In conversation with chick corea
by Patrick Spurling
Chick Coreaís work has encompassed everything from Miles to Mozart, but many still remember him best for his successful fusion band Return to Forever, which launches a reunion tour this week after a twenty-five year hiatus. The tour will bring Corea to fifty cities, where he will again share the stage with Return to Forever cohorts: bassist Stanley Clarke, guitarist Al Di Meola and drummer Lenny White. Jazz.comís Patrick Spurling recently caught up with Corea in Zurich for this conversation.
In 1974 you once referred to Return To Forever (RTF) as a pilot project. How do you feel about the return of RTF?
My life is a kind of pilot project. Itís a viewpoint that you take everywhere you go. ĎWell, letís see what happens this time?í
You must have a healthy home life to have the energy for a 50-concert tour with RTF this summer?
Chick Corea, photo by Jos L. Knaepen
I do. I was blessed with an incredible set of parents who are no longer with me physically. I am unable to put a value on what they gave me. They didnít try to force my thinking into any one way. When I came up with ideas that were outside of their thinking they didnít try to chain me down. They gave me freedom at the beginning of my life.
Now, Iíve been married to my beautiful wife Gayle for 34 years. She is my greatest supporter and we have a wonderful friendship. It is true, that does help me come out on the road. And I have two great kids too. My son is a musician and Iíve now got two grandsons, four and five years old, two nuclear power plants. And I have a wonderful daughter, a couple of years younger than my son, who dances and plays piano.
You asked once: ďWhat does your art do for the neighborhood?Ē What did the music of Return to Forever do for the neighborhood and what will it do this time around?
The general idea is to bring a good feeling into the area. What I like to see happen and what music generally does for people is it lightens the load. They come and listen and feel a little lighter; they may even be inspired. Given the stress of living and surviving and working, these are breaks for people. It eases the passage of time.
What do you say to young players who play well technically but are not good communicators?
Music is communication. This is an aspect of life and of art that is not often taught in schools. Sometimes it is spoken of in mystical terms like talent or charisma, but these are qualities that no one can define. What I ask students to do is to think of an artist who touches them and who moves them. Has that artist managed to communicate what he is creating and feeling to you? This approach is easier for students to grasp. There are artists who have a high skill level in this area; but whose other musical skills may not be so high. Certain pop artists develop a particular skill in putting across a song that reaches people. My challenge has been to do that, but add a kind of technical expertise that makes it more challenging.
Do you encourage players to push the envelope by your own experimentation, or do you prefer a more stable foundation?
I donít think the stable foundation has much to do with the risk factor. In music part of the challenge is that risk and stability both have to be there. I am about to go on a three-week tour with Bobby McFerrin and this is a man who has the risk factor at 100% when I work with him. We donít rehearse and we make it up as we go along. His competence in the area of communicating in combination with whatever skills I have in that area always end up making a very stable basis for the concert. The stability is in the fact that the rapport with the audience is established. Theyíre comfortable and we let them into everything we do. The safer it is for the audience who just sit there comfortably the further out we can go. I particularly enjoy that and I would like to try taking that kind of challenge to a wider audience.
Gary Burton mentioned recently that there are always musicians who work borders and mix genres. Do you feel like you have reshaped musical borders?
Well, that is what they tell me. Iíve never given the slightest acknowledgment to any borders. Like I said, my parents brought me up so I didnít need to ask someone if it was okay to like this kind of music or include that sort of thing in my playing. I could think freely. When I become interested in a particular technique or kind of music I learn about it. I have a project coming up in the fall with guitarist John McLaughlin, one of my favorite musicians. I think there is a lot I can learn from John. [Editor's note: John McLaughlin also discussed this project during his recent interview with jazz.com.]
Return to Forever: Packed for a 50 City Road Trip
Since youíve recently written and arranged a number of pieces for orchestra, I'd like to ask if you have any interest in conducting.
Ah, conducting. If you saw me conduct youíd see that I have a special style. I have a philosophy about that ó that I should never be a conductor. No, itís not an interest. One of the things that conductors do as part of their creation is to bring a concept to a performance. I prefer conductors that give all of their concepts and ideas to the orchestra during rehearsal and then let them go during the performance.
In the past, you have mentioned an interest in composing for orchestra and movies. Youíve done considerable orchestral writing now with the concertos and arrangements for the London Symphony Orchestra. What about this other half of the dream; writing for movies?
It hasnít come true yet. When you see a movie with great acting and a great story and great cinematography you see one of the greatest examples of team work in the entertainment industry.
