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Sons of Miles
CHICK COREA: The Chameleon
by Mike Zwerin
14 May 1998


Chick Corea likes to meet his targets. Controlling his own destiny is essential to him. He's sort of like a corporation that way. He is a corporation. A hip one, but still...

If he decides in advance to start a piano solo with a certain kind of feeling, but then for some reason, right or wrong, objective or subjective, finds something else at the last minute, he feels he let himself down somehow. Like he didn't have the nerve or the energy or the smarts to see it through. Weird? This may sound over-disciplined for a jazz musician, but he is in fact anything but predictable.

Since the early '70s, when he recorded "In A Silent Way" with Miles Davis's first rock-oriented band, and right after that his own jazz-rock fusion group Return to Forever (RTF) launched him into the big time, he has grown into one of the most eclectic, influential and respected figures on the scene.

There are, it should be noted, people who do not approve of his being a Scientologist, and working for their cause. But he tends to keep his beliefs to himself. It would be difficult, in any case to preach to jazz musicians, who can make a religion out of Devout Skepticism. His flutist and reed player the late Joe Farrell once told him: "Hey, man. Don't lay that Scientology shit on me."

As leader and soloist, Corea has switched between electric and acoustic bands, acoustic and electric keyboards, solo improvisational concerts, and post-bop, Latin, electro-pop and funk styles. He also writes and records children's songs and records and presents recitals of classical music.

Discipline even extends to breaking discipline. Moving contrary to ecological currents, Corea started to smoke cigarettes in June, 1993, after years of abstinence. Not that he considered them good for his health; he just remembered how much he used to enjoy smoking. He intended to stop the following June and you better believe he did it. He has been called "The Chameleon."

"People have their own taste and the basic freedom to change it at any given moment," the Chameleon said. "I do not consider someone who likes one color one day and another the next fickle. That's the challenge when you are presenting people with your ideas. It takes guts and intelligence to change your mind in public.

"Here's what I have to offer today and here's how I put it across. I don't like to be forced into one bag or another. Music is a process rather than one song or an album. One offering is only a part of a stream of offerings."

John Patitucci, electric bass, and David Weckl, drums, built strong reputations as fusion players with Corea's "Elektric Band." But then they became the battery of his "Akoustic Band," Patitucci having switched to the string bass. Old bags were continually being traded in around Corea.

He likes life "crisp, crystal clear and to the point." Down Beat magazine called him "jazz's most protean and unpredictable character," going on to quote him: "I base everything I do - my whole art of music - on the communication that emanates from me and my group straight to the listener....So whatever [instrument] I'm playing is of very secondary consideration." His friend and colleague the vibraphonist Gary Burton called him "the most prolific and versatile of any modern jazz musician."

Sitting in the lobby of a fancy Parisian hotel, one that is more often host to rich rock musicians, Corea puffed an American Spirit cigarette ("organically grown tobacco, no additives in the paper"). Looking clean, fit and bright he takes enough time to carefully consider what he talks about.

(For parenthetical example, about John Coltrane: "The reason any of us go into an art form is to find the freedom to create something we like. It was inspiring to hear Trane follow through his creation so consistently and thoroughly on such a high level of finesse and development.")

Chick Corea

Corea created Stretch Records - a subsidiary of GRP, a subsidiary of MCA, a subsidiary of Universal (so it goes in the multi-national world) - as a showcase for his own bands and also the people who worked with him. It made sense, he had already built a state-of-the-art recording studio.

He was only a consultant, he had no ambitions to produce. He did not want to change his basic life as a performing musician. Most of all it was about karma: "Every musician of value has in mind where he wants to go with his own creation. If that instinct is ignored within a group, and the members are only allowed to play what is required in the group context, the leader's context, the group becomes stilted very quickly."

So he always tried to help the guys in his bands with their own projects. His management team was very active dealing with their recordings and tours as well as his own. His self-assurance was impressive - competition was not a threat. All the more so for his utter lack of pomposity. He seemed to be plugged into good sense like a computer with its printer.

The mechanical implications of that simile may seem a bit simplistic. But machines have been very important in Corea's career. For example, the expression "plugged-in" assumes a literal as well as a figurative connotation in his case.

The image of Corea that soemehow stays in the mind of someone who has known him for awhile is in a studio with Keith Jarrett, Joe Zawinul and Herbie Hancock recording on electronic keyboards with Miles. They are producing a veritable cascade of highly reverbed wah-wah spinoffs. Visually, it appears as though the three of them are being sucked into a spaghetti-like tangle of wires connecting a cornucopia of fancy and state-of-the-art hardware. And they are loud.

They also became popular and expensive. Some people accused them of being, so to speak, expensive hookers - doing what they were doing for money not love. That was partially jealousy of course. Everybody wanted that heavy bread. Those guys left Miles's band with a graduate degree in Pricing.

In the late '70s, on the basis of RTF's fusion sales record, he was given what Corea called a "big-time advance" by Warner Brothers. But while the company was expecting a sort of RTF2, he was by then interested in making acoustic chamber jazz. The first two records under the deal did not sell well.

The balance between the money and the product was "way out of whack," he said. "When a record doesn't make its money back, if that goes on for awhile, then a musician is going to feel like his product is no good. The financial reality tends to invalidate the musical value. Eventually it puts the musician in a frame of mind where he uses his energy trying to make music that isn't really his."

Even though Warners was committed to four more albums - Corea had engaged a "big-time lawyer" to draw up the contract - he offered them a graceful way out. "Look," he said. "Let's just drop it. That way you don't have to pay me and I don't have to deliver something I don't want to do right now." The president wrote him a letter saying what a nice guy he was.

Of course it's easy to be a nice guy when you're giving other people money, which is what it amounted to. But then you must be confident that you have the talent, courage and commercial instinct to make more of your own on your own terms.

After the interview, on his way out of the hotel lobby, The Chameleon mentioned that he was painting now. It was only a hobby but obviously important to him. Although he didn't seem to realize it, his explanation of what painting meant to him explained his relationship to music as well:

"I find myself always looking at light and color and shading,. I am always looking for a way to frame the environment, to put it into perspective."


Photo: Chick Corea
Credit: Christian Rose

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