Chick Corea, a renowned acoustic pianist and versatile composer who became immersed in jazz fusion and one of its profound innovators on electric keyboards with his groups Return to Forever, the Elektric Band and Vigil, died Feb. 9 at his home in Tampa, Florida. He was 79.
Corea died of a rare form of cancer, his team posted on his website. His death was confirmed by Corea’s marketing manager and family spokesman, Dan Muse.
Corea recorded 90 albums as a bandleader and won 23 Grammys, more than any other jazz musician with the exception of Quincy Jones (28). He also won three Latin Grammys. He has a chance to posthumously win at the March 14 Grammy presentation, where he’s nominated for best improvised jazz solo for “All Blues” and best jazz instrumental album for “Trilogy 2.” In 2006 he was named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master.
In a November interview with BBC, Corea spoke about how making music gives him the freedom to express himself and explore things. “Jazz, I see it as this little window. You could call it jazz or you could just call it a choice that you make to make creative music, but it’s this little window in life where you kinda get away with it,” Corea said. “If you communicate well and you engage your listeners and it brings them some kind of pleasure or inspiration then you’ve accomplished the goal of art.”
Corea was a traditionalist who loved improvising in a trio configuration but at the same time he was an explorer. Composing and arranging for symphony orchestra, chamber music, performing solo-piano concerts or duo piano with Herbie Hancock or vibraphonist Gary Burton was all part of his platform. Suddenly, in the next he would be using his arsenal of technology devices to play fusion jazz tinged with rock amongst wailing guitars and roaring percussions but then he could come back with haunting vocals or definitive melodies to stimulate your eardrums.
Moving into his late 20s toward the end of the 1960s, Corea had already began playing with such musicians as Dizzy Gillespie, Sarah Vaughan and Mongo Santamaria. His first two albums as a leader included “Tones for Joan’s Bones” (1966) that featured flautist Herbie Mann as producer and “Now He Sings, Now He Sobs” featuring two intuitive partners, double bassist Miroslav Vitous and legendary drummer pioneer Roy Haynes. This collaboration raised the art of trio playing to new heights. Both are now considered classics.
By joining Miles Davis in 1968, he became part of a unique group of keyboardists (including Herbie Hancock, Joe Zawinul, Larry Young and Keith Jarrett) who Davis utilized to add that new exotic sound he could merge with zooming improvisations. Corea was a member of this group who eventually went out and transformed the way music was played. At the time Davis was listening to Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone and was exploring ways to connect with young listeners. After replacing Herbie Hancock, Corea proved to be another rich ingredient playing electronic keyboards on groundbreaking fusion albums such as “In a Silent Way” (1969) and “Bitches Brew” (1970). Both Corea and Hancock played on Davis’ “On the Corner” (1972), “Filles de Kilimanjaro” (1968), “Big Fun” (1974) and “Water Babies” (1976).
Corea and bassist Dave Holland (also from Davis’ fusion band) moved on from Davis to dig even deeper into fusion possibilities and formed the quartet circle that included saxophonist Anthony Braxton and drummer Barry Altschul. The group became acknowledged players on the avant garde set. This band led in 1971 to his forming one of the most significant fusion groups in jazz, Return to Forever. The band, which evolved over the years, initially included singer and percussionist Flora Purim, her husband drummer/percussionist Airto Moreira, saxophonist as well as flautist Joe Farrell, and the young bassist Stanley Clarke.
Their first album, titled simply “Return to Forever,” was recorded for ECM Records in 1972, and was initially released only in Europe. This album featured Corea’s now famous compositions “Crystal Silence” and “La Fiesta.” Their second album, “Light as a Feather” (1973), was released by Polydor and included the song “Spain,” which also became a standard composition. After the second album, guitarist Bill Connors, drummer Steve Gadd and percussionist Mingo Lewis were added. However, Lenny White (a member of Davis’ fusion band with Corea) replaced Gadd. The group’s third album “Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy” with its new members was released in 1973. The band throughout its years crossed the genre borderline injecting Brazilian, Spanish and other global influences.
This was during the period that Corea began following the teachings of Scientology which influenced his music with “Return to Forever” and other projects. He later noted the conversion helped him to communicate better with the audience.
Armando Anthony Corea was born on June 12, 1941 in Chelsea, Massachusetts. His father, also named Armando Corea, was a trumpeter and bandleader in Boston, and his mother, Anna (Zaccone) Corea, was a homemaker. He was introduced to the piano at age 4 by his father. His love for music was boundless and he listened to piano legends such as Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk, as well as Beethoven and Mozart. By the time he reached high school he was already performing professionally.
He moved to New York City to study at Columbia University and Juilliard, but realized the real classes existed on the bandstand learning in the clubs. He started playing early with the legendary big band leader and “Hi-De-Ho” singer Cab Calloway followed by gigs in a totally different direction with Latin jazz percussionists Willie Bobo and Mongo Santamaría.
He had fans across many genres that included hip-hop artist Q-Tip, who called Corea “one of the coldest pianist, keyboardist, songwriters of all time,” and rapper Biz Markie celebrated Corea’s 1972 jazz fusion group “Return to Forever,” calling it “fossil fuel for an eternity of rap samples.”
He is survived by his wife, Gayle Moran, his son Thaddeus and daughter Liana from a previous marriage, and by two grandchildren.