For Liberty Ellman, guitar was the starting point but composition was the key. The 48-year-old…
Originally published on February 11, 2019.
By Bill Milkowski
Celebrated keyboardist-composer Chick Corea has had his hand in many styles of music: bebop, post-bop, avant-garde, Latin and straight-ahead jazz, flamenco and classical. He’s also famously carved out a place for himself in music history as a prominent explorer and innovator of fusion.
A participant in Miles Davis’ seminal 1970 fusion recording Bitches Brew, Corea had already played Fender Rhodes on two previous Davis releases from 1969, Filles de Kilimanjaro and In a Silent Way. But Bitches Brew had him diving headlong into a brave new world of electric instruments, a direction he would pursue in earnest with his own Return To Forever band in the mid-’70s and his Elektric Band from the mid-’80s through the early ’90s. He continued to embrace electronic instruments on albums like 2004’s To the Stars (an Elektric Band reunion), 2103’s The Vigil and 2019’s Antidote (with his Spanish Heart Band). Two upcoming projects set for release later this year on the Concord Jazz imprint — Plays, a double-CD solo-piano outing, and Live, an Akoustic Band reunion with John Patitucci and Dave Weckl — are strictly acoustic.
Recently, Corea reminisced about being on the forefront of the fusion movement 50 years ago. - Bill Milkowski
Bill Milkowski: While your two upcoming releases are both in acoustic mode, you have a significant place in the history of fusion music.
Chick Corea: Yeah. So everyone has agreed to use the term in a non-derogatory way, huh? It was a dirty word in the ’70s, you know.
Bill: Oh, yeah, the F-word.
Chick: Yeah, the F-word. Right. You know, an interesting thing that just popped in mind was that in the late ’80s or maybe early ’90s, the pianist Billy Childs had a position at UCLA for a while and he was teaching a course devoted entirely to the electronic music of the ’70s featuring Return to Forever, Mahavishnu Orchestra and Weather Report. He was like a champion of the fusioneers.
Bill: So how did you become a fusioneer? Because in 1968 you recorded Now He Sings, Now He Sobs, your classic piano-trio album with Miroslav Vitous and Roy Haynes. And then just a year later you're playing electric keyboard with Miles on Filles de Kilimanjaro and In a Silent Way. How did that happen so quickly?
Chick: Well, every artist, I think, wants to get his message felt by people. It's a subtle thing and some artists say, “Oh, that's not important.” But I think all artists basically have a desire somewhere to do that. And that certainly was Miles’ design. When I joined Miles’ band in 1968, I was playing acoustic piano and we were playing quintet jazz in nightclubs, some of which were half empty. Miles was already a legend and a star, and yet the music we were playing was so edgy and so improvised and so far out that people weren’t coming to listen to it. Just imagine, the Plugged Nickel in Chicago empty or half-full on the second set … for the great Miles Davis!
So then while I was in the band, I observed this transition take place where Clive Davis and the people at Columbia Records were trying to get Miles to reach more people. But Miles of his own accord in 1968 wanted to reach more people. He was saying that people couldn’t follow this style of music that he had developed to a point of abstraction, where this bombast of technically proficient musicians was just going all over the place, improvising from Mars to Arcturus. Only a small handful really got what that vibe was. And Miles became, I think, unhappy about it. And so he looked around at what was happening — at Sly & The Family Stone and Jimi Hendrix — and he saw whatever he saw, and he came back to the band with some new ideas. And for me, it was, “Chick, play that,” which was an electric piano. And he also wanted Dave Holland to play electric bass. And it all started changing from there.
Then when he invited everybody into the studio to do Bitches Brew, there it was. It was like an abrupt left turn had taken place. And for the musicians that worked with him — me and Herbie Hancock and Joe Zawinul, Tony Williams, John McLaughlin, Lenny White and these guys — it seemed natural to pursue that direction. And it looked like fun. So the attitude became, “Let’s see what we can do with these electric instruments.” And when we got ahold of these electric instruments, it certainly didn’t come out sounding like Sly & The Family Stone or Hendrix. We took it somewhere else. So that’s one angle on how I think that whole movement was begun.
Bill: During your time with Miles, you certainly got creative with the ring modulator.
Chick: Yeah, and a lot of other stuff. You know, I never saw a synthesizer before I saw that electric piano in 1968 [Filles de Kilimanjaro was recorded on June 19–21 and September 24, 1968]. And then I started to see other guys using it, and I got my hands on one and started to experiment with all kind of different electronics.
Bill: When you had your loft in New York at that time on 19th Street, in the same building that Dave Liebman and Dave Holland also had lofts, and you guys were jamming a lot, were you ever playing the electric keyboard?
