Over the last five decades, few musicians have had the continuous impact of Chick Corea. While in Miles Davis' late 1960s band, he was among the first trailblazers to take on the electric keyboard. Later, he helped define the fusion movement, leading groups like Return to Forever and writing compositions, like "Spain," that transcended the genre of jazz.
Corea continues to avoid predictability. In the past few months he's played solo concerts, duets with Bobby McFerrin, and shows with his Electric Band, while continuing to play concertos with orchestras. And at the Rochester International Jazz Festival, Corea will perform with a new group, Touchstone, which he discusses in the following interview.
Corea answered our questions while on tour in Japan; following is an edited version of the exchange.
City: When you were introduced to electronic keyboards in Miles Davis' band, what was your reaction?
Corea: There wasn't much preparation for me in that Miles didn't announce what he was doing. One night I walked onto the bandstand and there was an acoustic piano that I'd been playing for months and an electric piano that I didn't notice. I started walking toward the acoustic piano. Miles said "no" and pointed toward the electric piano. He said, "play that." I didn't understand what these instruments were or how to make a sound. I had to learn by trial and error.
I struggled for a while until I started to figure out how to make a Fender Rhodes do things, how to make it roar or make strange distorted sounds or make melodies loud enough to blend in with the vigorous, loud drum-playing, because Jack DeJohnette would be bashing on his drums. Normally when he played like that I wouldn't be able to play any piano phrases, but the Rhodes I could turn up.
City: What were the dynamics in Miles' late 1960s band with two keyboard players as strong as you and Herbie Hancock?
Corea: Herbie only came and participated in record dates; he never played live. Recording was really fun. I remember some of the Bitches Brew sessions with Herbie on another Rhodes and [Joe] Zawinul on organ. We really liked and admired each other, not that anyone was sure about what we were doing. It all seemed like experimentation. By 1969, 1970, the avant-garde wave had already hit New York, so it didn't bother us to play a vamp without directions.
City: Miles was famous for not giving directions.
Corea: Sometimes he did by starting the rhythm going or giving a bass line. I'm sure he had melodies in mind but he never told the keyboard player. On In a Silent Way there were no instructions; he just said play an E. We would start playing an E major, then Miles would come in with the melody. After he played it twice you'd realize it was a melody.
City: Do you see Weather Report, Return to Forever, and other fusion bands as having roots in Miles' band?
Corea: After all these years, I'm not sure what fusion is, in terms of Weather Report and Return to Forever and Mahavishnu [Orchestra]. I just heard a Japanese band at a workshop, playing music they had recently composed. It sounded like Weather Report or Return to Forever. Miles was not only a catalyst, Miles was a pivot point for a lot of music that happened in the second half of the 20th century. He led the way as far as demonstrating the ability of the artist to create something new without pandering or asking for a license.
City: On your "Rendezvous in New York" album you combine Joaquín Rodrigo's "Concierto de Aranjuez" with "Spain." Was there a relation between those two works from the start?
Corea: Yes. It's a really strange story as it continues to develop in my life. It comes from a genuine interest in Rodrigo's music, which I first heard in Miles' Sketches of Spain. Gil Evans wrote a wonderful arrangement of the second movement and Miles played so convincingly and beautifully. I began toying with the theme in the process of writing and the flavor of that melody led me into writing "Spain."
Because it was such a direct inspiration, when I recorded "Spain" I used Rodrigo's theme as an intro, which, to me, made complete sense. At that time I didn't have the legal respect of the copyright to acknowledge Rodrigo for his theme. It wasn't until years later we got that straightened out. Later, I met Señor Rodrigo as an old man. He came to a concert in Madrid and I apologized for not acknowledging it. I paid royalties to him retroactively and I thanked him for his music. We became friends.
City: Is there any connection between "Spain" and Stevie Wonder's "Sir Duke"? I've always assumed "Spain" influenced "Sir Duke."
Corea: In the early 1970s, when Return to Forever was performing around New York, Stevie used to come to our concerts. He's a hero of mine, one of the non-jazz performers who sits on the top of my list. We became friends. He must have really dug some of the first records because we'd leave each other phone messages and he'd sing licks over the phone. When I heard "Sir Duke" I thought "OK, we're sort of duplicating each other."
City: You've had so many bands; how would you characterize Touchstone?
Corea: Touchstone expresses my Spanish heart more than any other band. At the last concert of a tour, in Madrid, a few years ago, I invited some of my Spanish friends. At the end of the concert there were 12 musicians on stage jamming on "Spain." While I was playing I was thinking: I'm going to call these guys up and make music.
Chick Corea & Touchstone with Strunz & Farah play at the Eastman Theatre, 60 Gibbs Street, on Tuesday, June 14, at 8 p.m. as part of the Rochester International Jazz Festival. $27.50-$50, www.rochesterjazz.com. Full schedule available at www.rochester-citynews.com