Chick Corea shared his inner creative soul on "Plays"

On Chick Corea’s 2-CD package, "Plays" (Concord), he needed no rhythm section, no blaring horns to make his points. His 10 fingers cascading wildly over the 88 keys of his piano creates new vistas of meaning to 300 years of compositional gems by varied composers. Corea explained the joy of making "Plays" to Goldmine.
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By Mike Greenblatt

[Chick Corea passed away on February 9 at the age of 78. This interview feature originally ran in Goldmine's October 2020 print edition]

Chick Corea. Photo by Toshi Sakurai courtesy of Chick Corea Productions,

Chick Corea. Photo by Toshi Sakurai courtesy of Chick Corea Productions,

In celebrating the legacy of Chick Corea, one of America’s greatest piano players, Sting might have said it best: “He completely devastated the landscape. It was like scorched earth — so musical, so powerful, so incredibly virtuosic.”

On Corea’s 2-CD package, Plays (Concord), he needed no rhythm section, no blaring horns to make his points. His 10 fingers cascading wildly over the 88 keys of his piano creates new vistas of meaning to 300 years of compositional gems by such composers as Stevie Wonder, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Thelonious Monk, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, Domenico Scarlatti, Bill Evans, Frederic Chopin and Alexander Scriabin. It’s a live set that actually has him bringing up people from the audience to perform duets with him onstage.

Corea is a man who revolutionized progressive rock in 1972 with his fusion group, Return To Forever. He pioneered world music. He has been a touchstone through the decades for bebop, swing, classical and the avant-garde, putting his indelible fingerprints on everything he transforms. And to think this was all after Miles Davis used him for such seminal American landmarks as Bitches Brew and In A Silent Way.

GOLDMINE: Plays is a wonderful solo piano record that really has so many different components to it. How did you choose this stunning array of composers to transcend?

CHICK COREA: It came naturally out of living my life that way. I wanted to share it with the audience, as in my mind I associate things a certain way I put things together. Music has all the historical components. I grew up learning from certain other artists. I gathered ideas. When I sit down to practice, improvise or research a new piece of music, I go through a big array of sound that fits together, although you wouldn’t think so at first. I have music sheets that I’ve collected over the years, most of which I’ve never really had the time to get into, of Bach, Beethoven, Debussy, Tchaikovsky, Scriabin and on and on and on. These are the artists in my line: pianists and composers who have developed and handed it off. Bach handed it off to Haydn. Haydn handed it off to Mozart. Mozart handed it off to Beethoven. Down the line, y’know?

Here in our country, Duke Ellington picked up those same influences and the world then became more of a give and take. Now, in the recent past, of course, we have the Internet and YouTube, so it’s all there. It’s like the big library of the universe. You can go there and put in “Beethoven” and spend weeks. Put in “Ellington” and spend months. The information is all there to be accumulated. And I don’t delineate between genres. It’s all one. When I get onstage, I want to show the audience how I think. I don’t want to go into that square box of playing this song now and then playing that song later. That bores me. I don’t hear it that way. I hear it as Bartok to Gershwin to Monk to me. We’re all handing it off to the next guy, man.

As far as my thought processes for this particular project, I pretty much stuck to what I had under my fingers. I didn’t want to practice in front of the audience, although I do that with my Academy to show how the work flows. The way I use my time is such that I do a lot of “studying” on the road while traveling and playing. I also compose a lot, but unlike a classical pianist who spends so much time working on repertoire, I don’t have time to do that. It would be a luxury for me to be able to. I’d love to sit down for a year, for instance, and get some Bach under my belt. That’s a devotion, y’know?

So the composers on the record are some of my go-to composers. I love Scriabin. I put some melodic Chopin pieces in there, too. And Scarlatti’s a real hoot. Scarlatti saved me, in a sense, because sometimes when I would try to approach Bach’s music, it would be a little daunting in terms of the amount and its technical difficulty to play. I could dive into Scarlatti quick, and his music is a little more uplifting to me. So I spent time with him. I’m doing a duet project now arranging and recording some Scarlatti and some Bach with (flautist) Hubert Laws.

GM: You’ve taken the concept of audience participation to new heights on Plays. You go one giant step beyond folksinger Pete Seeger who would have whole audiences sing right along with him. Has there ever been someone of your stature to actually ask audience members to come onstage for a piano duet? I mean, man, sitting in your audience, you’ve got to have a lot of balls to climb onstage with Chick Corea and perform an extemporaneous piano duet. My wife is a working pianist and music teacher and she said she wouldn’t dare climb onstage with you.

