By Todd Whitesel
Keyboardist Chick Corea needs little introduction to jazz fans. For more than 40 years he has been at the music’s forefront, helping Miles Davis usher in his mind-blowing fusion projects in the late ’60s, heading the free-jazz outfit Circle and the influential Return To Forever in the 1970s and fronting his own Akoustic and Elektric bands in the ’80s and beyond.
Corea’s latest solo effort, The Ultimate Adventure, is an intriguing mix of world-jazz spiced with North African and Spanish flavors.
Goldmine spoke to Corea shortly after the album’s release, during the first part of his 2006 North American tour.
Goldmine: This album is a tone poem based on L. Ron Hubbard’s book The Ultimate Adventure. How do you try to connect music with literature?
Chick Corea: In this instance it’s specialized because of my love of L. Ron Hubbard, his writing and everything he’s put forth since I discovered his writing and work in 1968. After studying scientology for a while, I became aware of his fiction writing, which I became a very big fan of. I love his fiction writing; he wrote about 250 novels and screenplays and various kinds of fiction in the ’30s and ’40s.
I started writing music to a science fiction novel of his a couple years ago called To The Stars. The project was so invigorating for me that I wanted to do another one. I had already put my band together, made up of three Spaniards — Jorge Pardo, Carles Benavent, Ruben Dantas — so when I went to choose another L. Ron Hubbard novel I wanted to find one where the musical portrayal could fit the band. And The Ultimate Adventure just popped right out at me.
These songs have a timeless quality. Do you think the long history of African and Spanish music contributes to that vibe?
I don’t have a lot of thought about the style of it and how it came about except for the fact that my current band are musicians who are steeped in the Spanish/Flamenco tradition. Of course, my love for any kind of Latin music — Spanish music, Cuban music, South American music — has been prevalent for my whole life. All these things came together on this record.
Did you write the songs chronologically to follow the book’s plot?
Not really the plot. I read the book several times and began to sketch out portraits; I call them portraits of the characters of the book or certain places in the book. There’s a portrait of the two main characters: One is El Stephen; the other one is Queen Tedmur. There’s a portrait of the place where the story takes place, the City Of Brass, and various other characters and places.
In an interview on your DVD Chick Corea Akoustic Band, you said that songwriting comes fairly easy to you. Was that true of this project?
Well, yeah. One of the bursts of creativity and inspiration was that the music kind of came pouring out, and I found it real fun to do. Like painting musical portraits of the places and people in the book. But then when I brought the scores and the basic music to my band, they then added their expression to it and created what we have on the recording.
“City Of Brass” is very cinematic. Do you approach a song like that as a tone poem of its own?
Yeah. Each one was a whole thing on its own. “City Of Brass” came from a basic mood that was created when I did an improvisation with the Egyptian tabla player on the record, Hossam Ramzy. We set the mood with that. He’s from Egypt and gave me that Arabic feel with his beat. Then we added the rest of the musicians afterward. The City Of Brass is the main area where the story takes place.
You can get a sense of what the city looks like even without knowing the story. That’s a great success.
Cool. Yeah. One of the big factors in parts of the story is a book that the lead character is infatuated with, which is The Arabian Nights. He gets transported into the story and becomes part of The Arabian Nights, and the City Of Brass is where all the action happens.
There’s some interesting use of percussion here, particularly on “Moseb The Executioner.” The last part of that has a really sinister, going-to-the-gallows feel.
Yeah! That’s interesting. Did you read the book?
That’s very wild, because “Moseb The Executioner,” in that last part, actually does portray a point where the lead character is being led not to a gallows but a stake where he’s going to get burned.
“El Stephen” has a great groove. Was that inspired by a Steve Gadd drum lick?
That was actually a piece I whipped together myself, and Steve came in — actually the first drum groove on that was made on a drum machine. Steve came in and just made it big and s quare and solid with the beats that he played. Yeah, I thought that one came off real nice. Steve’s snare-drum playing at the end is a particularlycool part.
This album has a near-perfect balance between acoustic and electric performances. Was that a goal?
The goal that I had set was not to place any limits on what I would do technically to render the music. With To The Stars, my project before that, the band was very set; I used The Elektric Band and the sound of The Elektric Band. With this project I decided if I wanted to add sounds or different players to expand the expression of it that I would do it. That led me to using keyboards and all kinds of colors — acoustic and electric — and also, as you see, adding other musicians to the band like Airto [Moreira], Steve, and Vinnie Colaiuta, Huey Laws, Tim Garland, Hossam Ranzy, and Frank Gambale.
“Flight From Karoof” and “Arabian Nights” could be new signature tunes for you. Do you have any favorites from this album?
Each one sort of had its own way of being born. They’re just all very different from one another. Now that we’re performing them live every night they’re also taking on a completely new character in live performance. Plus we added a young flamenco dancer to the show, and she’s added a whole other element to the music.
How important from a dynamics standpoint is a sense of touch when you’re playing electric keyboards?
It actually varies very, very widely, and it depends on the program being used, the keyboard that’s being used and many other sort-of mechanical factors. Whereas the piano has a fixed piano — different pianos are different — one piano will have a fixed action. One instrument that I used a lot on the record had a fixed action, and that was the Fender Rhodes. That required a particular touch all its own. But then as far as the synthesizer goes, it depends on which patch, which sounds I use; they all require different ways to touch them in order to elicit the right sound.
Did you collect records growing up? If so, what might we find in that collection?
I collected LPs as soon as they first started coming out. When I was a kid and first started listening to records there were no LPs — it was 78 rpm vinyl; that’s what my dad had around. But as soon as 33 rpm LPs started to be made, I started my collection of Horace Silver, Miles Davis, and Bud Powell and a lot of different things. When I moved to New York to go to school in 1959, my whole LP collection was stolen on my first day in New York. [laughs]
Then I continued to collect, but then there was a certain point where CDs were the thing and I stopped playing LPs. About eight years ago I decided that I was going to put my turntables back in shape, and I started playing LPs again. Now I have them very, very thoroughly happening in my listening room again.