13.02.2021 | Artist
Pianist Armando Anthony “Chick” Corea, one of the great improvising musicians of our time, a player with an extraordinary range, has died aged 79. Polystylistic from the outset, as a young man he’d played Latin music with Mongo Santamaria, bebop with Blue Mitchell and briefly studied contemporary composition at the Juilliard School, primed and eager to transcend genre at every turn. In the 1960s he lent his creative energies to recordings from Stan Getz’s “Sweet Rain” to Miles Davis’s “Bitches Brew”, while his own album “Now He Sings, Now he Sobs”, with Miroslav Vitous and Roy Haynes raised the bar for interactive piano trio playing.
Chick’s recordings in the very early years of ECM all endure as strikingly original statements. He was a presence already on the fourth album issued by the label, contributing textural piano beneath floating clouds of percussion on Marion Brown’s mysterious “Afternoon of a Georgia Faun”, recorded in August 1970.
In April 1971 Manfred Eicher and Chick traveled to Oslo to record “Piano Improvisations”, subsequently issued in two volumes. This was the beginning of ECM’s highly influential solo piano series (soon to be continued by Keith Jarrett and Paul Bley). Manfred Eicher: “It was hearing Chick’s sound on the piano, his crystal clear touch, and his free approach to music that made me want to develop the solo piano project.”
In 1972, the fledgling ECM label only issued four albums, and three of them were by Chick Corea. There was the second volume of the “Piano Improvisations”, whose delights included a charming account of Monk’s “Trinkle, Tinkle” (much more Monk would follow in the years ahead), and the fiery and radical “Paris Concert” on which Chick was joined by Anthony Braxton, Dave Holland and Barry Altschul in the collective group Circle. And then, confounding contemporary expectations, came Return To Forever – the first edition of this long-lasting band, with Flora Purim, Joe Farrell, Stanley Clark and Airto Morteira – which swept listeners away with its buoyant Latin rhythms, bright melodies, and outgoing optimistic spirit.
Manfred Eicher: “It was challenging and exciting, as a young producer from Munich, to be part of this project in New York, together with engineer Tony May at A & R studios. The whole band had a wonderful energy, as they played Chick’s compositions. And Chick’s sound on the Fender Rhodes was beautiful, luminous, hypnotic.”
“Crystal Silence”, a further creative landmark, introduced the piano and vibes duo of Corea and Gary Burton who played together every year for more than four decades, perfecting a virtuosic chamber music of their own (aptly augmented with strings on 1982’s “Lyric Suite”). Chick and Gary were quickly able to anticipate each other’s improvisational responses, phrasing, and rhythmic accentuation. The result was often breathtaking: an effervescence of melody and countermelody, with synchronized cascades of sound… “I’d call our music true contemporary music,” Chick had said back in 1974. “Classical music has influenced our music harmonically and formally…What I’m striving for is incorporating the subtlety and beauty of harmony, melody and form with the looseness and rhythmic dancing quality of jazz and more folky musics.”
“Children’s Songs”, solo Chick, presented beautifully phrased aphoristic pieces that prompted critical comparisons with Bartók’s “Mikrokosmos” and Kurtág’s “Játékok” series.
In 1981, the trio with Vitous and Haynes was revived, coming together for the first time since 1967. “It was as if no time had passed at all”, said Chick. They continued where they’d left off, and added plenty of Thelonious Monk to the repertoire, drawing heavily on Roy Haynes’s direct knowledge of working with the master of finding freedom inside the song.
Always encouraging to younger players, and revered as a teacher, Corea’s last statement to his followers was very characteristic of a musician who had long since rejected the view that suffering was key to creativity: “It is my hope that those who have an inkling to play, write, perform or otherwise, do so. If not for yourself, then for the rest of us. It’s not only that the world needs more artists, it’s also just a lot of fun.”
photo by Karlheinz Klüter