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Interview: Chick Corea on Fusion

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Back in 2011, I interviewed Chick Corea for JazzWax on the rise of jazz fusion in the late 1960s and the formation of his seminal avant-garde and electric groups. Chick's passing last week was a major loss for jazz and for music. In addition to being a dynamic force in traditional acoustic jazz and in jazz-rock, he was a participant and witness to the shifting music landscape in the late 1960s and early '70s as jazz interpreted rock, FM radio thrived and component stereo systems became popular. As anyone who has spent time with Chick knows, he was a lovely and measured person. He saved his intensity for the keyboard. Conversation was always gentle, thoughful and relaxed.

Chick had a heck of a ride. He began recording in 1962 in the boogaloo bands of Willie Bobo and Mongo Santamaria. Then he recorded in the Latin-soul band of Montego Joe in 1964, followed by a hard bop ensemble led by Blue Mitchell in 1965 and Cal Tjader's Latin-swing group of 1966. Chick's first album as a leader was Tones for Joan's Bones in 1966, a breakout hard-bop date with a modal feel. Now He Sings, Now He Sobs followed in 1968, offering a more refined experimental sound. Then came Miles Davis's electric bands, Chick's free-form period, and his seminal Return to Forever jazz-fusion bands of the early 1970s.

While Chick led quite a few exciting bands and trios over the decades, it's jazz-rock fusion that I chose to focus on for our interview. I've long found the period fascinating and culturally transitional, especially since Chick was on the cutting edge of the movement that challenged traditional acoustic jazz.

Here's my multipart conversation with Chick in 2011 combined into one post:

Jazzwax: Was one of your earliest paid gigs really with Cab Calloway?

Chick Corea: Well, I made some money playing dances and stuff when I was in high school. But playing a gig with Cab was the first time I worked outside of my father’s circle. My father played trumpet, and I’d go on gigs with him.

JW: How did the gig with Calloway work out?

CC: When I was a junior in high school—I guess I was 15 or 16 years old—I was called to do a gig with Cab's band for a week at Boston’s Mayfair Hotel. That was my first real stepping-out. I was stunned. All of a sudden I had to wear a tuxedo and it was like a big show with lights on the stage. It was kind of scary, you know? He had a dance line of ladies who were only dressed a little bit. They seemed huge to me. They were daunting.

JW: What was Calloway like?

CC: Cab was cool. He was fun. After a little while, I got into the swing of it and started really loving being out on my own like that. As for the entertainment value of it all, I was just thrilled to be there. I didn’t notice anything particular in terms of the show’s bigness. One of the interesting sidelights to that gig was that I became aware of an incredible pianist who I listened to every night.

JW: Who?

CC: Well, my gig with Cab ran every night for a week. In between shows, I went into the hotel lounge and sat near the piano. The guy playing was Herman Chittison, who played in the style of Art Tatum. He was amazing. I sat there gawking at him for the whole week. [Photo of Herman Chittison by William P. Gottlieb]

JW: Much has been written about Bob Dylan going electric in 1965 and the uproar. Miles Davis did the same thing with jazz and so did you, generating similar hostility. How do you feel about those years looking back?

CC: The sound of jazz began to change during the time I was in Miles’s band. Before joining Miles, I had been pretty much a purist in my tastes. I loved Miles and John Coltrane and all the musicians who surrounded them. But I didn’t look much further into rock or pop. I listened to a little bit of classical music, but that was it for me. When Miles began to experiment, I became aware of rock bands and the energy and the different type of communication they had with audiences during a show.

JW: What did you notice specifically?

CC: I’d see young people at rock concerts standing to listen rather than sitting politely. It was a different vibe and more my generation. It got me interested in communicating that way. People were standing because they were emotionally caught up in what they were hearing. I related to that.

JW: Were volume, lights and stagecraft part of rock's appeal and the audience's mood? 

CC: I think so. I find that audiences tend to have to agree about what mood they’re going to be in based on the venue. Like when you go to the Village Vanguard, for example, audiences tend to be real quiet. They drink quiet, they whisper and there’s not a whole lot of loud applause. Just a little, because you don’t want to bother anyone. It’s that kind of vibe. In other clubs, the vibe might be just a little wilder.

JW: The same was true in the late '60s?

CC: Absolutely. If you went to the Palladium or the Fillmore in New York, they were rock venues so audiences there knew that the vibe was different. It was noisier, more explosive and a younger scene.

JW: Was Miles Davis trying to appeal to a younger audience?

CC: He sensed early that something big was shifting in the culture. Miles didn't want to give up his form of jazz expression but he wanted to communicate with that new crowd, to a younger, more emotional audience. So the sound and the rhythm of his music changed. The band I was in with Miles starting in '68 was pretty wild. It was transitional in the fusion movement, and we were doing all kinds of stuff. 

JW: From your perspective, what was electric jazz-fusion?

