A Groovy Chick (Corea)

And so, another meta-obituary., so shortly after that for John Russell.

I found out this morning about the passing of Chick Corea on Tuesday of this week, at the grand age of 79, leaving in his ‘wake’ recordings that span six decades. Corea really only impinged on my listening life for a couple of years, 1973 and  1974, but, as with all musicians who enter one’s sphere of influence in the teenage years, however briefly, their work can leave a profound mark, and so it was with myself and Chick Corea. This short piece thus cannot pretend to any degree of an longitudinal overview, which will no doubt be provided by many other writers, but this is my own small acknowledgement of his undoubted richly deserved place in the room of ‘jazz greats’.

Like so many others of my generation, I first came across the (electric, or should that be eclectic?) piano work of Chick Corea on those pivotal Miles Davis albums, 1968′s Filles de Kilimanjaro (on two tracks only, however), 1969′s In a Silent Way, and Bitches Brew/Live at Fillmore from 1970. I was entranced by the keyboard tapestries created by Corea, Joe Zawinul, Herbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett, shimmering fields that provided the underlay for Miles’s magic carpet. As with Jarrett (whose recording career also now sadly, through illness, appears to be at its end), I moved towards the then-nascent ECM Records to explore what mischief these two great young keyboardists were getting up to elsewhere.

Jarrett had produced his very first solo album Facing You and Ruta + Daitya  (with Jack de Johnette) in 1971, two much less grandiose projects than the Miles Experiment, and Chick came up with two discs of miniature masterpieces, Solo Piano Improvisations 1 + 2 , also in the same year. I was entranced by these albums, as I was generally with all the early ECM recordings (1969-1973), which also include the Corea trio with Dave Holland and Barry Altschul called A.R.C. (ECM 1009), a direct precursor to the short-lived quartet Circle (basically A.R.C. + Anthony Braxton) and their epochal double album Paris Concert (ECM 1018/9), which was about as far-out as Corea ever got. Growing tensions between Corea’s more ‘commercial’ ambitions and Braxton’s ‘concept’, and, perhaps linked to this, the former’s enthusiastic adoption of Scientology, led to a fracture after only a few months. (Corea went on his merry way to considerable popular successes (L. Ron, rather than Freddie Hubbard?), and the Chicagoan took Holland and Altschul on a more more ascetic journey (i.e to the celebrated Braxton Quartets of the mid-1970s, with Kenny Wheeler and George E. Lewis). The mid-70s iteration of the Return To Forever ‘elektric band’ left most of us in little doubt as to which group was the more creative and challenging, but ‘challenging’ was seldom the ‘clear’ Corea’s main motivation. 

Corea stayed with ECM for the marvellous Return to Forever (ECM 1022), which was a perfect meeting of post-bop jazz and Spanish(ish) tinges, and which remains one of ECM’s ‘instant classics’. I lost interest with Corea soon after, disappointed with his subsequent Light as a Feather (again with Flora Purim and Airto Moreira), moving on to other musical challenges in that most amazing of eras for recorded musics. I did, however, manage to catch a slightly later iteration of Corea’s subsequent Return to Forever (in 1974, perhaps, with Bill Connors and Lenny White, I think?), but came away more impressed with the supporting band, none other than the good old ‘chin-scratch modernists’, Henry Cow. Corea, of course, like Hancock and Jarrett (the latter with indecent haste), eventually returned to the acoustic piano and jazz’s ‘classical virtues’, as it were, but I’ll always remember him as portrayed on the 1970 Isle of Wight ‘Call It Anything’ performance by the Miles Davis septet of the time, all hunched up intensity and exhilaration, a young pianist who knew he was going places (and had been since his earliest recordings in 1966). 

Here was a jazz musician, who will engender many much-deserved tributes to a variegated career, across a range of styles and idioms. His enthusiastic adoption of Scientology many years ago makes some of us wonder whether this was some sort of puzzling oyster grit, but I always like it when an artist leaves a degree of ambiguity in his legacy (even if  L. Ron Hubbard’s schtick was unambiguous in the extreme). Corea left much joy in his many recordings, and that very much should be enough, and very much what he wasnted.

Custom Post Images

The banner picture is by the late Mal Dean (1941-1974), which featured on the cover of the 1972 Incus Records vinyl release, Live Performances at Verity's Place, by two free improvisation pioneers, the English guitarist Derek Bailey and Dutch percussionist Han Bennink.