It's safe to say that most people who reach their 70th birthday have started to slow down and take it a bit easier than in their youth. But that is certainly not the case for keyboardist Chick Corea, whose early career saw him make his debut as a leader in 1966 and perform alongside Joe Henderson and Stan Getz. He hit it big with Miles Davis' landmark late-'60s electric bands and his landmark '70s fusion group Return to Forever. Recently, he has performed in duos with pianist Hiromi, banjo player Bela Fleck and old friend Gary Burton on vibes. He's also recorded and toured with John McLaughlin in the electric Five Peace Band, performed solo, played in countless trios and worked with various jazz and classical orchestras. In 2008, he reunited the classic lineup of Return to Forever and then toured with RTF's Stanley Clarke and Lenny White in an acoustic trio that tackled jazz classics and reinterpreted some of their electric material.
A new double album, 'Forever,' offers one disc of live tracks from the acoustic tour and a second bonus disc of electric material where violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, original RTF guitarist Bill Connors and vocalist Chaka Khan joined the fun. Corea is taking an electric quintet out this summer with White, Clark, Ponty and guitarist Frank Gambale and later this year he will celebrate his 70th birthday with a month-long run at the Blue Note Club that will feature groups from different points in his career. We caught up with the iconic pianist recently by phone for the latest in AAJ's Jazz Legends interview series.
There is an incredible variety of projects on your resume, particularly in recent years. What's up? Are you easily bored?
Or maybe I can't make up my mind. No, just kidding. Really, I'm just having a lot of fun, man. I have a lot of richness in my life with musicians and artist friends. One of the things I like to do on a project is absorb more and learn more, because I work with musicians who have something artistically to offer. That's the continual student in me. The other reason is that there is a richness to the friendships that results in projects and ideas.
So, moving from project to project means that you are just not stuck with the same guys, day in and day out?
Well, being stuck isn't a good thing. But in a sense, I miss having a steady group, a group of musicians who develop together. It's something that every year I'm thinking about. At this point in time it would probably have to be with some younger musicians, but any way that you are doing it, if you are doing it freely from the heart, it doesn't matter if it's short-lived or long-lived. I admire bands that can stay together and really keep on creating. It's unusual though.
Return to Forever Perform 'The Romantic Warrior' in 2008Is this craving of musicians who have developed together the reason for this project with Stanley and Lenny?
Well, yes. It's been a long friendship and musical association. Stanley and I go back to the first formation of Return to Forever, or actually to weeklong gig we did together in Philadelphia with the Joe Henderson Sextet. He had an upright bass with an amplifier and I was playing Fender Rhodes and we hit it off. We put together several trios before I came to the idea of returning to New York with the idea of putting it together with a vocalist. Flora Purim singing with me resulted in Airto, her husband, coming along and playing kit drums. I hadn't known he played drums that way because when we worked with Miles he played percussion. So Lenny came into the band in '73 after Steve Gadd, who was the first drummer in the electric band, and there was an instant chemistry. Lenny also played a lot with Joe Henderson and played a lot with Stanley. He was Stanley's friend back then. The three of us gelled really well, so we like to keep it going. In 2009, we did an acoustic trio where we jammed on the classics and it sounded great. They are such a great rhythm section.
What were some of the things you explored as an acoustic trio?
We were trying to explore those rhythms and that vibe of music. We ended up playing some of the Return to Forever stuff acoustically for the fans and that turned out good too because of the different way we were touching our instruments. It was a lot of fun. After that, we decided to do another grouping of Return to Forever, which is what we are doing this year.
This time with Frank Gambale on guitar, right?
Yes, he was from my Elektric Band. Just with the instrument of the guitar, there's always been a challenge among musicians where the keyboard player tries to play in a jazz group with a guitarist. Guitarists play chords and do a similar function to what the piano does or can do. When Frank and I first got together in the Elektric Band, we had a lot of problems and challenges trying to make what we liked to do work. We worked it all out and after a while it got very smooth. Then to bring in Jean-Luc, who was one of the guys that helped create that fusion movement in '70s, his playing with Mahavishnu is still a hallmark of fusion playing and jazz playing. There are a lot of wonderful associations with this new quintet. We have a lot of things to explore.
