Watch Chick Corea (RIP) Perform Intimate Acoustic Performances with Bobby McFerrin, Gary Burton, Hiromi Uehara & Others

It seems impos­si­ble to talk about key­boardist Chick Corea, who passed away from can­cer on Feb­ru­ary 11 at age 79, with­out also talk­ing about Miles Davis. Davis hand picked him for the ground­break­ing albums In a Silent Way and Bitch­es Brew, and as a mem­ber of those ensem­bles, Corea helped shape the future of music and helped divide the jazz com­mu­ni­ty into those who embraced the psy­che­del­ic “fusion” of jazz, rock, and oth­er world musics and those who were fierce­ly pro­tec­tive of tra­di­tion.

Corea, how­ev­er, “had already gone through ear­ly explo­rative phas­es of his career,” writes Jim Bur­long at Jazz Views, before his “brief but not always hap­py” stint with Davis. He was on his way to the avant-garde direc­tion he would take with his lat­er group, Return to For­ev­er. Yet no mat­ter how far out there he went with Davis or the ridicu­lous­ly accom­plished RTF and hun­dreds of oth­er musi­cians he played with, Corea always stayed con­nect­ed to the music’s roots.

“Through­out his career,” Gio­van­ni Rus­sonel­lo writes at The New York Times, Corea “nev­er aban­doned his first love, the acoustic piano, on which his punc­til­ious touch and crisp sense of har­mo­ny made his play­ing imme­di­ate­ly dis­tinc­tive.” We hear it in com­po­si­tions like “Spain” (at the top in a beau­ti­ful­ly spare ver­sion with Bob­by McFer­rin), “500 Miles High,” and “Tones for Joan’s Bones,” all of which have “become jazz stan­dards, marked by his dreamy but bright­ly illu­mi­nat­ed har­monies and ear-grab­bing melodies.”

We hear Corea’s “dreamy” acoustic piano through­out Return to Forever’s 1976 Roman­tic War­rior, an album that fea­tures 29 or so addi­tion­al instru­ments among its four musi­cians, includ­ing a Min­i­Moog, Micro­moog, Poly­moog, Moog 15, ARP Odyssey, and an alarm clock and slide whis­tle on the quirky, medieval “The Magi­cian.” This descrip­tion alone might make purists cringe, but charges that jazz fusion albums are over­stuffed and over­ly busy don’t tend to stick to Corea’s best record­ings.

The sound of Return to For­ev­er on Roman­tic War­rior, an album that influ­enced “bands to come on both sides of the Atlantic,” is “nev­er crowd­ed,” Bur­long writes, “and the over­all ambiance from all com­bi­na­tions of the thir­ty some­thing instru­ments used is most­ly one of con­trolled urgency.” Graced with a finesse that shines equal­ly in weird, Sci­en­tol­ogy-inspired elec­tric albums and tra­di­tion­al acoustic trios, Corea’s “ver­sa­til­i­ty is sec­ond to none when it comes to the jazz world,” says his long­time friend and col­lab­o­ra­tor, vibra­phon­ist Gary Bur­ton.

Corea resist­ed the idea that funk and rock instru­men­ta­tion in pro­gres­sive jazz meant the inven­tion of a new sub-genre. “It’s the media that are so inter­est­ed in cat­e­go­riz­ing music,” he said in 1983, “the media and the busi­ness­men, who, after all, have a vest­ed inter­est in keep­ing mar­ket­ing clear cut and sep­a­rate. If crit­ics would ask musi­cians their views about what is hap­pen­ing, you would find that there is always a fusion of sorts tak­ing place… a con­tin­u­al merg­ing of dif­fer­ent streams.”

His advice to fel­low musi­cians who might feel con­strained by tra­di­tion or the stric­tures of the mar­ket is price­less (or “cheap but good,” he wrote), includ­ing the advice he gave a grad­u­at­ing class at Berklee Col­lege of Music in his home state of Mass­a­chu­setts in 1997: “It’s all right to be your­self. In fact, the more your­self you are, the more mon­ey you make.” As a musi­cian, Corea was nev­er any­thing less than him­self, though he didn’t seem in it for the mon­ey, shar­ing com­po­si­tion cred­it equal­ly among the musi­cians on many of his ensem­ble albums.

Corea’s ver­sa­tile musi­cal approach won him 23 Gram­mys (“more than almost any oth­er musi­cian,” writes Rus­sonel­lo), three Latin Gram­mys, and the endur­ing respect and admi­ra­tion of fans and fel­low musi­cians. See more of his flaw­less chops in the inti­mate live per­for­mances above, includ­ing a Tiny Desk Con­cert with Bur­ton, a full con­cert in Spain from 2018 with his acoustic trio, and a duel­ing piano per­for­mance of “Spain” live in Tokyo with pianist Hiro­mi Uehara, just above.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Chick Corea (RIP) Offers 16 Pieces of “Cheap But Good Advice for Play­ing Music in a Group” (1985)

The Uni­ver­sal Mind of Bill Evans: Advice on Learn­ing to Play Jazz & The Cre­ative Process

Miles Davis’ Bitch­es Brew Turns 50: Cel­e­brate the Funk-Jazz-Psych-Rock Mas­ter­piece

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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