Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Robert Greenberg Recommends — Chick Corea

It’s a standard question in a literary interview to ask an author “what books are on your bedside table.” We humans are, by our nature, voyeurs, and we can’t resist knowing what authors are themselves reading. (What we’ d REALLY like to know is what’s in their medicine cabinets and sock drawers, but that’s a question that – sadly – rarely comes up in interviews).

The equivalent question for a musician would be “what music is in your car CD player/MP3player/iPod/iPhone/iPad/8-track cartridge/turntable (vinyl phreaks unite!)/gramophone (78 r.p.m. crazies unite!), or Edison cylinder Dictaphone (crazies!)”?

Let’s make this personal.

“Bob, dude, what’s is in your car CD player?”

The answer: over the last year, way more often than not, it is the music of Chick Corea.

Armando Anthony “Chick” Corea was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts on June 12, 1941, making him – today – a sprightly 72 years-old.

As is so often the case with jazz musicians, Corea – unlike a concert pianist – did not hone his skills under the watchful eyes and ears of a particular set of mentors/teachers. Jazz is an oral tradition, and the only way to “learn it” is to live it: by listening to jazz live and on recordings, imitating constantly and slowly developing a vocabulary in much the same way we learn to speak. (Yes, there are today a myriad of jazz methods and curricula that would “teach” jazz and jazz improvisation to students. However, with all due respect, I would suggest that these “curricula” are still, at heart, about the “spoken word”, about jazz as an oral tradition. You cannot learn it from the printed “page”; rather, you must learn it by listening and imitating. The truth be told, you can teach a pianist to play Bach, but you cannot teach her to swing. So in the end, curricula notwithstanding, it all comes down to the same thing: listening, imitating, and internalizing.)

So Chick Corea learned his trade by listening, imitating, internalizing, and practicing those countless hours that make, for those predisposed towards virtuosity, a great virtuoso.

I first became aware of Corea in the early 1970’s through the extraordinary fusion recordings he made with his group “Return to Forever” (“RTF”). I did arrangements for my band of – among others – such killer pieces as “500 Miles High”; “Spain”; “Captain Marvel”; and “Senor Mouse”, and in doing so I came to appreciate Corea’s tremendous chops as a composer. The Fender-Rhodes sound of Corea’s RTF recordings is still part of my essential musical being (I sold all three of my Fender-Rhodes pianos in the early 1980’s, to my eternal regret).

However, even more important (to me) than Corea’s RTF recordings are his acoustic recordings made with trios and duets. These are recordings in which Corea plays an acoustic piano (usually a Yamaha), performing standards or original compositions with a trio or with one other player. It’s in these recordings that we get to appreciate Armando “Chick” Corea not just as a pianist but as a STUDENT of the history of jazz piano.

For example, no one – NO ONE – understands the musical and aesthetic nature of Thelonious Monk better than Chick Corea. Corea’s recordings of Monk’s music are – to my ear – what Monk himself would have played had he the requisite technique to do so. Likewise, Corea’s ability to move effortlessly between swing, latin, and free-time musical textures is a miracle of artistry that makes me respire more quickly than what might otherwise be considered healthy.

Among Corea’s most interesting and affecting collaborations are his duets: recordings made with – among others – the vibraphonist Gary Burton; the guitarist John McLoughlin; the pianists Herbie Hancock, Stefano Bollani and Hiromi Uehara; and the banjo player extraordinaire, Bela Fleck.

(To answer the question posed at the top of this posting, “Bob, dude, what’s in your car CD player?”, I would answer Corea and Fleck’s insanely great duet album entitled “The Enchantment”. The album is a FREAKIN’ MIRACLE. I defy anyone to listen to the second cut – entitled “Spectacle” – or the ninth cut – “Brazil” – and not go absolutely wild.)

Anyway, as an example of the sort of collaborative, acoustic music making that marks Corea’s work at its apogee, I offer – below – an entirely miraculous performance of George Gershwin’s “Liza” (of 1929), recorded in 1989 at the Mt Fuji Jazz Festival by Corea and Herbie Hancock. This is improvisational collaboration at its very best: two great improvisational virtuosi goading each other on to ever-greater musical heights. Dang. I say DANG.