Armando Anthony «Chick» Corea (born June 12, 1941) is an American jazz and fusion pianist, keyboardist, and composer.
Many of his compositions are considered jazz standards. As a member of Miles Davis’ band in the late 1960s, he participated in the birth of the electric jazz fusion movement. In the 1970s he formed Return to Forever. Along with Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, and Keith Jarrett, he has been described as one of the major jazz piano voices to emerge in the post-John Coltrane era.
Corea continued to pursue other collaborations and to explore various musical styles throughout the 1980s and 1990s. He is also known for promoting and fundraising for a number of social issues.
Life and career
Armando Corea was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts. He is of southern Italian and Spanish descent. His father, a jazz trumpet player who had led a Dixieland band in Boston in the 1930s and 1940s, introduced him to the piano at the age of four. Growing up surrounded by jazz music, he was influenced at an early age by bebop and stars such as Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Horace Silver, and Lester Young. At eight Corea also took up drums, which would later influence his use of the piano as a percussion instrument.
Corea developed his piano skills by exploring music on his own. A notable influence was concert pianist Salvatore Sullo, from whom Corea started taking lessons at age eight and who introduced him to classical music, helping spark his interest in musical composition. He also spent several years as a performer and soloist for the St. Rose Scarlet Lancers, a drum and bugle corps based in Chelsea.
Given a black tuxedo by his father, he started playing gigs when in high school. He enjoyed listening to Herb Pomeroy’s band at the time, and had a trio that played Horace Silver’s music at a local jazz club.
He eventually decided to move to New York City, where he studied musical education for one month at Columbia University and six months at Juilliard. He quit after finding both disappointing, but liked the atmosphere of New York, and the music scene became the starting point for his professional career.
Corea’s first major professional gig was with Cab Calloway. Corea started his professional career in the 1960s playing with trumpeter Blue Mitchell and Latin musicians such as Herbie Mann, Willie Bobo and Mongo Santamaría. One of the earliest recordings of his playing is with Mitchell’s quintet on The Thing To Do. This album features his composition «Chick’s Tune», a retooling of «You Stepped Out of a Dream» that demonstrates the angular melodies and Latin-and-swing rhythms that characterize, in part, Corea’s personal style.
His first album as a leader was Tones for Joan’s Bones in 1966, two years before the release of his album Now He Sings, Now He Sobs, with Roy Haynes on drums and Miroslav Vitouš on double bass.
He made another sideman appearance with Stan Getz on 1967’s Sweet Rain (Verve Records).
Avant garde period
From 1968 to 1971 Corea had associations with avant garde players, and his solo style revealed a dissonant orientation. His avant garde playing can be heard on his solo works of the period, his solos in live recordings under the leadership of Miles Davis, his recordings with Circle, and his playing on Joe Farrell’s Song of the Wind album on CTI Records.
In September 1968 Corea replaced Herbie Hancock in the piano chair in Davis’ band and appeared on landmark albums such as Filles de Kilimanjaro, In a Silent Way, and Bitches Brew. In concert, Davis’ rhythm section of Corea, Dave Holland, and Jack DeJohnette combined elements of free jazz improvisation and rock music. Corea experimented with using electric instruments, mainly the Fender Rhodes electric piano, in the Davis band.
In live performance he frequently processed the output of his electric piano with a device called a ring modulator. Using this style, he appeared on multiple Davis albums, including Black Beauty: Live at the Fillmore West and Miles Davis at Fillmore: Live at the Fillmore East. His live performances with the Davis band continued into 1970, with a touring band of Steve Grossman, tenor sax, Keith Jarrett, additional electric piano and organ, Jack DeJohnette, drums, Dave Holland, bass, Airto Moreira, percussion, and Davis on trumpet.
Holland and Corea left to form their own group, Circle, active in 1970 and 1971. This free jazz group featured multi-reed player Anthony Braxton and drummer Barry Altschul. This band was documented on Blue Note and ECM. Aside from soloing in an atonal style, Corea sometimes reached in the body of the piano and plucked the strings. In 1971 or 1972 Corea struck out on his own. In April 1971 he recorded the sessions that became Piano Improvisations Vol. 1 and Piano Improvisations Vol. 2 for ECM.
