Corea's Fresh Riff On an Old Refrain

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 28, 2006

When it came time to celebrate Chick Corea's 60th birthday in December 2001, the party lasted 18 nights. Fortunately, tapes and cameras were rolling at New York's fabled Blue Note club as the jazz pianist commemorated four decades of adventurous music, beginning with a week of intimate duets, followed by a week of sparkling trios and a final week of energized ensembles.

Altogether, Corea reconvened nine of his working groups for two nights each, including a rare meeting of his first trio with bassist Miroslav Vitous and drummer Roy Haynes. The results can be heard on "Rendezvous in New York," a 10-disc DVD set, its 458 minutes sampled on a two-CD album of the same name.

"I took it on as a light thing, as a party," Corea recalled recently while on tour in California. "Others always want to celebrate your birthday -- you always want to run away, at least I do. But once you get into the groove of others' flowing admiration and affinity and thanks to you, it's actually quite a good feeling.

"And that such great friends agreed to come and play -- every night the entire three weeks went on -- I was just lifted higher and higher off my feet with the whole warmth of the event. There was no attention on trying to make the music perfect. It was just a party, kind of a jam. . . . It's a gorgeous memory I'll never forget."

With longtime pal and frequent duet partner Herbie Hancock, Corea has been one of the key piano stylists, acoustic and electric, of the past 40 years. A sterling composer and improviser, he was honored earlier this year with a Jazz Master Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, the highest honor the federal government bestows on any artist in the genre. At the awards ceremony, Corea and fellow Jazz Masters James Moody, Jimmy Heath, Paquito D'Rivera and Slide Hampton joined on a closing jam.

"My main buzz," Corea insists, "was that I found myself in the company of all my heroes. That was the biggest thrill, to be acknowledged amongst those amazing people. The richness of my life is the other musicians I've made music with, and continue to make music with. I couldn't ask for more."

The Jazz Master award is just the latest in a string of awards Corea has received over the years, including a 12th Grammy for "Rendezvous in New York." Opening a six-night stand at Blues Alley on Tuesday, Corea will rendezvous with Brazilian percussionist Airto Moreira and acoustic bassist Eddie Gomez. It will be the first time Corea and Moreira have played together since their groundbreaking Return to Forever band in the early '70s, when it was more a Brazilian-tinged ensemble than the jazz-rock fusion powerhouse it became later.

What's being called Forever Returns will play early RTF material ("La Fiesta," "500 Miles High"), standards from associations with trumpeter Miles Davis and pianist Bill Evans (Gomez's old boss) and some new works. Corea and Moreira both played in Davis's late-'60s band as the trumpeter launched the jazz-rock-funk fusion movement with such landmark albums as "In a Silent Way" and "Bitches Brew."

Moreira was one of the few key players unable to rendezvous in New York in 2001, but last year he joined Corea for their first recording session in decades, performing several tracks of Corea's latest -- and 98th -- album, "The Ultimate Adventure." Gomez wasn't part of Return to Forever but appeared on such 1970s Corea albums as "The Mad Hatter" and "The Leprechaun."

Corea calls the piano-bass-drum trio format his favorite forum. "It's a classic, put together for ways that I like to play. Especially with players like Eddie and Airto -- my goodness, so much is possible. The sounds of the three instruments make them blend very well, and you hear everything very, very clearly," Corea explains. "It's a small enough group that a lot of intimacy can go on during the performance, and a large enough group that you can make a lot of sound and do a lot of different things. The thing that's interesting about this trio is that both Eddie and Airto are very melodic players as well as very percussive. We all share a pretty wide range in that regard, and I think some very interesting things are going to come of it."

Not a surprising attitude for someone who called the piano "the most gorgeous and sophisticated percussion instrument ever conceived." On this tour, he's also chipping in on cowbell, shakers and pandeiro , a Brazilian hand drum.

