Chick Corea is Qwest TV's guest of the month. Here is a selection of eight must-listen albums of his long and rich career.
One of the most creatively restless and indefatigably imaginative jazz artists in the history of the music, Corea defies easy categorization — equally at home in acoustic and electric settings, eager to find new ways of expression with old friends and quick to explore new partnerships with youthful adventure-seekers. Corea told me that there’s no rhyme or reason to how it’s developed. “I have never looked at my own work as a musician to have some logical progression from one thing developing into another,” he said. “I see each new project as a totally new act of creation. I feel blessed to be so rich in such amazingly talented friends and musical partners.”
At best count Corea has recorded over 80 studio albums as leader with nearly 20 more captured live. To whittle that down to a short list of recommended albums is an impossibility. But here’s a good starting point.
1. Now He Sings, Now He Sobs (1968)
Corea’s second solo album, Now He Sings, Now He Sobs was recorded when he was twenty-six and stands today as one of jazz’s greatest piano trio dates, with locked in support by bassist Miroslav Vitous and drummer Roy Haynes. This album was an ear opener to the dynamic, rich with improvisational surprises ahead. It’s no wonder why Miles was hip to him and invited him into his experiments as the replacement of Herbie Hancock in his band. Included in the mix is one of Corea’s best-known songs “Matrix,” and in 1999 the title track was given the Grammy Hall of Fame Award. Equally rewarding is Corea’s short “play” with the piano on “The Law of Falling Catching Up.” The original LP featured five Corea compositions while subsequent CD reissues contained improvisations as well as renditions of Thelonious Monk’s “Pannonica” and the standard “My One and Only Love.” This was Corea’s breakthrough album, and he then sailed forward with grace, beauty and spirit.
2. Return to Forever Anthology (based on albums from 1973-1976)
In the seventies, jazz plugged in and found its way into the pop music zone — a small miracle because we’re talking instrumental tunes in bands like Herbie Hancock’s funk-fueled Head Hunters and Joe Zawinul’s charged outfit Weather Report. Corea had been there at the experimental start with Miles on such albums as Bitches Brew. So he decided to try his own hand on jazz-rock fusion, even though he wasn’t exactly following Miles’ path. Instead, he was intrigued by another electric Miles alum, John McLaughin, who had formed the seminal jazz-rock band Mahavishnu Orchestra. In 1988 Corea told a DownBeat writer: “What John McLaughlin did with the electric guitar set the world on its ear. No one ever heard an electric guitar played like that before, and it certainly inspired me … John’s band, more than my experience with Miles, led me to want to turn the volume up and write music that was more dramatic and made your hair move.”
In 2008, Concord Jazz released a sparkling anthology of the body-rocking, intergalactic RTF 1973-1976 recordings that featured electric bassist Stanley Clarke and drummer Lenny White as well as guitarists Bill Conners and later Al DiMeola with thirty six songs in an over-four-hour collection. Jazz is center gravity while Corea — on piano, electric keys and synthesizers — explores beyond with rock and funk (check out White’s wild “Sofistifunk”) and even a touch of classical (case in point: Corea’s “No Mystery”). This captivating collection features the best-of RTF tunes, including his “Captain Señor Mouse,” a tune he often returned to later in his career.
3. Crystal Silence/The New Crystal Silence (with Gary Burton) (1973, 2008)
In 1972, Corea recorded his debut Return to Forever album for ECM, which later released it in 1975. On the recording of electric jazz (not yet rock jazz), he introduced one of his beauties, “Crystal Silence,” played on electric keys with saxophonist Joe Farrell taking the lyrical lead. Also in owner/producer Manfred Eicher’s ECM camp at the time was vibraphonist Gary Burton. Eicher decided to record Corea and Burton as a duo, which the pair didn’t think would work. Burton said that he felt it was too esoteric, but Eicher convinced the duo to give it a go. In 1973, they recorded Crystal Silence.
“When we were to go on the road,” Burton told me recently, “I thought, here we are in a 4,000-seat concert hall at the University of Michigan, and we’re going to look like two mice on stage playing introspective chamber music. Pat Metheny, who was in my band at the time, was so excited that he volunteered to carry my vibes so he could go. Well, it sold out. And eventually the album sold the most of any of my albums.” Crystal Silence shines as quintessential chamber jazz-quiet, melodic, soulful and sublime. The two toured together often since that time and recorded a pack of live shows. But they decided to revisit the original date with a 2008 double album The New Crystal Silence that was nominated for three Grammy Awards in 2009 and won for Best Instrumental Jazz Album.
4. An Evening With Herbie Hancock & Chick Corea In Concert (Columbia 1978); Corea Hancock (Polydor 1979)
Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea already knew each other for a long time and were connected to each other in the mid seventies. “I’ve had a timeless friendship musically with Herbie since we first met in the ’60s,” Corea said later” Herbie was in New York several years before me, so he was always an inspiration. We both love this kind of adventure to freely improvise”. “We’re connected in a lot of real ways,” Hancock confirmed, reflecting on their paths as young musicians. “Chick replaced me with Miles Davis in his ’60s band, and I replaced him in Latin percussionist Mongo Santamaria’s band in 1963. Those were key points in our lives.” Yet they had never played together until 1977. Both were recording for Columbia Records at the time, so label president Bruce Lundvall suggested they get together to see what might happen.