The concept of communication with an audience became a big thing for me at the time. The reason I was using that concept so much at that point in my life – in 1968, 1969 or so – was because it was a discovery for me. I grew up kind of only thinking how much fun it was to tinkle on the piano and not noticing that what I did had an effect on others. I did not even think about a relationship to an audience, really, until way later.
In the early 1970s, Corea took a profound stylistic turn from avant garde playing to a crossover jazz fusion style that incorporated Latin jazz elements with Return to Forever. Named after their eponymous 1972 album, the band relied on both acoustic and electronic instrumentation and drew upon Latin American musical styles more than on rock music. On their first two records, Return to Forever featured Flora Purim’s vocals, Corea’s Fender Rhodes electric piano, Joe Farrell’s flute and soprano saxophone, Airto Moreira on drums and percussion, with Stanley Clarke rounding up the group on acoustic bass. Drummer Lenny White and guitarist Bill Connors later joined Corea and Clarke to form the second version of the group, which expanded upon the earlier Latin jazz elements with a more hard-edged rock and funk-oriented sound inspired by Corea’s admiration for his Bitches Brew bandmate John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra. This incarnation of the group recorded the album Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy, before Connors’ departure and replacement by Al Di Meola, who was present on the subsequent releases Where Have I Known You Before, No Mystery, and the best-selling Romantic Warrior.
Corea’s composition «Spain» first appeared on the 1972 Return to Forever album Light as a Feather. This is probably his most popular piece, and it has been recorded by a variety of artists. There are also a variety of subsequent recordings by Corea himself in various contexts, including an arrangement for piano and symphony orchestra that appeared in 1999, and a collaborative piano and voice-as-instrument arrangement with Bobby McFerrin on the 1992 album Play. Corea usually performs «Spain» with a prelude based on Joaquín Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez (1940), which earlier received a jazz orchestration on Davis and Gil Evans’ Sketches of Spain.
In 1976, he issued My Spanish Heart, influenced by Latin American music and featuring vocalist Gayle Moran (Corea’s wife) and electric violinist Jean-Luc Ponty. The record was somewhat misunderstood at the time, but it is considered nowadays as a true example of Corea’s ability to write fusion material. The album combined jazz and flamenco, supported by Minimoog backup and a powerful horn section.
In the 1970s Corea started working occasionally with vibraphonist Gary Burton, with whom he recorded several duet albums on ECM, including 1972’s Crystal Silence. They reunited in 2006 for a concert tour. A new record called The New Crystal Silence was issued in 2008 and won a Grammy award in 2009. The package includes a disc of duets and another disc featuring the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.
Toward the end of the 1970s, Corea embarked on a series of concerts and two albums with Hancock. These concerts were presented in elegant settings with both pianists formally dressed, and performing on Yamaha concert grand pianos. The two traded playing each other’s compositions, as well as pieces by other composers such as Béla Bartók.
In 1982, Corea performed The Meeting, a live duet with the classical pianist Friedrich Gulda.
In December 2007 Corea recorded a duet album, The Enchantment, with banjoist Bela Fleck. Fleck and Corea toured extensively behind the album in 2007. Fleck was nominated in the Best Instrumental Composition category at the 49th Grammy Awards for the track «Spectacle».
In 2008 Corea collaborated with Japanese pianist Hiromi Uehara on the live album Duet (Chick Corea and Hiromi). The duo played a concert at Tokyo’s Budokan arena on April 30.
In 2015 Corea reprised the duet concert series with Hancock, again sticking to a dueling-piano format, though both also had synthesizers at their station. The first concert in this series was played at the Paramount Theater in Seattle, WA, and featured improvised music along with iconic songs from each of the duo and standards from other composers.
Corea’s other bands include the Chick Corea Elektric Band, its traditional jazz trio reduction called Akoustic Band, Origin, and its traditional jazz trio reduction called the New Trio.
Corea signed a record deal with GRP Records in 1986 which led to the release of ten albums between 1986 and 1994, seven with the Elektric Band, two with the Akoustic Band and a solo album, Expressions.
The Akoustic Band released a self-titled album in 1989 and a live follow-up, Alive in 1991, both featuring John Patitucci on bass and Dave Weckl on drums. It marked a turn back toward traditional jazz in Corea’s career, and the bulk of his subsequent recordings have been acoustic ones. The Akoustic Band also provided the music for the 1986 Pixar short Luxo Jr. with their song «The Game Maker».
