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Chick Corea, versatile pianist who made jazz eclectic and electric, dies at 79

Chick Corea performs in 2014.
Chick Corea performs in 2014. (Luis Robayo/AFP/Getty Images)

Chick Corea, one of the most versatile and influential jazz pianists of his generation, who helped develop the electronic fusion style of music with Miles Davis and later with his 1970s group Return to Forever, while remaining true to the classic jazz piano repertoire, died Feb. 9 in Florida’s Tampa Bay region, where he lived. He was 79.

The cause was “a rare form of cancer,” said a family spokesman, Dan Muse.

Since the 1960s, Mr. Corea had been a prolific and dynamic force in music, building on his early training in classical music, Latin jazz and traditional jazz to build an original style that freely crossed musical boundaries.

During a six-decade career, he won 23 Grammy Awards, more than any other jazz performer. He is nominated in two categories for this year’s Grammys, which will be awarded next month.

During the 1960s, Mr. Corea worked alongside such traditional jazz greats as Stan Getz, Woody Herman, Freddie Hubbard and Sarah Vaughan before exploring the more modern vistas of electronic music. When Davis, a trumpeter and mercurial force in jazz since the 1940s, started his rock-oriented “electric” band in the late 1960s, Mr. Corea joined as keyboardist and adapted to the new sound, experimenting with the Fender Rhodes piano and other electronic keyboard instruments. He performed on Davis’s groundbreaking 1970 album “Bitches Brew” and on other Davis electric outings, including “Filles de Kilimanjaro” and “In a Silent Way.”

“He inspired musicians to think for themselves,” Mr. Corea said of Davis in a 1991 interview with the Los Angeles Times. “Sometimes he’d walk up to me and put his mouth next to my ear and whisper, ‘Chick, you’re nuts.’ But he never fired us so he couldn’t have hated it all that badly.”

Mr. Corea extended that freedom of expression into his own musical ensembles. Throughout his career, he often had three or four working groups going at a time, jumping from electronic music to straight-ahead jazz duets and trios and small groups. He even performed piano concertos by Mozart and other classical composers.

Beginning in 1966, with his debut album “Tones for Joan’s Bones,” Mr. Corea recorded more than 100 albums and wrote hundreds of musical works, ranging from chamber music and symphonic compositions to several tunes that have become modern jazz standards, including “Spain,” “La Fiesta” and “Armando’s Rhumba.”

By 1972, Mr. Corea had left Davis to form Return to Forever, which emerged as one of the most popular and influential jazz fusion groups of the decade. At different times, the musicians included bassist Stanley Clarke, drummer Lenny White, guitarist Al Di Meola and singer Flora Purim, leading to a distinctive blend of rock, jazz and Brazilian music. The group’s 1975 recording, “No Mystery,” won Mr. Corea his first Grammy.

“I’d see young people at rock concerts standing to listen rather than sitting politely,” Mr. Corea told jazz writer Marc Myers in a 2011 online interview, explaining his journey into electronic music. “It was a different vibe and more my generation. It got me interested in communicating that way. People were standing because they were emotionally caught up in what they were hearing. I related to that.”

Still, Mr. Corea never abandoned his earlier roots in straight-ahead jazz. While working on his electronic projects, which were sometimes scorned by skeptical jazz critics, he continued to perform on the standard acoustic piano, which he called “the most gorgeous and sophisticated percussion instrument ever conceived.”

He released three albums of solo piano improvisations in the 1970s and began making intimate duet recordings with vibrapharpist Gary Burton, in a musical partnership that lasted decades. Two of Mr. Corea’s recordings from the mid-1970s, “The Leprechaun” and the double album “My Spanish Heart,” expanded his popularity after Return to Forever dissolved in 1976.

In 1978, Mr. Corea joined forces with Herbie Hancock, another pianist who had worked with Davis and later became celebrated for his forays into electronic fusion. In a worldwide tour, they performed on acoustic grand pianos in programs that ranged from original compositions to tunes by George Gershwin and classical composer Bela Bartok.

Through the 1980s, Mr. Corea remained a musical chameleon, adapting to almost any musical setting with ease. He formed a new group, called the Elektric Band, that offered a “scintillating blend that draws almost equally from the Latin, classical, bop and jazz-rock fusion stylings,” wrote San Diego Union-Tribune writer George Varga.

Soon afterward, Mr. Corea formed the “Akoustic Band” with his Elektric Band rhythm mates — bassist John Patitucci and drummer Dave Weckl — to perform standard, unplugged jazz fare.

In 1984, he recorded a solo piano album called “Children’s Songs,” while also composing a work of chamber music, “Lyric Suite for Sextet.” For all his musical adventures, Mr. Corea’s favorite format was the traditional jazz trio.

“It’s a classic, put together for ways that I like to play,” he told The Washington Post in 2006. “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.”

Armando Anthony Corea was born June 12, 1941, in Chelsea, Mass. His mother was a homemaker, his father a Dixieland trumpeter who introduced him to music at an early age.

Mr. Corea, whose nickname evolved from an aunt who called him “Cheeky,” began to study the piano at age 4. When he was about 16, he had his first major professional job, working for a week in Boston with Cab Calloway, a singer and showman who had been popular in the 1930s.

After brief studies at Columbia University and the Juilliard School in New York, Mr. Corea embarked on a career in jazz, working early on with percussionists Mongo Santamaria and Willie Bobo, from whom he developed an abiding interest in the complex rhythms of Cuban and Latin American music.

“I’ve always heard music, jazz especially, through the drums more than the piano,” he said in 2001. “I hear how the rhythm moves and how the motion goes, and how it dances, and what the groove feels like and the touch of it, before anything else happens.”

He later had stints with Getz, Herbie Mann and Vaughan, while developing a “mainstream jazz approach,” in the words of jazz historian Ted Gioia, that “boasted a clean, sharply articulated piano sound, a mix of modal and impressionist harmonies, and a driving on-to-of-the-beat rhythmic feel.”

In 1968, Mr. Corea joined the Church of Scientology, which he credited with unlocking his creative impulses. He was one of the controversial church’s best-known members and eventually settled near its headquarters in Clearwater, Fla.

Survivors include his wife of more than 40 years, singer and composer Gayle Moran; two children from an earlier marriage; and several grandchildren.

Mr. Corea toured constantly overseas and across North America. He observed his 60th and 70th birthdays at New York’s Blue Note jazz club, he performed in multiple ensembles during almost month-long engagements. He was honored as a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master in 2006. His most recent album, “Chick Corea: Plays” (2020) contains a typically eclectic collection of tunes, including works by Mozart, Scarlatti, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Thelonious Monk and Mr. Corea himself.

“I’ve done two main things for years and years,” he told the San Diego Union-Tribune in 2001. “First, I follow my heart and imagination. [And] the things I love to do, I pursue.”

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