Initially Hancock was reluctant as he writes in his autobiography, Possibilities. “We decided to see if there was magic,” he wrote about the first meeting they had at Corea’s house where he had two pianos set up and ready to go. They immediately clicked in an improvisational session that Hancock said was “very open.” So both the pianists—eschewing electric keys for acoustic pianos — hit the road, traveling through seven countries and garnering five encores when they played at Montreux.
Their brilliant live collaboration was documented on the top-notch 1978 double-LP album, An Evening With Herbie Hancock & Chick Corea: In Concert. That was released on Columbia under Hancock’s name, while another live album from that same tour, CoreaHancock, was issued in 1979 under Corea’s name for Polydor.
Watch the documentary Chick Corea : The Musician on Qwest TV
5. Remembering Bud Powell (1997)
Corea went back to his basic steps by celebrating the genius of the iconic bebop pianist Bud Powell, leading a band that included his old standby drummer Roy Haynes and a full cast of young jazz stars including Kenny Garrett and Joshua Redman on saxophones, Wallace Roney on trumpet and bassist Christian McBride. Corea took the group on a world tour, then brought them into the studio for a session that was all about telepathic communication through the elder’s jazz hits like “Bouncing With Bud” and “Tempus Fugit” as well as a tune Corea wrote in tribute ”Bud Powell.” Let the sparks fly! Remembering Bud Powell is one of his strongest simpatico outings teeming with solos that fly beyond the bebop guide posts.
6. Rendezvous in New York (2003)
Corea decided to celebrate his 60th birthday with gusto in 2001 at the Blue Note club in New York for three weeks of music with a variety of musicians he had worked with over the years, playing music from several of his bands, including the Chick Corea Akoustic Band, Origin… Over 60 hours of the shows were recorded (and squeezed down into two CDs) in duo settings and with small ensemble bands. Corea covered most of the bases, from free improvisations to music with a classical string quartet (though no Return to Forever action). What makes this two-CD album so remarkable is how it fully embraces Corea’s multifaceted career. He gathered such friends as Gary Burton for their duets, linked up with Bobby McFerrin in a duo setting covering classics and a striking medley of “Concierto de Aranjuez” and the leader’s famous “Spain” standard (Corea also rendered the two songs later in a duo with Gonzalo Rubalcaba). In all, this is a variety show of all Corea’s strengths. Lots of high spirits throughout.
7. Trilogy (with Christian McBride, Brian Blade) (2013)
Corea has performed in a trio setting many times in his career (think: his reconnecting with Return to Forever rhythm team, Stanley Clarke and Lenny White), but he told me that this threesome is special: “It’s another universe. When we get together what happens is indefinable. I never try to search for reasons why. We have similar tastes and it’s a joy to play with Brian and Christian. Brian isn’t even a percussionist. He’s a world. He cannot be defined. You can’t call him a drummer. He’s way more than that. Christian is as open-minded as Brian. What he does is unique. We do it all — give the music a fresh perspective and make it beautiful. I love to be in that space.”
It all sums up to uncanny brilliance on the acoustic-jazz Trilogy, an expansive, 17-song, three-and-a-half-hour live recording that captures the best moments of their tours between 2010 and 2012. Corea records most — if not all — of his concerts, which supplies him with a vast reservoir of creative material to document on recordings. To put together such an enormous project was a labor of love for his fans, Corea said. He listens to all the music he’s performed live oftentimes that evening or the next day while on the road. His partner in this endeavor is his engineer/mixer Bernie Kirsh. “I’ve known Bernie since 1975 and he’s one of my best friends,” Corea said. “So after shows, we’d confer about what was played. He’s also great at taking personal notes. I’d go back to the shows and think, wow, they were so great. So it was like should I pick this apple or that apple? There were dozens of takes and we’d get it down to the best two, then listen again or flip a coin.” He emphasized that it really wasn’t that much heavy lifting.
8. Two (with Béla Fleck) (2015) *
Corea loves to play duo with artists who pique his curiosity. In recent years, he took a different turn, linking up with an instrumentalist best known for his prowess in jazz-bluegrass fusion. Banjo master Béla Fleck’s first connect to jazz piano came in 2007 when he was approached by Corea to explore their disparate worlds that resulted in the studio album The Enchantment. The stars aligned. Eight years later arrived Two, the two-CD live recording of their growth as a duo.
The pair toured The Enchantment worldwide periodically for seven years in the midst of other marquee projects each artist was involved with. When Corea felt the time was right to document their growth as artists, he contacted Fleck to take charge of Two, which the banjo virtuoso painstakingly produced. “I felt like an archeologist digging through all the material from all the shows we had performed,” he told me with a laugh. Actually he was more a long-distance runner as it turns out, as he spent time in Oregon running on a beach listening to the various takes and taking notes on his iPhone. “I could tell what was good because I started running faster when I listened to a magical show.”
Playing with Corea had been a unique experience. “Chick doesn’t recognize rules and boundaries,” Fleck said. “If I’m being adventurous, he goes with it. Chick feels that rules are a pain in the ass. He just wants to make music. We became like two kids in a sandbox.” Two reveals a thrilling excursion in improvisational conversation. “Béla is a continuous fountain of creativity,” Corea Qwest TV.