By Tokunbo Oke
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Chick Corea – a major force in the world of Jazz

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Tokunbo Oke pays tribute to Chick Corea, a major figure in the world of Jazz, who died last week

Corea performs with Béla Fleck in 2008. Photo: Creative Commons

Armando Anthony “Chick” Corea, who died from a rare form of cancer last week, was a major force in the world of Jazz – or African-American Classical Music.

An accomplished pianist, Corea brought a playful, sprite-like touch to his keyboard and piano playing. Irrespective of the musical format he was playing in – bass drums and piano trio, big band, piano and vibraphone duets, solo piano, Jazz-Rock fusion or even straight ahead acoustic jazz – Corea’s always brought to the fore his signature sound of an impish, child-like, playful approach to piano playing.

Corea’s main musical forte was to communicate with his audience, differing from what I consider the self-indulgent and self-absorbed explorations into solo piano by Keith Jarret who, like Corea, was another Miles Davis alumni. As Corea himself succinctly put it, his aim was to “play the music and watch the audience digging it.” Corea’s striving for musical communication with his audience was informed by his adherence to the “religion” of Scientology, founded by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard.

In Corea’s opinion, communication was not equivalent to dumbing down. It meant crafting profound musical ideas in a format that could easily be understood, digested and appreciated by audiences – something Corea largely succeeded in.

His musical influences ranged from a mixture of classical composers such as Scriabin, Bartok, Mozart, Beethoven and the African-American masters of piano including Art Tatum, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington.

Corea was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1941 and from a young age learnt classical piano. He performed regularly with marching bands, and played restaurants and bars during his teenage years.

Corea took up formal musical studies in New York at Columbia University and the Juilliard School of Music but dropped out decrying their fusty approach to music studies and instead took up professional gigs with Cuban percussionists Mongo Santamaria, Willie Bobo Correa and Herbie Mann. This left Corea with a lifetime love of Afro-Cuban Jazz and the tendency, whatever the occasion during live concerts, to break out playing a Cuban montuno on piano whilst comping behind a soloist.

Corea first came to major public prominence when he joined the band of trumpeter Miles Davis in 1968. Pianist Herbie Hancock, with whom Corea was to record a number of ground-breaking acoustic piano duets, was leaving Miles’s band and he recommended Corea as his replacement. Corea was just in time to record two tracks on the ground breaking album Filles De Kilimanjaro, one of which – Miss Mabry – is reputed to have the same chord structure as the Jimi Hendrix tune The Wind Cries Mary.

Around this time there was turmoil and resistance across the globe. The events of 1968 had rocked the French ruling class, the civil rights and black power struggle was challenging the American power structure, and the war in Vietnam precipitated massive resistance at home and abroad. These struggles were arguably reflected in much of the art of the times, including music, giving rise to a great burst of creativity.

The music of Davis’ band was no exception. Gone was the “controlled freedom” of freebop and what emerged was a music that borrowed largely from rock and soul. Musicians and bands such as Jimi Hendrix and Sly & the Family Stone incorporated a rock or funk beat that allowed them to undertake open-ended improvisations, described as Jazz-Rock or Fusion by its practitioners.

In this vein, Corea recorded In A Silent Way, Bitches Brew, Live At The Fillmore and Black Beauty with Davis. Upon leaving the band, Corea continued his Fusion and Jazz-Rock experiments with his own group Return to Forever, the constant core of which was himself and bassist Stanley Clarke. In between he recorded solo piano albums and duets with vibraphonist Gary Burton on Manfred Eicher’s ECM label.

His stand out album of the 1970’s is the beautifully crafted, composed and recorded My Spanish Heart, released in 1976, which represented a fusion of Afro-Cuban Jazz, Spanish Flamenco, elements of Portuguese Mourna and classical music. A personal favourite of mine, l would recommend the album to anyone as an entry point to Corea’s music.

In 1985 Corea foolishly broke the cultural boycott around apartheid South Africa by playing in Johannesburg, despite being warned not to go by South African pianist Abdullah Ibrahim, aka Dollar Brand. Corea maintained he was not seduced by the significant bribes used by the South African government to encourage artists to break the boycott, but that he believed apartheid was similar to segregation at home and that taking an integrated band to South Africa would somehow improve race relations.

In his later years he displayed an almost feverish and dizzying attempt to play and record, with various musical formations leading to him winning 22 Grammy Awards and various citations for music.

Although some would say Corea was not openly political, he demonstrated a healthy respect for the folk musics of the oppressed people of the world, and incorporated elements of this music into his compositions.


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