Recently I took two of L. Ron Hubbardís science fiction novels and was inspired to write portraits of the characters and the places. Thatís the closest I have been to writing for movies [To the Stars, 2004 and Ultimate Adventure, 2006.] Itís music that stands alone as a tone poem.
You know whose music I appreciate in movies is John Williams'. Even though the great Star Wars movies and the Harry Pottermovies have a certain sound to them, there are other movies heís made that have a completely different musical approach. Always brilliant and beautiful: I think heís really got that medium down pat. Yes, I would like the opportunity to put music in a movie.
I heard once from my friend Takemitsu, Toru Takemitsu, who wrote the music to Kurosawaís wonderful movie Ran. Itís one of my favorite movies. Takemitsu told me how he worked with Kurosawa. They would discuss the story and Takemitsu would present finished music to Kurosawa who would then take the music and mold the scene to it. If I could find a director like that Iíd be into it. Remember the battle scene; the huge battle with the two families fighting against one another?
There is a fire in the background?
Yes, and these guys are carving each other up. Initially you hear all of the sounds; the horses and fighting and this orchestral music. And then toward the height of the battle the sound of the horses and fighting goes down to nothing. And all you hear is this incredible expressive orchestral music that Takemitsu wrote. This marriage of music and film has really set a standard for me.
Remembering jazz group leaders who composed movie sound tracks, Don Ellis was one such composer, composing for The French Connection. In some of his last work, during the RTF years of the early 1970ís, he composed forward-looking music for big band with an integrated string quartet. Does combining jazz and classical elements hold interest for you with respect to film score composing?
Come with the offer, the good movie and the budget and Iíll do it.
You are well known for having mentored many young musicians. ďAll the RTF and Elektric Band members have become band leaders; I encourage that,Ē is a quote from 1999.
Sometimes all a musician needs is an acknowledgement and a proper validation for what he is doing. When I was developing the record label Stretch, I asked Vinnie Colaiuta, the great drummer, why donít you make a record? The tapes he played for me were amazing. Sometimes thatís all it takes. If I reverse the flow, when I get an acknowledgement from another person, especially a musician who I admire, it encourages me. You need that sometimes. Thatís how a culture grows.
What is it about Bela Bartok that jazz players like?
He is a kind of jazz musician who doesnít improvise. His music is attractive rhythmically, harmonically, and fantasy wise. He is a fantasist. Is that a word? There is an adventure in it and a jazz about it. His harmonic and musical language is distinctive and definitive and his compositions just keep going. Recently I discovered another musician/composer who I missed, [Henri] Dutilleux; in his 90ís now. This past year I started listening to his piano music and now his orchestral music. He is a genius in the same way as Bartok with a wider range of expression. Dutilleux composes pretty music, mysterious music, atmospheric music and very rhythmic music. And his piano writing is incredible.
Youíve written two piano concertos and recently finished projects with the London Symphony Orchestra. Do you have new orchestral projects in mind?
No. After the second piano concerto I am leaving the orchestra alone for now.
The big project on the docket now is of course the RTF reunion. Theyíre old friends and we havenít played together in a long time. Itís a great feeling. We are doing 50 concerts this summer. Weíre working out how much old music and how much new music to use and weíre all very excited about it. The other exciting project is with my good friend John McLaughlin. Weíve put a magnificent band together with Christian McBride, Kenny Garrett and Vinnie Coliauta. I havenít played with John in a long time and weíve been looking to do something together.
One last question. You have said: ďLive contact is really missing in our society.Ē Is that the reason you spend so much time on the road?
Well I always see myself being with the audience thatís right in front of me, and that the communication there is as solid and unchanging as anything in life. Styles and technologies and ways of making and presenting music change, but the one thing in art and in communication that will never change is that you have someone entertaining someone. They are in front of you; itís not being recorded; itís not going through a digital processor; and itís not being viewed on a screen. Itís you in front of the person just as I am talking to you now. I love that and I never want to let that go. Thatís solid ground for me. I donít have to worry about the economy or whoís the next president. All I have to do is know that I enjoy doing this for the people in front of me and they enjoy receiving it. That secures a life for me.
Ten minutes after the interview Chick Corea and vibraphone player Gary Burton performed at the Tonhalle concert hall in Zurich, Switzerland, nearly 30 years after their Grammy Award duo performance Chick Corea and Gary Burton in Concert, recorded in that same city.
Many thanks to Chick Corea and the Chick Corea organization; to Johannes Vogel and AllBlues Konzert AG; and to Roland Fischer from Universal Music Switzerland.