CC: A lot of different things. That's a mechanical term—electric… jazz… fusion. Fusion was evolving through the years. In my own little keyboard area in the early '70s, I was mixing instruments more and more. I’d mix the acoustic piano with the Fender Rhodes or an electric rig. In 1993, I assembled a contemporary version of my Elektric Band from 1986. We took a long “Paint the World” tour. It was an attempt to take the louder, rockier electric sound but keep a jazzier sound with the Fender Rhodes and so forth. That’s what that band was all about.

JW: When does jazz-fusion arrive exactly?

CC: Oh, the history of it. That’s your job, man [laughs]. It’s tough to say. When I talk to bassist Stanley Clarke and drummer Lenny White, they’re about 10 years younger than I am, so they had a different experience. For instance, Stanley was into rhythm and blues and deep into James Brown and Sly and the Family Stone before I became aware of them. So the arrival is tricky to nail down to any single date in time.

JW: Let me rephrase: When did you realize jazz was changing?

CC: When I was in Miles’ band. I became aware that jazz was changing and that this thing called fusion and jazz-rock was emerging. When I recorded on Miles Davis’ Filles de Kilimanjaro in June 1968, I used the electric piano and Ron Carter was on electric bass. So there was a taste of that then. We also used electric piano and electric bass on In a Silent Way in February 1969. But that was just the beginning.

JW: Was Tony Williams a major influence?

CC: Absolutely. When I joined Miles in ‘68, Tony was still in the band and remained there until the spring of ’69. When Tony left along with guitarist John McLaughlin, the first time I saw them after that was with Tony’s Lifetime trio—with John and Larry Young on organ. I saw them perform down at the Vanguard and they blew me away. That group did a lot to change the sound of jazz.

JW: How so?

CC: It’s the first time the rock sound was fully integrated into jazz. There were no horns, just Tony’s driving drums, John’s rock guitar and Larry’s hot organ. In fact, the first time I saw Lifetime, I had to put plugs in my ears. It was the loudest thing I'd ever heard, but I loved it. What they were doing was kind of early for jazz-rock fusion. Tony’s Emergency [in May 1969] with Lifetime was ahead of Miles at the time. But even though we didn't record Bitches Brew until three months later, Miles was setting the pace. In the face of all the critics and the jazz purists, he was changing the form of his music by adapting and integrating what he heard and saw.

JW: Is part of jazz-fusion's surge a desire by musicians to relate to younger audiences using electric instruments and volume?

CC: Yeah, that’s part of it. My opinion, generally, is that all music lacks value and humanity and feeling and depth when it’s devoid of an audience. I mean, if you think of me sitting in my room playing music just for myself, I mean there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s a great activity. But in terms of music as a culture and a society, you have to take changes in audiences into account.

JW: Is that what you did with your form of jazz-fusion?

CC: I’ve found that musicians always want to communicate. You don’t want to not communicate, right? You want to get something across. But you can’t just do what interests only you. My own personal tastes in music would turn everyone off. It would probably turn you off. So back then, I differentiated my own personal tastes in music from my attempt to bring my love of music to audiences that were looking for a new relationship with it, a new sound.

JW: Is stage excitement and lights part of the movement as well?

CC: I don’t know. I have seen performances by musicians on a single acoustic instrument that made audiences rock. I’ve seen Bobby McFerrin go out with nothing but his voice and excite an audience. I really think the mechanics of a stage or an instrument—whether it’s electric or not—is far less important than the artist and what he’s doing and his intention and how he delivers things, you know? There tends to be an agreement that pop and rock share certain things, like a beat and an excitement and so forth. It’s like an agreed-upon thing. But for me and the musicians I’ve worked with, I’ve always worked outside that box.

JW: Was hard rock influencing you in the early '70s?

CC: A little bit. But the first rock group that really got to me was John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra [laughs]. I considered that a rock group when I heard them in 1973, there was that audience, and it definitely wasn't a Village Vanguard audience. There were long-haired kids with that vibe lighting matches in support of what was going on. To me that was rock 'n' roll, but on jazz's level of intensity.

JW: Anyone else influence you?

CC: Stevie Wonder. His music I really loved, and it reached me on a lot of different levels, not just as pop or soul. His music had a deep message for me from an artist standpoint, and the writing was beautiful. The spiritual side was amazing. Stevie is really a musician beyond category. I also listened to Joni Mitchell in the late '60s. I thought she was a really creative lady in the way she made her music. She was delicate with the form of her music. Her music didn’t have a lot of force in it, but it had a great groove and a great message.

JW: Did you thrive on large audiences?

CC: I got a kick out of every kind of audience, not just large ones. For instance, my last tour earlier this year with Return to Forever IV—with Stanley Clarke, Lenny White, Jean-Luc Ponty and Frank Gambale—we put a set together that went through a lot of different tones but mostly was pretty forceful on the rhythm end. We ended up almost every night with Stanley’s School Days, from 1976, which got people on their feet rocking real hard. It was just a lot of fun.