CC: (laughs) No, but I’ll tell you what the phenomenon is. I’ve done it so many times. Yes, the reaction of your wife exists in my audiences. But I try to show a friendly face. Because I am! I make it relaxed. I present it in such a way that someone always comes up. The range of participants is so wide. It’s hard to say the type of person who would come up and do something like that. A little boy and his sister came up one night. They had to be all of five, six years old maybe. The both of them, hand in hand, came running up on the stage. They sat down beside me on the piano bench. I said, “OK, let’s improvise something.” The little girl turns to me and says, “My brother doesn’t play the piano.” I said, “Well, that’s OK,” and we started touching the notes one by one and they started to mimic me touch the notes. Finally, the little boy, who never played the piano before, pressed a couple of keys down until we were having some fun. When I can show the audience that it’s that relaxed, then people loosen up and they can come up.

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GM: I literally swooned with what you did with Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch Over Me” on Plays. That melody is part of our DNA, and how you present it practically caresses the listener, yet all the flourishes you do over, under, through and around it, takes that song and makes it uniquely new again.

CC: You can thank Art Tatum for those flourishes.

GM: Goldmine may be a classic rock collector mag, but your audience is so diverse due to your jazz-rock fusion pioneering in Return To Forever which straddled prog-rock, your experimental Elektric Band, your world music and your unceasing devotion to sound, in and of itself. In 1975, I was 24, getting tired of how rock had gone corporate, and Romantic Warrior changed my life. I had never heard anything even remotely like it. It made me go back to see who your antecedents were. It manifested itself into a lifelong love of jazz. So thank you. But I gotta ask you what it was like playing with Miles Davis. You were on his groundbreaking In A Silent Way (1969) and Bitches Brew (1970).

CC: Yeah, yeah, wow, I know. Thank you. That effect of someone growing up loving rock and roll as you did, and discovering jazz in the ’70s — especially Miles and John Coltrane — was a pretty common response to Return To Forever back then. Me and (bassist) Stanley (Clarke) and the guys are pretty proud of that. We never intended that effect, but it’s a logical one. It’s natural to want to see where all this stuff came from. And then you find out that Stanley played with Horace Silver and Joe Henderson; I played with Blue Mitchell and Stan Getz. But Miles? Oh man! (laughs)

Y’know, I have a friend who is a wonderful instrumentalist: Glenn Zottola is jazz musician. He’s doing a podcast about what he considers the golden age of jazz, which starts with Louis Armstrong and goes through Charlie Parker. And that’s almost the area Ken Burns covered. And speaking of Miles, when I saw the Ken Burns documentary, I thought, “That’s interesting. He stopped there?” Miles was barely covered! [Note: The 2001 10-part jazz history starts in 1917, but everything past 1961 was left for the final episode.] I mean, Miles was a 17-year old trumpet player when he played (in the Charlie “Bird” Parker Quintet). So I think Bird kind of handled the mantle over to Miles, who picked it up. When I look at that, I realize that Miles was the man for the second half of the 20th Century. All of these forms of music — free, fusion, pop — had Miles as the centerpiece. Guys like Prince, Michael Jackson and Sly Stone all loved Miles. They looked up to him.

GM: Carlos Santana, too.

CC: Exactly. Miles was the pivot point for music. I had intimately followed his music since his history with Charlie Parker. My dad had those 78s. He was a collector. Miles, Bird, Dizzy, Art Blakey. Billy Eckstine... he had ’em all. So I grew up with that sound. When Miles’ solo recording debut came out in 1951, I was at the record store and was one of the first kids to buy that record, and I wound up purchasing every single recording he ever made. Those recordings were my college and university as was my eventual gigging around town. When I finally got to actually meet him and then work with him in 1968, my life had come full circle. It was a great experience for me personally.

GM: But was he nice to you?

CC: He treated me like a son and he kind of took me under his wing. He was very friendly to me. I mean, sure, he never really said a lot. After I left his band, and found success with Return To Forever in the ’70s, he was, uh, kinda locked away in his house. I would go visit him. We’d hang. We’d talk. I loved him. We had a great friendship. We have to talk about Miles because he was so larger-than-life. He’s in everybody’s life. And the way that he was, for me, he’s like a touchstone. He’s a turning point in history. He set the precedent. He set many precedents, in fact. Really. He opened things up for the rest of us. That’s what I like about that lineage. As far as I’m concerned, no matter what’s happening in the world, be it with governments, disasters, whatever, there is the artist. The artist keeps his integrity while keeping the human right of freedom-of-expression going. The freedom to try new things! It’s inspiring! But it has to be pulled out from within you. And that right there is the role of the artist, I think. And that’s what Miles did big time.

