound of those original recordings. It really came out well. So the anthology will accompany the tour.

MT: Are you filming the tour for a DVD?

CC: Probably we'll do some films. Yeah. I think there'll be some camera crews here and there, and hopefully a DVD will come of it.

MT: Are you going to be doing any surprises or cover tunes?

CC: Well, we haven't really begun the music yet. Anything could happen. I'm really not sure at this point.

MT: Are there any of your songs that you're most proud of?

CC: I kind of don't look at it that way. The process of making music is what I love. It's just interesting to see the response I get when I get compositions out. The musicians like to play certain ones. And the audience likes to hear certain ones. But as far as I'm concerned, I just like the process of making music.

MT: Are there any of your songs that you?re sick of playing?

CC: (Laughs.) I got sick of playing Spain years ago.

MT: Then you rearranged it, right?

CC: Then I rearranged it a bunch of times, and tried to reinvent the song. But really, the requests that came, people wanted to hear the tune, you know. Just the want of the fans' requests is what kept me playing Spain. Now I just kind of use it as a jam tune whenever the spirit hits.

MT: I heard that Lenny was having a problem with his arm. Is he okay?

CC: It's not affecting the music, but we're all getting rickety!

MT: Yeah, tell me about it - we all are.

CC: Just drink lots of water and keep moving?

MT: What do you call the music of Return to Forever?

CC: I just call it our music. Meaning, these particular four musicians get together and they make this kind of music - our music.

MT: What do you think about the term "fusion?"

CC: I'm really cool with any terms people want to put on anything. It's up to them. Just as long as it doesn't get confusing to think that everyone thinks that way. I know that the musicians usually don't think in categories.

MT: Right. Tell me your thoughts on the climate at the time in the 70's that produced the whole wave of fusion.

CC: Well, you know, that's actually one of the more memorable feelings of this music and of the 70's, because it wasn't just RTF that was making the music that we were making. It was Mahavishnu Orchestra. It was Herbie Hancock, always doing something new with Headhunters and his other projects. It was Weather Report and Jaco Pastorius, Larry Coryell and 11th House. Tony Williams started things off with Lifetime right after he left Miles. There was just a tremendous amount of creativity going on. And, interestingly enough, a lot of it stems from the musicians who came from Miles' band.

MT: What did Miles Davis learn from you?

CC: I have no idea and it's too late to ask (laughs).

MT: Do you think that fusion, for lack of a better word, will have a resurgence?

CC: I don't know. These are all sociological questions, which is kind of not my area. (You'd have to) put your Swami hat on and get into predictions.

MT: Yeah.

CC: My hope is for a resurgence of creativity, period, in all art forms. Creativity in music would mean not necessarily a return to a past form, but would mean reinventing forms, or coming up with new forms, or taking what seems like an old form and making it totally new, which is what we're gonna try and do this summer.

MT: Cool. Did you have an original vision for RTF, or was it a case of people like Miles and the other fusion pioneers you just mentioned influencing each other?

CC: Well, influences are one thing, but when it comes around to making your own strokes, it was definitely a dream I had to make a musical group that could communicate widely and broadly, that could communicate a very high quality level of instrumental music first, even though I had Flora (Purim) in the band singing. My intent was to communicate a kind of fine music that I really loved to audiences everywhere.

MT: Can you say anything about the Latin influence on your music?

CC: Well, it's one of the culturally major inspirations to me, since I was in high school working with Latin dance bands. And then when I came to New York, I began working with Mongo Santamaría, Willie Bobo, Patato Valdés and some of the other great Latin players. And then later on at the end of the sixties and the beginning of the seventies, I started to meet and learn the flamenco music of Spain. Through Airto and Flora, I learned a lot about Brazilian music and samba -- also through João Gilberto's beautiful music, Gilberto and Jobim's music in the sixties and seventies. So, yes, the Spanish-speaking world and the music that came from it, and also from the merging between Spanish music and African music, is probably the deepest influence on me.

MT: Are you of Spanish descent?

CC: No, my grandparents both on my father's side and my mother's side are Italian. My mother's folks come from Sicily and my father's folks come from Colossia, which is in the south of Italy. The familial groove is a lot the same as Spanish-speaking families.

MT: Can you describe your songwriting process?