Chick: No, just piano. As a matter of fact, when Miles was definitely going in that electric direction that he was going, me and Dave Holland at the time were still totally enamored with acoustic music. So when we left Miles’ band to form our own trio with Barry Altschul and then Anthony Braxton made it a quartet, it was strictly acoustic. And so for the year or more that we were together, Circle was a working band playing gigs around the world — all acoustic music, all improvised. It was the furthest from the fusion movement that you could possibly imagine.
Bill: During the time that you were recording acoustic jazz sessions in the mid-’60s with Blue Mitchell, Herbie Mann, Cal Tjader and others and also gigging with Booker Ervin, there was some new stuff bubbling up on the scene down in Greenwich Village, where Larry Coryell, Jim Pepper and Bob Moses were combining rock and jazz with Free Spirits as early as 1966. Were you hip to them?
Chick: I didn't know much about that band, but looking at it now I think that Larry was changing the music like John McLaughlin was. Both were advanced players, but they played an instrument, electric guitar, that was one of the absolute hallmarks of rock ’n’ roll and funk music. So those guys made that transition early and easily.
Bill: And both of them were influenced by Jimi Hendrix.
Chick: Absolutely. I think the more interesting angle is you have someone like John McLaughlin, who took the singing, screeching, wild sounds of electric guitar and brought it into a brand-new musical direction. Totally. He had a reverence for Jimi Hendrix, of course, and those other great rock guitarists. But to me, he took that electric guitar to another place. The way he played it, it was almost another instrument. So to my mind, you would compare Hendrix and McLaughlin only in one factor, which was the sound of distorted guitar. But musically they were ages and universes apart.
Bill: After Circle you formed Return to Forever, which began as an acoustic group. How did you transition to a full-blown fusion band?
My first transition out of Circle was rhythm. I wanted a groove. And the groove that appealed to me at that time was Brazilian or Latino. So I wrote tunes like “Some Time Ago” and “La Fiesta,’ which appeared on my first Return to Forever album in 1972. In fact, I wrote “La Fiesta” while I was still with Circle, before I put Return to Forever together. So my personal interest in changing directions was the groove, and also in becoming more of a composer. I started to discover my desire and love for writing music.
Bill: Your second Return to Forever album, Light as a Feather [recorded in October 1972], contains the classic songs “Spain,” “500 Miles High” and “You’re Everything.” You played Fender Rhodes exclusively on that, and it’s a continuation of that Brazilian-Latin vibe you explored on the first album. But things changed radically on the third Return to Forever album, Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy, where you took things up a notch sonically.
Chick: Yeah, that was a big transition. The previous band with Airto on drums and Flora Purim on vocals, Joe Farrell on sax and flute and Stanley Clarke on upright bass toured around for a good year and a half. We made two recordings, the first one for ECM and the second one for Polydor. And really, I would have kept on with that band if it wasn’t for the fact that Flora and Airto needed to leave the band. Stanley was already going in a direction of electric bass, so he and I went to the Felt Forum in New York to hear the Mahavishnu Orchestra. They had a big audience at the Felt Forum, and they blew us away. I told Stanley, “Man, check out the way that electric guitar is being used.” John floored me. So as a composer, I wanted to write music for a guitar that played with that kind of sound. And that was the beginning of Return to Forever with Billy Connors.
Bill: Did you audition various guitar players for Return to Forever?
Chick: Stanley and I booked a week at Todd Barkan’s Club in San Francisco, The Keystone Korner. The purpose of that week was to audition guitar players, and Billy was one of them. Lenny White had a prior commitment with the band Azteca and couldn’t make this gig, so I asked Steve Gadd to come and play. And we auditioned a conga player too, a guy named Mingo Lewis. So the first electric version of Return to Forever was with Gadd on drums, Stanley on electric bass, myself on Fender Rhodes, Mingo Lewis on congas and Billy Connors on electric guitar. The band kept growing and I kept writing. Al Di Meola came into the band for Where Have I Known You Before, and then I encouraged Stanley to write more. Al wrote a tune or two. I think we made three albums with that group. Yeah, it was a creative period.
Bill: During that time, were you calling your music fusion or jazz-rock or what?
Chick: Nah, musicians don’t use those terms. We don’t even use the term “jazz.”
Bill: In that moment, in the heyday of Return to Forever, did you feel a kinship with groups like Mahavishnu Orchestra, Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters and Weather Report?