GM: There’s a lot of people who think that your album with Miroslav Vitous and Roy Haynes, Now He Sings Now He Sobs (1968), is your greatest album ever. Care to comment?

CC: To each his own.

GM: You’ve done so much! Duos, trios, quartets, quintets, big bands, solo, in a multitude of genres. What is your thought process in trying to fathom where to go next each time?

CC: I’ve got an online academy (www.chickcoreaacademy.com) that’s a community of people I’m attracting who want to know and learn how I do things, so I share with them on a regular basis. The answer to your question is actually the name of the book I put together as a reference text for the academy, A Work In Progress. And that’s what my life is. I think that’s what life in general is. It’s how I operate. I keep on creating. I love to work with other musicians. I love to communicate. I love to connect. Life is a game. I like to have good playmates. I choose guys like all of the musicians I’ve worked with. They’re my playmates. And it just keeps going. I don’t necessarily think about whether to go in a particular direction or not. My one and only direction is this continual work-in-progress life. I have to repeat: freedom of expression. I’m trying to do something that will lift spirits and bring others into that mood, because the more people you have around you who think that way in terms of wanting to create together, you have a saner environment.

GM: You must tell us a little bit about Sarah Vaughan.

CC: I spent a year and a half with Sarah just before I joined Miles. I had to leave her to take the Miles gig. She was really mad at me for many years. We finally made up.

GM: I can’t imagine what it must have been like to experience her singing night after night.

CC: It was glorious. She’s on the same level as Miles. She was the consummate singer at that point, at the top of her game. And Sarah was like one of the boys! She’d send me out on the stage to play with the trio. Y’see, they’d play a tune to warm up. Or I’d go out solo and play some free music. Or I’d play my “Matrix.” She loved it! She kept letting me play longer and longer. I’d end up doing a half-hour set. I also did some arrangements for her. I do have a couple of tapes that I recorded on my tape recorder sitting on the piano of a few of our Las Vegas sets at the Riviera Room. They’re pretty good! You can hear her voice even though the piano’s a little loud as it was more near me. You can hear the trio. I still play those tapes every now and then and it brings back such pleasant memories.

GM: I’m a huge Thelonious Monk fan as I know you are, too. I love how Monk represents everything a piano player is not supposed to do. And all of the various covers of this genius do not really catch his idiosyncratic choppiness. But you do.

CC: His style, uh, is certainly not something that’s studied as far as how to play the piano. (laughs) It’s more, through the decades, through osmosis, through his distinct personality, absorbed. I’ve listened to practically everything he’s ever recorded, and I find it a fusion of spirits. How do I say this? It’s also sort of a tip of the hat to Monk in trying to play a phrase in a similar way that he would play it. He’s so recognizable. He crunches notes. Or he’ll do the rhythm a certain way. I mean, he was such a charismatic character.

GM: The Life and Times of an American Original, by Robin Kelley, delves into Monk’s mental illness. I can’t help but wonder if his condition actually helped or hinder his music.

CC: No, no, no, c’mon now. How can you lobotomize, shock somebody, give him Thorazine and turn him into a... I’m so angry at those guys, I’m going to keep from using invective at this point. That’s what killed him. That’s certainly not what helped him. That’s what slowed him down. In the book, when they gave him even more Thorazine, it practically incapacitated him. Look up the drug Thorazine. Get educated on it. You’ll see it shouldn’t even be given to a rat. Anyone who would do that as a “cure” to someone should be put in jail.

GM: I was actually referring to his illness prior to all of that.

CC: Nah, it was all drugs, man. When you go to one of those guys and you tell them you don’t feel good, they have no solution to that. Only a priest would. Or a loving family member. Certainly not a psychiatrist. Go to one of those guys and they immediately prescribe drugs for you. And that was Monk’s downfall. Everyone in life gets moody or depressed, feels bad, feels good, it’s part of life. You go up and down. Now they have names for all of that stuff, so they give you drugs for it. That’s the enemy right there, as far as I’m concerned.

But I don’t want to leave you on a horror point. We’ve touched on the lineage and that’s what piano music is to me. When I sit at the piano all by myself and play, I’m kind of free of any other present influences. There’s no other musicians there bringing their own expressions. And so it takes me into that world of piano and that’s the world I try to present and share on Plays and my solo piano concerts. Thus the title. I’m just playin’ around.