Even before his debut as a leader with 1966's "Tones for Joan's Bones," Corea had an impressive C.V., having played with Sarah Vaughan, Stan Getz and Blue Mitchell. He had moved to New York in 1959 after graduating from Chelsea High School near Boston and put in a semester at Columbia University before matriculating in a different world after hearing Davis at the legendary Birdland club. In the late '60s, Corea replaced Hancock in Davis's band, also adopting the Fender Rhodes electric piano that would later power Return to Forever's fusion sound. At Blues Alley, Corea will play both acoustic piano and Fender Rhodes with Minimoog.

Like Davis, the common thread throughout Corea's career has been inquisitiveness, a desire to find new ways to express himself -- to keep things fresh -- and a disinclination to be confined to a single, well-defined category of musical expression.

"The real, utterly stupid answer is I've stopped looking for a reason why I do that," Corea says of his inexorable explorations. "I think you chose your interests -- you have goals in life, things you want to do, and so you're attracted to pursuing things in that direction. I just find that I like to work in a lot of different contexts and try a lot of different things."

Mozart, for instance.

"I've been given the honor of being commissioned by the city of Vienna to write a piano concerto commemorating Mozart's 250th birthday," says Corea, who will also perform Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 24 in C Minor in Austria in July. "Vienna, obviously, is going wild with Mozart commemorations."

This won't be Corea's first Mozart moment. Mozart and Beethoven were as much the soundtrack of his youth as were the Latin dance bands his trumpeter father played in and the bebop giants whose records inhabited the family stereo. A decade ago, Corea collaborated with vocalist Bobby McFerrin and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra on "The Mozart Sessions," featuring jazz improvisations and vocal overdubs inspired by two of Mozart's piano concertos (Nos. 20 and 23) and his Piano Sonata No. 2.

In 1999, Corea recorded his own "Piano Concerto No. 1," modeled after the style of Mozart and performed with a jazz trio fronting the London Philharmonic Orchestra. According to Corea, the new work will, logically, be titled "Piano Concerto No. 2." "I'm in the midst of writing it now and organizing a 30-piece chamber ensemble and jazz quartet for summer concerts. Then we'll record it," he says. No dates have been set, but Corea says he hopes to bring the project to America later this year.

"The Ultimate Adventure" is more familiar territory, a follow-up to 2004's "To the Stars" in that both were inspired by novels of the same names by L. Ron Hubbard. Hubbard, the founder of Scientology (Corea has been a Scientologist since the late '60s), wrote several hundred books in a variety of genres in the '30s and '40s, mostly science fiction and fantasy.

The new album is a collection of finely crafted tone-poems inspired by the book's characters and situations. Its hero is transported by a renegade scientist into another plane where he must overcome ghouls, genies and an evil tyrant to rescue Queen Tedmur of the enchanted City of Brass. Fortunately, you don't need to know the story to find the music satisfying and compelling in its own right. There are no vocals and no libretto, and the compositions are a compendium of Corea's many periods and areas of interest, with the addition of North African and Middle Eastern melodies and tonalities. (Hubbard's "Adventure" was based partly on settings from "The Arabian Nights.")

"The attraction to me was not only the challenge of writing music portraying characters in a fiction book but the fact that I've had such an intimate connection with L. Ron Hubbard and his work in Scientology for 40 years now," Corea says. "I've been a fan of his fiction for 25 years, and once I started into the act of working with his creations, it had an extra special excitement to me."

Corea, who'll soon record his sixth duet album with vibraphonist Gary Burton -- their 1972 debut, "Crystal Silence," remains a landmark -- is, as always, pursuing multiple projects. Even as he tours with Forever Returns, his Touchstone ensemble -- a quintet drawn from flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia's old band and augmented by flamenco dancer Auxi Fernandez -- has been on the road supporting "The Ultimate Adventure." In a couple of months, there's Vienna and Mozart, and then . . .

Come to think of it, Corea has been on the ultimate adventure for a long time.

Chick Corea and Forever Returns Tuesday through May 7 at Blues Alley Sounds like: Sterling jazz keyboards spurred by a Brazilian percussionist and Bronx-born bassist, making music that's electric, acoustic and unbounded.

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