Will it be an ongoing thing?
I'm not sure. I hope so. You never know until everyone gets in there. Everyone has a busy schedule as a leader and a record producer, so to make this a steady working band is not far-fetched, but who knows? We may have so much fun that we will want to do it again.
Speaking of Mahavishnu, you got to play with John McLaughlin in the Five Peace Band. How was that?
It was one of the high points of my life to play with John. He's one of my favorites and always has been. He's great but we never did a thorough project together. We both wrote some music and pieced the whole thing together. We are going to get together for a few days in November at the Blue Note with that band as part of my 70th birthday.
So what's going to happen?
It's going to be a month long, and every three nights there is going to be a different band. We are playing six days a week. It will be Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday will be a band. Then Friday, Saturday and Sunday will be another band. It will be a great jam session for a month. I'm really looking forward to it.
Yeah, yeah, that was great too. You know, I'm having too much fun. I have a feeling I'm going to get arrested. It was a really free and open environment. They both played with Bill, Eddie for 11 years and of course Paul in that classic trio with Scott LaFaro. It was called Further Explorations of Bill Evans and we chose a few of his songs. We were even doing one song that was never performed before that he wrote for a publisher. I got it from his son Evan Evans. I just got done mixing that for release in Japan and we are going to call it 'Further Explorations.' Bill had a recording called 'Explorations,' so I took that idea and added to it. There were also some tunes from me and the other guys too.
We remember a Monk tune.
I don't have a hard statistic on this, but from my wanderings around the planet and listening, I believe that Thelonious Monk is the most performed composer on the planet. More than Duke Ellington and so forth. Everyone loves to play his tunes.
What's the appeal for you?
It's hard to explain. I met him once, but I hung around Monk a lot, growing up in New York. I saw him play a lot of sets and I'm familiar with the vibe. But the tunes he writes are so creative and so simple. They are like a pop song, like 'Eleanor Rigby,' where you start to hear the melody and you sing along.
I remember seeing him at one club on the Lower East Side where Ornette Coleman used to play as well. I was listening to the set and in the middle of a solo I think Charlie Rouse was playing and an alarm clock sitting on the piano went off. It was a kids' clock, one of those old-fashioned ones with the two bells on top. It rang and Monk shut the alarm of and the band walked off stage [laughs]. I remember that the club owner only allowed 20-minute sets because he wanted people to buy more drinks. So that was Monk's way of complying with the rule.
So why not bring Al Di Meola back and make it a full classic reunion of the RTF quartet?
Well, the chemistry of this quintet is pretty well intact. We did eight concerts in Australia in February and it was just a lot of fun. The combination of the violin with the singing guitar was real attractive to me. The band has nice, rich tones. I sampled my Fender Rhodes and inputted it into my Yamaha keyboard and it sounds really good. It works really well wit the violin and guitar. To have that sound is a real inspiration for me as a composer.
So can people expect new tunes?
Stanley wrote a beautiful new tune called 'New York.' I wrote some new stuff. Then we will put a new spin on the RTF material. We are doing short festival sets this summer so it will be 75-minute sets. There will be some of Lenny's repertoire and some of my earlier stuff and some of Jean-Luc's pieces that are pretty well known. So it is a work in progress.
You'll be doing acoustic and electric and mixing and matching?
Absolutely. We'll be playing some acoustic. We may play [RTF's] 'No Mystery' or 'Romantic Warrior' as an acoustic tune.
You tend to revisit things, unlike Miles Davis, who would walk through a door and shut it behind him, not playing the older music after a change. Why go back to things?
It came to me in an epiphany in 2001. Exactly 10 years ago, I was doing my 60th birthday and jam session at the Blue Note. At first I resisted the idea because it was presented to me by the club. I wasn't so sure about all the reunions, but my wife Gail saw the real positive side of getting together with old friends and approaching it like a celebration of life. That's what we did. It was such a great time with all these guys coming down and it occurred to me that basis of my music is the richness of all these friendships with these people. Why do I need to consider it a reunion to get together with them? Why can't we just get together with old friends and new friends and make some music? From that point on, I reached out a little more to get in contact with friends who mean a lot to me in my life.