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24 February 2021

How Chick Corea shaped a jazz generation

The pianist, who died in February, was one of the founding fathers of jazz fusion – a deeply misunderstood genre.

By Kate Mossman

As a music critic, you spend a lot of time trying to find stuff to say about albums you wouldn’t choose to listen to, and little time writing about the music you really love. If you love jazz fusion, you’re pretty much guaranteed never to write about it at all, because it is the most unfashionable genre ever invented and invites a disproportionate amount of disdain. I used to feel sad about this, until I realised it meant that jazz fusion would never become my work, only ever my private pleasure. The vocabulary of onanism has long been thrown at a genre known for extended guitar solos and its almost entirely male cavalry. But I like to think of it as onanistic in a different way. Those of us who enjoy it have access to a deep, physical thrill whenever we want, and we’ll never talk about it to anyone else.

On 9 February, the pianist Chick Corea – one of the founding fathers of the genre, but important in many other ways besides – passed away just weeks after a cancer diagnosis. I don’t know how many times I saw Corea live in concert and I’ve lost track of where. I had little sense of who he was as a person; I have never read an interview with him. But I saw him every time he came to London, and sometimes in America too, because I enjoy getting goose bumps, and because every time I saw him, he was playing a completely different style of music.

The last time was in 2015 at Ronnie Scott’s, where he brought the jazz prodigy and YouTube sensation Jacob Collier on stage. Collier was playing a melodica – one of those little keyboards with a tube you blow through – and at just 20, with his head down, he looked like a very clever kid amid the older band. He pulled surprising melodies from the tiny instrument but then he’d hang back, apparently out of respect. Corea had to keep coaxing one phrase after another from him. Corea was like Quincy Jones, always looking out for new talent – but without the ego. He barely seemed to talk.

You’d look at Corea on stage and think, how old is he? How could he possibly have played with Miles Davis? (He features on Davis’s albums Bitches Brew and In A Silent Way.) Like the jazz fusion guitarists John McLaughlin and Pat Metheny, Corea seemed to operate on another plane: you sensed that at some point in his life, he’d decided music was his drug of choice, and that nothing fired his synapses like a rapid run or an unexpected chord change. They approached their work like athletes. Corea was a Scientologist, too, and in some mysterious way it all fits together: the composer and arranger David Campbell, father of the musician Beck, once explained that the Scientology mindset was invaluable to musicians, enabling them to attack multiple musical genres and move above and beyond the discipline they’d trained in.

[see also: How I finally learned to love jazz music]

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Corea, born in Massachusetts in 1941, was the son of the trumpet player Armando J Corea and began playing piano at the age of four. In the Seventies, he used ring modulators with his electric keyboard, creating a sound-bending effect favoured by Fifties sci-fi films (in 1963 the BBC Radiophonic Workshop used one to create the voice of the Daleks for Doctor Who). He played with classical precision and delicacy, but the notes came out of his machine sounding cosmic, spiralling out into space.

There were times I’d be listening to his jazz rock band Return to Forever on my walk home from the pub, and I’d find myself breaking into a run. He’d fly into a few bars of Cuban jazz, or flamenco, or something approaching Bach, or eastern European folk music. But it’s impossible to describe what he was doing tonally unless you’re in a position to play that way yourself – which is one of the things that keeps jazz out of the realm of regular music criticism. How many of us really understand what they’re doing up there?

One of Corea’s most interesting projects in recent years was 2007’s The Enchantment, a collaboration with the banjo player Béla Fleck. Piano and banjo, tight and percussive, were two voices from the same beast. Peppered with little baroque scales and trills, the album is neither jazz, nor bluegrass, nor classical – and to make it even more confusing, it won a Latin Grammy award. Many people assume that Corea himself was Latino, thanks to the sound of his music and the headband he wore throughout the Seventies, like Carlos Santana. But his father was from Calabria, the toe of the boot that kicked Sicily into the sea. “My genetics are Italian but my heart is Spanish,” he once said. It is there in his melodic palette, but once again, it’s not the only thing you can hear.

I hope there are more players like Corea coming up in the world – he has certainly influenced enough of them. But every time one of these jazz fusion grandees dies or retires, it feels as though we’ve lost access to a brain of broader than normal capacity. In their natural tendency to think across disciplines and intellectual boundaries, they remind me of those 17th-century scientists who thought art and science and philosophy were all the same thing. Which may be over-egging it. But if you haven’t heard Chick Corea, I’d urge you to give him a try.

[see also: Julien Baker: “I saw music as religion”]

This article appears in the 24 Feb 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Britain unlocks