In 1992 Corea started his own label, Stretch Records.
In 2001 the Chick Corea New Trio, with Avishai Cohen and Jeff Ballard on bass and drums, respectively, released the album Past, Present & Futures. The 11-song album includes only one standard composition (Fats Waller’s «Jitterbug Waltz»). The rest of the tunes are Corea originals.
He also participated in 1998’s Like Minds, which features Gary Burton on vibes, Pat Metheny on guitar, Dave Holland on bass and Roy Haynes on drums.
Recent years have also seen Corea’s rising interest in contemporary classical music. He composed his first piano concerto – and an adaptation of his signature piece, «Spain», for a full symphony orchestra – and performed it in 1999 with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Five years later he composed his first work not to feature any keyboards: his String Quartet No. 1 was specifically written for the Orion String Quartet and performed by them at 2004’s Summerfest.
Corea has continued releasing jazz fusion concept albums such as To the Stars (2004) and Ultimate Adventure (2006). The latter album won the Grammy Award for Best Jazz Instrumental Album, Individual or Group.
In 2008, the third version of Return to Forever (Corea, keyboards; Stanley Clarke, bass; Lenny White, drums; Di Meola, guitar) reunited for a worldwide tour. The reunion received positive reviews from most jazz and mainstream publications. Most of the group’s studio recordings were re-released on the compilation Return to Forever: The Anthology to coincide with the tour. A concert DVD recorded during their performance at the Montreux Jazz Festival was released in May 2009. He also worked on a collaboration CD with the vocal group The Manhattan Transfer.
A new group, the 5 Peace Band, which features Corea and guitarist John McLaughlin, began a world tour in October 2008. Corea had previously worked with McLaughlin in Davis’ late 1960s bands, including the group that recorded Davis’ album Bitches Brew. Joining Corea and McLaughlin were saxophonist Kenny Garrett and bassist Christian McBride. Drummer Vinnie Colaiuta played with the band in Europe and on select North American dates; Brian Blade played all dates in Asia and Australia, and most dates in North America. The variety of Corea’s music was celebrated in a 2011 retrospective with Corea playing with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra in the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts; a New York Times reviewer had high praise for the occasion: «Mr. Corea was masterly with the other musicians, absorbing the rhythm and feeding the soloists. It sounded like a band, and Mr. Corea had no need to dominate; his authority was clear without raising volume.»
A new band for 2013, Chick Corea & The Vigil, featured Corea along with bassist Hadrien Feraud, Marcus Gilmore on drums (carrying on the lineage of jazz from his grandfather, Roy Haynes), saxes, flute, and bass clarinet from Tim Garland, and guitarist Charles Altura.
Corea has stated that Scientology has helped deepen his relationships with others, and helped him find a renewed path. Under the «special thanks» notes in all of his later albums, Corea mentions that L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology, has been a continual source of inspiration.
In 1968 Corea read Dianetics, Hubbard’s most well-known self-help book, and in the early 1970s developed an interest in Hubbard’s science fiction novels. The two exchanged letters until Hubbard’s death in 1986, and Corea had three guest appearances on Hubbard’s 1982 album Space Jazz: The Soundtrack of the Book Battlefield Earth, noting, «[Hubbard] was a great composer and keyboard player as well. He did many, many things. He was a true Renaissance Man.» Corea said that Scientology became a profound influence on his musical direction in the early 1970s: «I no longer wanted to satisfy myself. I really want to connect with the world and make my music mean something to people.»
Issues in Germany
In 1993, Corea was excluded from a concert during the 1993 World Championships in Athletics in Stuttgart, Germany. The concert’s organizers excluded Corea after the state government of Baden-Württemberg had announced it would review its subsidies for events featuring avowed members of Scientology. After Corea’s complaint against this policy before the administrative court was unsuccessful in 1996, members of the U.S. Congress decried a violation of Corea’s human rights in a letter to the German government. However, Corea is not banned from performing in Germany and even had several appearances at the government-supported International Jazz Festival in Burghausen, where he was awarded a plaque in Burghausen’s «Street of Fame» in 2011.
In 1998, Corea and fellow entertainers Anne Archer, Isaac Hayes, and Haywood Nelson attended the 30th anniversary of Freedom magazine, the Church of Scientology’s investigative news journal, at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., to honor 11 human rights activists.