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It’s tough to accept the passing of a boyhood hero. I was 19 when I met Chick Corea backstage in 1974 at my first Return to Forever concert. He was 33 then, exactly half my current age. Seems like multiple lifetimes ago. I would go on to interview Chick numerous times over the years, including for last summer’s JAZZIZ fusion issue. And I saw him perform in various configurations maybe 30 or more times since that first encounter, including one particularly playful gig with Bobby McFerrin, during which the vocalist crowd-surfed to the back row of Avery Fisher Hall. Through numerous backstage hangs, I became friendly with Chick, to the point where he was recommending books for me to read (Dr. Joel Fuhrman’s Eat To Live, L. Ron Hubbard’s science-fiction novel To The Stars). And whenever I would interview him, he was always generous with his time and engaging in his heavily Boston-accented banter. Now he’s gone. Corea left a rich recorded legacy going back to his work as a sideman during the early ’60s for Latin jazz bandleaders Mongo Santamaria, Willie Bobo and Montego Joe. Following straightahead gigs with Blue Mitchell, Sonny Stitt and Stan Getz, among others, he joined Miles Davis’ seminal electric band, recording such game-changers as 1968’s Filles de Kilimanjaro, 1969’s In a Silent Way and 1970’s Bitches Brew. After leaving Miles, Chick would forge new musical paths with a myriad of electric bands. But no matter how immersed he became in high-tech gadgetry, he would always return to the piano trio. That was home base for Chick. His first piano trio recording, 1968’s Now He Sings, Now He Sobs, featuring Miroslav Vitous on bass and Roy Haynes on drums, is now regarded as a landmark of piano jazz. Recorded in March of 1968 (six months before he joined Miles), it set the template for his restlessly creative approach to the piano trio that continued for the next 50 years.
Corea pushed the envelope on piano trio playing with Circle, a free jazz group he formed with bassist Dave Holland and drummer Barry Altschul. Following his electric run with Return to Forever, he would return to piano trio in 1981 on Trio Music, a reunion with Vitous and Haynes that mixed free playing with spirited interpretations of Thelonious Monk staples. After three consecutive Elektric Band recordings during the mid-’80s, Corea premiered his Akoustic Band in 1989. With virtuoso bassist John Patitucci and drummer Dave Weckl, this invigorating piano trio showcased its ability to burn (John Coltrane’s “Bessie Blues,” “Autumn Leaves,” “So in Love”) on its self-titled debut and 1991 followup, Alive.
Chick ushered in the millennium with his New Trio, featuring bassist Avishai Cohen and drummer Jeff Ballard, documented on 2001’s Past, Present & Futures. Then in 2008, the mammoth six-CD set, Five Trios, found him in highly interactive mode with five different rhythm sections. He reunited with his old Return to Forever bandmates Stanley Clarke and Lenny White for a worldwide unplugged trio tour in 2009, resulting in 2011’s two-CD set, Forever, then later unveiled another new piano trio with drummer Brian Blade and bassist Christian McBride. Their first recording, 2013’s three-CD set, Trilogy, documented their easy, engaging rapport on tour and won two Grammy Awards.
In 2018, Chick began touring with his Vigilette Trio of bassist Carlitos del Puerto and drummer Marcus Gilmore. All of their 2020 engagements were canceled due to the COVID pandemic, during which time Chick took to live streaming his nightly practice sessions at home on Facebook. An upcoming Spring 2021 tour was canceled after the sudden passing of the piano master, who died in February, just five months short of his 80th birthday. At the Grammy Awards in March, Chick’s wife and soul mate of 50 years, Gayle Moran, accepted two posthumous Grammys for Trilogy 2, which features selections from Corea’s concerts with McBride and Blade. But that was not Chick’s swan song. A release due out in June, LIVE, documents a reunion of the Akoustic Band at SPC Music Hall in St. Petersburg, Florida. Recorded in 2018, it’s the group’s first recording in 20 years and stands as yet another example of the maestro’s lifelong love of the piano trio.