An exclusive chat with the fusion icon about his roots in Latin Jazz
Keyboardist Chick Corea is a giant in the jazz world. Composer of several tunes now considered standards, he has also been a key figure in the pioneering field of jazz fusion.
His work with his ’70s band Return to Forever stands alongside work by Miles Davis, John McLaughlin and Larry Coryell – many of whom he has collaborated with – is an exemplar of fusion. But the Boston-born Corea has always been about much more than one style of music.
Early on, he became deeply immersed in Latin musical traditions, and those influences permeate his work. Corea’s latest album, Antidote, revisits some of his earlier work, putting a new spin on classic tunes.
There’s plenty of new music on the album as well; at age 78, Chick Corea still has plenty to say musically.
Your new group, The Spanish Heart Band, takes its name from your 1976 LP, My Spanish Heart. In what ways do you think the new band follows on from the approach you used on that recording back in the 70s? And in what ways, beyond personnel, is it different?
The new project was really inspired just by my [lifelong] love for Latino, Afro-Cuban and Spanish music, but it came from a plan to do a tour, really. The first idea was to do something special for this summer’s festivals in Europe, and I thought of the idea that some older bands take the spirit of a recording; they go out and tour on the recording. This is a little different, because I’m not playing all the music from the old record. It’s a compilation of some new music and some brand new arrangements of some of the older songs. But as soon as I had this great band ready to go, I thought, “We should make a record!” And so, that’s when I decided to make the arrangements early enough in the year to get a record released for the summer tour.
Beyond your ethnic heritage, what do you think it is about Spanish and Latin musical traditions that resonate so strongly with you?
I grew up with it. In my early days, when I was in high school, my first contact with that kind of music was with a local band in Boston. A Portuguese fellow named Phil Barboza played the trumpet and he had a quartet with timbales and congas. He used to play dances. I got introduced to the young conga player at that time; his name was Bill Fitch. And Bill really introduced me to those kind of rhythms and taught me some things about how to make accompaniments on the piano.
And that was my first introduction. The thing I loved about it was that it kind of extroverted me because the music was for dancing. Before that, my jazz interests were kind of serious music. Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, and that kind of music was more for listening, and this music was for dancing and extroversion. It was a nice compliment and a great spirit. So, that started me out.
And then, ever since then, I’ve gravitated toward the Afro-Cuban, Latino, Spanish and flamenco cultures, and I have got to know and play with a lot of great musicians in that music.
There are of course exceptions, but by definition, within the jazz idiom there’s space for the individual soloists to express themselves. And I’ve often wondered if doing that is more difficult for the vocalist in the ensemble. Presumably, they have to stick closer to a melody that they may have not composed, and they have to sing words they may have not written. Since you feature vocal pieces on the new album, what are your thoughts on that?
When I invited Rubén Blades to sing “Antidote,” he got totally into it. I wrote the first stanza in English. I wrote the original lyrics, and then when he saw the lyrics, he made a transformation or paraphrase of my lyrics and sang a second chorus of the melody in Spanish with his own translation. And then, he went on and took the idea of “Antidote,” and he created a whole other set of improvisations.
We recorded the piece in one take. It was a real improvisation, me and him are trading phrases, and his words and his phrases are all improvised. So he had tremendous latitude and brought a great offering to the mix of the whole band.
With regard to the older songs for which you recorded the new versions on Antidote, was there kind of a specific mindset at work in terms of how you approached them differently?
Absolutely, absolutely. First of all, one factor was a totally practical one. Because if I had had the time to devote to it, I might have written all new music for the record. But there wasn’t time. Also, there are fans of some of those earlier records who would recognize the melodies. So, I wanted to take some of the earlier pieces, but when I began arranging the music, I immediately wanted to have a different spin on each one of the older songs.
So that’s what I did: I just wrote some new stuff. For instance, “Armando’s Rhumba” I recorded a number of times, and the version on this recording hardly states the melody at all. It’s just some other phrases. So for me it’s a pretty fresh look at the older material.
As opposed to Miles Davis, who seemed to move from one style to the next, you’ve not been afraid to dip back into styles in which you worked previously. And when you do, you always bring something new to the conversation. Do you think that’s a fair characterization of your work in general?
Yeah, sure. I mean, I’ve never had any particular thing about music as a point in time. Like, the ’20s music, the ’30s music, 1800s music, contemporary music … whatever that means. All of these things that have time attached to them, they’re all kind of literal. Every time we perform, whether you’re performing something that Mozart composed in the 1700s or if you’re improvising something new on the spot, it’s right now that you’re doing it. Now is the communication, now is what you’re trying to reach whoever you’re playing with and for. So I’ll use anything. Anything that works.