Chick Corea: Mourning a Keyboard Colossus

A handful of highlights from a talent too big for boundaries

RIP Chick Corea (Art: Ron Hart)

A world without Chick Corea makes as much sense as a car without wheels. 

Sure, there are jazz fans out there old enough to remember the B.C. (Before Chick) era. But ever since the late ‘60s, the keyboard giant has become so inextricably entwined with the way we experience jazz that even though he left us on February 11, it’s impossible to conceive of him actually being gone. Corea’s been at the bleeding edge of so many movements in jazz that he probably got used to having to wait around while everybody else caught up with him. He’s done it all — Latin jazz, fusion, avant garde, free blowing, jazz-funk, straight-ahead bop, you name it, the Italian kid from Boston has been there. 

It always seemed a little unfair to Corea’s contemporaries that he’d been so bountifully blessed. He had the heaviest chops, the craftiest compositional bent, the headiest harmonic notions, and when he put them all together nobody could touch him. If he never made any mainstream headway he’d still be hailed as a legend, but Corea also did more to break jazz through to the wider world than just about anybody outside of his late-’60s bandleader Miles Davis. Boatloads of Grammys, crossover chart success — he had it all without ever selling out. And he remained a fully engaged artist to the end. Even in his final years, Corea was so full of vitality and ideas that his passing at the age of 79 felt way too soon. But it would have felt that way at any age, such was jazz lovers’ bond with Corea’s work. 

In six decades of music making, he was part of way too many worlds to encompass in anything shorter than a back-breakingly heavy book. But for right now, here are a scant few highlights from Corea’s time among us, to maybe make the parting sting just a little bit less.

 

 

Chick Corea – “Now He Sings, Now He Sobs”

From 1968, the title track of Corea’s second solo album, with Miroslav Vitous on bass and Roy Haynes on drums, is at the core of his canon. Even at this early stage his rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic invention glowed so brightly it must have been tough to be in the studio with him without a pair of dark glasses. 

 

AUDIO: Chick Corea “Now He Sings, Now He Sobs”

 

 

Miles Davis – “Bitches Brew” Live in Copenhagen 1969

When Miles put jazz rock on the map in the late ‘60s, Corea was with him at the center of the musical maelstrom, alongside Wayne Shorter, Jack De Johnette, Dave Holland, breaking down borders and creating a new musical language that still sounds revolutionary today. 

 

VIDEO: Miles Davis “Bitches Brew”

 

Circle – Live in Germany, 1971

In the early ‘70s, Corea brought together a supergroup of fearless explorers including Anthony Braxton, Dave Holland and Barry Altschul to venture even further into uncharted territory than he had with Miles. Post bop was just the starting point, as Circle turned free-form abstraction and impressionism into living art from moment to moment.

 

AUDIO: Circle Live In Germany 1971

 

 

Return to Forever – “Medieval Overture” Live 1976

Speaking of supergroups, the combination of Corea, Al Di Meola, Stanley Clarke, and Lenny White was the fusion equivalent of The Fantastic Four, The Avengers, and The X-Men rolled into one. Not only was their instrumental facility superhumanly breathtaking, their chemistry and compositions were powerful enough to earn them a kind of rock-star status rarely witnessed in the jazz realm.

 

VIDEO: Return To Forever “Medieval Overture” Live 1976

 

 

Chick Corea – “Samba Song” 

Chick might have been the only jazz musician who could put the Smurfs on his album cover and get away with it (not to mention winning one of his many Grammys in the process). It didn’t hurt that he had yet another all-star lineup along for the ride, including Joe Farrell, Eddie Gomez, and Steve Gadd, taking Corea compositions like this Brazilian-tinged blowout to another level.

 

AUDIO: Chick Corea “Samba Song”

 

 

Chick Corea & Gary Burton – Live in Tokyo 1981

Throughout his career, Corea would return to his duo partnership with vibraphone guru Gary Burton, which began with some indispensable albums on ECM in the ‘70s. The telepathy between the two of them was such that sometimes it seemed like they were one four-handed man playing one instrument with eighty-eight keys and 37 bars. 

 

AUDIO: Chick Corea and Gary Burton Tokyo 81

 

 

Chick Corea Elektric Band – “Beneath the Mask” Live

When Chick embraced digital technology, funk and R&B with his Elektric Band in the ‘80s, even some fusion fans were thrown. But it was just the intrepid adventurer pushing the music along to its next destination. And like Miles had done for him and his peers, he introduced the world to a new generation of heavyweights in the process, like John Patittucci, Frank Gambale, and Dave Weckl. 

 

VIDEO: Chick Corea Elektric Band “Beneath The Mask”

 

 

The Chick Corea Trio – “Spain” Live 2017

In Chick’s later years, one of his passion projects was a trio with Christian McBride and Brian Blade was capable of taking material from all across Corea’s career and making something new and thrilling out of it. Not only do they give his ‘70s classic “Spain” a new lease on life here, you can watch Chick enlisting the audience as his choir, underlining the power he’s always had to connect directly with the people.

 

VIDEO: Chick Corea Trio “Spain”

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One thought on “Chick Corea: Mourning a Keyboard Colossus

  • February 15, 2021 at 8:11 pm
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    All excellent examples of his great music. Could not agree more!

    Reply

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