Chick: Oh, absolutely. And we have through the years. We’ve had this kinship of knowing, “We’re doing something here!” Of course, we all came out of Miles’ band. Tony Williams was one of the first ones to leave Miles’ band. Well, actually, Herbie left first, but he did some acoustic projects first. But when Tony left, he came with Lifetime. And that was one of the first powerful electric projects coming from a “jazz musician.” And yeah, there was definitely a kinship there. I miss Tony and Joe Zawinul, too. Herbie and I, we have our different kinds of music, but there’s a lot of similarities in the directions that we’ve taken and certainly we have remained great friends. And I’ve collaborated with John McLaughlin through the years.
Bill: Right. Including the Five Peace Band that you formed in 2008.
Chick: Yep. That was a beautiful reunion. And that was during a period, which I guess still exists, where the combination of the beauties of both an acoustic rhythm section and an electric sound can be had. That’s been John's goal; that’s been my goal when I put some of my bands together. The Spanish Heart Band is like that.
Bill: Given the improvements in technology with both instruments and sound systems, it seems that electric bands today have the sonic thing much more under control.
Chick: Yeah, it’s true. My engineer Bernie Kirsh — he’s been with me since the ’70s — has learned how to make any size band sound great in one of those acoustically reverberant halls. A lot of it has to do with the musicians now having a sensitivity, especially the drummers, like Brian Blade and Marcus Gilmore. They’re incredibly sensitive to a sonic environment, which was not true in the ’70s. The drummers were just bashing along in the ’70s with the new fusion music. And the use of the P.A. system was very crass in those days. It was badly used.
Bill: Several musicians from fusion’s heyday have suffered hearing loss because of those overly loud sound systems that they had to work with night after night.
Chick: Absolutely. I’ve had high-end loss of hearing myself. At the heyday of the electric Return to Forever, like ’74-’75, the stage sound was so loud … I think that was maybe the year that I hurt my eardrums. But I didn’t think about that at the time, I was just loving the energy of it. That whole time, it was just a naivete. It was new equipment. No one really knew how to use an amplifier onstage, how to make that coordinate with an artistic, quality communication to an audience; we were just discovering this stuff. People didn’t have front-of-house mixers, they didn’t know what the hell to do with a P.A. They had no control over the band onstage. In fact, a lot of those bands used to ignore the P.A. and just play as loud as they could from the stage, because the P.A. operator didn’t know what he was doing. So it was just a battle. But I think the underlying reason was just not understanding the equipment or how to use it, basically. It took a while. And I’m very fortunate to have Bernie Kirsh, who lived through all of that and learned. Both of us learned how to tame the beast. Because you can cause a great impact without playing that loud. It’s an emotional thing that you want to get across. The massive volume, to me, is not a needed component. It can be nice and visceral without it hurting.
Bill: Are you aware of any young bands today carrying on that tradition of '70s fusion music?
Chick: Not specifically.
Bill: Groups like the Robert Glasper Experiment, Snarky Puppy, The Funky Knuckles and the British trio GoGo Penguin are all groups using Fender Rhodes electric piano and conjuring that ’70s vibe to some degree.
Chick: I may have seen one or two of those when I scan YouTube or a friend drops me a link. And I can see in what they’re doing that the tradition is still there. And maybe they checked us out on YouTube to see what we were doing back in the day. I mean, now with YouTube and the Internet, the recorded history of anything you want is just totally available. So technologies tend not to get lost so easily. You can go back and see what we were doing back in the ’70s and ’60s, to a degree. And certainly starting with the ’80s and ’90s, it's all documented.
Bill: Do you have any plans to get back to a more electric project yourself?
Chick: Well, it’s always part of my interest. You know, a new instrument comes out and I’m intrigued. Moog makes a new polyphonic instrument, which I have, which I love. But in order to take the time to delve into that direction, it becomes a commitment. I could say, “I’d like to put a band together with three keyboards and three guitars and a symphony orchestra, and I’ll write something for that.” But it’s not feasible. I’ve learned that word from economics. So I’m sticking with things that are pretty economically feasible right now, which is writing music for my small groups. Anything larger needs funding.
To do a tour with an electric band, even my Spanish Heart band, it’s pretty tight, budget-wise, to be able to do that. It’s a 10-piece band. We’re touring this summer, and Rubén Blades is going to be singing with us. It’s gonna be a lot of fun. But I can’t do that often. You know, it’s difficult economically. One of my things that I’d like to do is to use my electronics and new instruments the way I have them and do occasional projects out of my home studio and stream them somehow, maybe invite musicians down to do that. But to tour with a band like that is becoming less and less possible.
Bill: So you're keeping one toe in the fusion pond.
Chick: I guess you could say that. One toe in the pond!
Featured photo by Mikoaj Rutkowski.