The epiphany came in his late teens. He was supposed to be studying McNeill’s History of Western Civilisation, but when he opened the cover, rather than any words, her saw a vision of Miles Davis. He checked the New York gig guide. Miles and his quintet were playing at Birdland that night. Decision made. Sitting just a couple of tables away from John Coltrane, pianist Wynton Kelly and the others, the History of Western Civilisation chapter of Chick Corea’s life slammed shut and the jazz chapter exploded into life. A dozen years later, he joined Miles’s band.
Not that Chick Corea didn’t already know about jazz. He’d been listening to his father’s bebop records all through his childhood. A professional trumpeter, his father was also something of a multi-instrumentalist, and saw to it that as well as playing piano from the age of four, Chick became competent on trumpet, vibraphone and especially drums.
Born in Boston in 1941, Armando Corea was lovingly called “Chicky” as a little boy, a name which, by the time he was nine, he’d insisted be abbreviated to something less embarrassing. While in high school he started playing in Latin dance bands. “It was a completely different thing to jazz,” he told me. “It was more extroverted, it was more for dancing and it was more fun. I liked it a lot. From that point I became aware of this nice relationship between what I do as a musician and how it affects people.” He never lost that perspective.
Miles’s 1960 masterpiece Sketches of Spain was a huge influence, which Corea drew on 11 years later when penning his best-known composition, Spain. Some of his earliest New York gigs were in the Latin bands of Mongo Santamaria and Willie Bobo. When he replaced Herbie Hancock in Miles’s band in 1968, drummer Jack DeJohnette talked him into setting up a second kit, so they could both go wild behind saxophonist Wayne Shorter’s solos. Miles said nothing. Then one night while Chick was on drums, Jack took to Chick’s electric piano, and at that Miles silently drew a finger across his throat.
Chick and Miles were made for each other. It was Miles who told him had to go electric, wanting to grab the ears of a new generation, and wanting even more be reenergised by a new band sound. He loved Chick’s harmonic creativity; the way the band could sit on a simple riff, and Chick would keep colouring it different ways.
Eventually Corea tired of making psychedelic swirls of harmony and cut out to go acoustic, again. Reaching a wider audience was intoxicating, however, and in fact he spent most of the ’70s preoccupied with electric projects. Miles had a lasting effect on his relationship with music, including a love of changing things up. “Working in familiar territory always puts me to sleep,” Chick said. The range of projects he’s brought to Australia since 1978 exemplifies this: a 13-piece band (including a string quartet); an acoustic quartet; the duo with vibraphonist Gary Burton (once with the SSO); the electric Return to Forever; the Five Peace Band (with John McLaughlin); the two-piano duo with Herbie Hancock.
Through it all the pull of sitting alone at a grand piano never left. After a gruelling tour and a 30-hour trip home, he’d give his wife a hug, and go to the piano. He had no choice. The music oozed from his pores, and came out in his distinctive touch, infectious rhythms, dazzling melodies, and those flaring harmonies. He’s shifted easily between introversion, extroversion, innocence and playfulness. The brilliant Spanish singer Concha Buika observed that he always made playing music feel easy, and that was the biggest challenge of all.
His most recent solo album, Plays, ties together much of the Corean perspective, like finding the missing link between Mozart and Gershwin, and getting deep inside the Thelonious mindset to play Monk. It’s an album that leaves you happier than before you played it.
Plays streams on Apple Music and Spotify; on disc from Birdland Records.