CC: I don't have a rote way of writing. And the reason for writing comes in a lot of different forms as well. The most productive one, though, is where I have a project to write for, and especially with musicians that I know that I'm gonna be writing for and who I'm gonna be playing with. That's the most fertile ground for me, when I see what I'm doing and I write toward it. Like, I wrote the music -- I call it tone poetry -- to two of the books of L. Ron Hubbard. And that was a vision that I had before I wrote the music, and I knew what I was going for. I knew the musicians I'd be writing for. I had the text that I was writing with. And then I'm most productive. Sometime I write as a practice or as an experiment. Just musically, I'll try out a new technique or just fool around with something, but nothing really ever comes to fruition until I have an actual live project.

MT: Do you write at the piano or the keyboard?

CC: Any way that it comes. I may carry a melody around in my head. I may wake up with one from a dream. I may pick something up as I listen to the radio. I may sit at the keyboard and put some things down on a sequencer. I may pick up a pencil and write some phrases down. I do that less and less often, though, because I'm more and more using electronic notation, which I find a great tool to use. Or I'll just sit down at the piano and improvise and get the flow of my consciousness going and then try to and capture it in notes.

MT: When you sit down at the piano like that, are you recording it some kind of way?

CC: No, because it becomes too much of a problem to then transcribe it. One of the best tools for improvising written music is a sequencer like Logic. I use Logic, so I'll sit down at my computer with a keyboard and improvise into it, but then I'll have the notes there (on the computer) that I improvised. That often can become a composition.

MT: What do you do when a song idea comes to you and you're not around a keyboard or piano?

CC: It's like viewing a waterfall or a river. It just keeps coming. You just have to stop every now and again and take a drink.

MT: So you've never been in a car or something and great idea comes to you, and you think, "I've gotta remember this?"

CC: And then I never do! That happens a lot. You know, like, I'll be going, "Wow, that'd be great." I'm singing this phrase and I think, well Lenny could do this, and Stanley could do that and we could play this game. And sometimes I'll even write some notes down on a piece of paper to try and remember it, but a lot of the times that moment goes up in smoke. (Laughs) I have to try it again.

MT: Can you tell me how you wrote "Spain?" Where were you and how did it happen?

CC: I was in New York living on 90th Street and Broadway. I had just met Gayle, my wife now of 36 years. We were seeing each other. I had the first Return to Forever band going with Stanley Clarke, Airto Moreira, Flora Purim, and Joe Farrell. And, I remember it -- it was during one of the breaks when I was at home. I was fooling around with the theme melody to the second movement of "Concierto de Aranjuez" by the Spanish composer Rodrigo. It's in B minor and it has this haunting, beautiful melody that's actually very well known. And I just started playing off it, and played some other things. I put in some other rhythm, and out of that came "Spain." When I recorded it, and often when I perform the song, I use as an introduction Rodrigo's "Concierto."

MT: What about the break in it?

CC: Oh, that's just a lick (laughs). That's just part of the arrangement.

MT: Did you hear that in your head first, or did you just play and it came?

CC: I never know, man. I just, you know, there it is and I write it down.

MT: I recently was at a little backstage meet and greet for Stevie Wonder after a show he did. He sits back there while people come up and meet him and plays a keyboard (probably for his own entertainment).

CC: Yeah.

MT: And he was playing "Spain."

CC: Oh yeah? Cool. Yeah, well he's a good friend. We have a very strong mutual admiration society going. I totally love Stevie. He's a big, big inspiration to me. He attains that goal that I like to strive for, which is very fine music and beautiful emotions and thoughts to a very, very wide public in his singing and his writing. I'd say he's one of my favorite artists of all time.

MT: Mine, too. In your opinion, is there a spiritual element to composing and to improvising?

CC: You know, the word is probably misunderstood a lot, because all of life is spiritual, from raging wars and complete insanity all the way to the most sublime, beautiful art and relationships. It's all spiritual, man. Nothing happens without a spirit being there doing it and observing it. That's my opinion.

MT: Is there any big misconception about you?

CC: (Laughs) Hey, man. That's a real reporter's question. I don't know. You know, who cares? Who cares to list their misconceptions?

MT: How would you like to be remembered?

CC: I don't care. I would like to be remembered as people would like to remember me.

MT: I asked John McLaughlin that and he said pretty much the same thing. He said "I don't care, I won't be here."

CC: (Laughs) Yeah right. (Laughs).

MT: That's cool.

CC: Good. Those were pretty good questions, man.

MT: By the way, where'd the name "Chick" come from?

CC: My Auntie! She used to squeeze my cheek and go "Chicky, Chicky, Chicky!"


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