JW: How does that compare with an acoustic group? CC: When I played the Blue Note earlier this year with Paul Motian and Eddie Gomez for two weeks, the audience was sitting and listening intently. They were enthusiastic and clapped really nicely, but it was a different vibe, but I enjoyed that as well. The two are different.

JW: Do you think you were influencing rock in the early '70s?

CC: Probably. Rock didn’t exist in a vacuum and neither did jazz. Good musicians listen to a range of styles, for enjoyment and to find new ideas. I think we rubbed off on rock as their game improved. Musicians put on other artists' records and either they heard something special or they didn't. They didn’t choose what they put on based on what section of the store it was purchased in.

JW: So musicians of your generation back then didn’t see themselves as distinctly jazz or rock?

CC: No. Musicians generally felt they were part of a group, a club. We were all people who are trying to save the planet, and it's the same way today. Musicians are open and there has always been an exchange program between rock and jazz, as quietly as it’s kept. That’s the way musicians actually operate. We listen to each other a lot, and we did that a great deal back then. 

JW: Your first Return to Forever band in 1972 had a gentle, neo-Brazilian vibe. Why?

CC: I wouldn’t say gentle. Some of it was pretty exciting, like Captain Marvel. But I’ll agree that it was mellow music. I was coming off of 2½ years of playing with Miles Davis and Wayne Shorter and Jack DeJohnette and Dave Holland, where the music was highly experimental, wild and edgy. It was a blast. But that experience took me into new interests, along with Dave.

JW: How so?

CC: With our band Circle in 1970, we took the experimental concept even further. In that group—Anthony Braxton, Dave, Barry Altschul and me—we played whole concerts where the music was improvised from beginning to end. There was no song form—we did away with it. We went into space where we made up the music as we went along. That was incredibly invigorating and fun.

JW: What happened with the group?

CC: After a while, I felt I was missing the connection I got from audiences when I offered them something more lyrical. I wanted to play things that were lyrical. That’s what led me put Return to Forever together in 1972 for the music I had written.

JW: What caused the shift in Return to Forever to a much more dynamic and bombastic sound, starting with Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy?

CC: It was a quickly evolving thing with me and Stanley [Clarke]. The band had personnel changes that were needed. When we hooked up with drummer Lenny White, we played a week at the Keystone Korner in San Francisco in 1972. We did that just to try out the trio, and the trio took on a kind of fire. I was playing just a Fender Rhodes, and Stanley played amplified upright bass.

JW: But along the way in 1973, the music became much more ferocious.

CC: That was because of Lenny’s playing. Lenny’s a different kind of drummer than Airto. We also had the idea to find an electric guitarist. When I heard what John McLaughlin did with the electric guitar, I thought, “Man, I’d like to write for that sound.” So we went out to find an electric guitarist. The result was hiring Billy Connors, who played some lyrical guitar on that first record, Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy.

JW: Where did you find Connors?

CC: We found him that week we played in San Francisco. One of our intentions was to audition guitarists, but only a couple of them came by to the Keystone Korner while we were there. Billy was the one we liked, so we hired him. As a side note, when we were recently in San Francisco on tour, Stanley, Lenny and I went by 750 Vallejo Street where the Keystone Korner stood. We asked some people what remembrances they had of the club.

JW: Why?

CC: We were making a little documentary. Not many people remembered the club. A cop walked by who looked the age, and I asked him. There was a police station right next to the old club. The cop said he sort of remembered it.

JW: What was driving you in '73 to create much more dynamic music?

CC: Stanley [pictured] and I were just following what we had begun to do, which was to write. The first piece I wrote for what I call the “Grand Sound" was Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy, the opening piece for that record. We all remember the first rundown of that song at our first rehearsal.

JW: What happened?

CC: The hair stood up on my arm. It was so exciting and it worked so great and everyone was so enthusiastic about it. It really set a new direction, and it developed from there. The venues we were playing were bigger and the audiences picked up on the vibe. There was a synergy going on between what we were creating and how audiences were digging it. That kind of grew.

JW: What happened the day of that rehearsal?

CC: First of all, Lenny wasn’t able to make it. Though he did play on the trio I had for a while, he still had some commitments to the group Azteca in San Francisco. So I went back and got my friend [Steve] Gadd [pictured] to play. Steve was there at that rehearsal along with Billy Connors. We also put in a percussionist, Mingo Lewis, who we also found in San Francisco. He played conga and bongos.

JW: Where was the rehearsal held?

CC: At a loft I was renting downtown in New York. When we took the chart out, Steve just kind of ate it up. Gadd is like the ultimate professional musician as well as an incredible creative master at his instrument. He took a hold of it right away. It took me and Stanley and Billy a little longer to learn the notes. But when we started to get it together, like after a couple of runs, we started to put it into tempo and got rid of the sheet music. That’s when the thing took fire. 

JW: What happened?

CC: Well, when we got rid of the music, we played the tune from beginning to end with energy, and that just blew me away. It blew everybody away. We knew we had something new. [Photo above, from left, Al Di Meola, Lenny White, Stanley Clarke and Chick Corea c. 1973]

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2021. All rights reserved.

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