Chick Corea

Admiration for Elvis

MAARTEN DE HAAN, October 23, 1994

Vredenburg Concert Hall, Utrecht, The Netherlands

Timewarp-tour with bassist John Patitucci, saxofonist Bob Berg and drummer Gary Novak

(MdH:) Mr. Corea, you have just founded the jazz label Stretch Records. Does this mean that you will be moving away from being purely a musician? Does it entail management tasks for you?

(CC:) With Stretch Records? Oh none, none. My only requirement in accepting the challenge of putting a record label together was that I would not have to administratively run it at all. It is not my desire to change my efforts from making music into something else. But I wanted to use the fact that I could help some of the musicians whom I like and who have come through my band sometimes, as well as other young musicians, to have an opportunity to make their music.

(MdH:) You do seem to take an interest in acting as a tutor for younger musicians, these last years…

(CC:) It might appear that way, but my real motivation is to learn. Because I know I get inspired with a (snaps fingers) fresh thought. And young musicians, of course, they are also creating. And I find it a source of inspiration to be connected with them. They come to me and they give me praise, they say: “Oh, I like your music and you have inspired me”, blah blah blah. And that is great, but meanwhile I am looking to see: what are they doing?

(MdH:) You recently made a ‘live’ CD with Bobby McFerrin, Play. It breathes great playing pleasure and McFerrin’s improvisations are very free and joyful. Did he inspire you in the way you have just described?

(CC:) Well, you know, I have been inspired by a lot of things that have happened in life and certainly those six concerts that I played with Bobby were a big thing for me. Because I admire him so much, the way he is able, like you say, be free and still have the audience completely with him I think is a magnificent quality. You know, when he called me to do those concerts, I assumed that he wanted me to put a trio together or use my trio (The Chick Corea Akoustic Band –MdH) for him to sing with. But he said: “Oh, no no no, let’s just improvise” and I said: “OK, let’s do it”. Because I like to do that, and to find a partner like that is unusual. He’s a very, very inspiring guy.

(MdH:) Play reminded me a bit of a piece on your record Secret Agent, a song called ‘Hot News Blues’, sung by Al Jarreau. Is there asimilarity between those two musical experiences?

(CC:) You mean: between ‘Hot News Blues’ and working with Bobby? The only similarity I see is that they are both great singers. That is where the similarity stops. Because the experience with Bobby is just wild, complete improvisation.

I mean, what you hear on the recording are the only… We recorded each night, six concerts. There was an idea to make an audio record. So we had to go through the tapes to find parts that made sense to put on a recording. And out of six complete concerts there was only maybe ten percent that was actually complete, that did not need visual… where you did not need to see what we were doing on stage for it to make sense.

(MdH:) You were singing too, is what I heard…

(CC:) Yeah we were just… it went beyond music, it was a kind of improvised theatre between the two of us, in comedy and… it was wild. And Bobby got into some wild things and I went with him and he made me wild, and we were doing some great little musical things. Al Jarreau was a different kind of personality. He is a great singer and a lyricist and an improviser too, but we have not done anything since ‘Spain’. I would like to do more with Al, perhaps I will write some music for him.

(MdH:) For many years you have made records like Touchstone and The Mad Hatter, which were highbrow, personal concept albums mixing jazz with classical and latin music. At some point you expressed a certain frustration with such projects. You then wanted to form a real band, you even at one point called it a “marriage”. That became The Chick Corea Elektric Band. However, recently you have returned to more loose forms of collaboration…

(CC:) Well, life ebbs and flows, it has balances. There are many dynamics in life and everybody has his own way to find his optimum motion. Like with the quartet we have now, we play many concerts. And each night we find out more ways to do it and the successes you win, you win together; they contribute to the richness of the relationship. But then there is also the freedom and the necessity I find to go out by myself and learn new things. To look and experience and check the world out with my own eyes, to nourish myself with the experience of living. Not with the idea “well, because of this new experience I am going to write some music”. No, just to do it, just to live.

At some point I did miss having a group. From 1978 to 1983 I did always a new project, I did getting together with Gary Burton, with the Septet I did some things, I re-united Roy Haines and Miroslav Vitous, I did many things. At some point I missed that family report that you get with musicians when you work together. So I decided to try and put an all-purpose band together of young guys that could go beyond one project, the Elektric Band.

(MdH:) There is a general conception that you formed your first rock fusion band Return To Forever out of dissatisfaction with the fact that Circle, your free jazz group with Dave Holland, Barry Altschul and Anthony Braxton, failed to attract bigger audiences…

(CC:) The statements I made at the time that gave people that impression are now old and a bit stale dated. Sometimes the way I expressed myself about Circle might have made it sound like I was unhappy with that music, which is not the case at all. That music was experimental and creative. Yet I did want to try something different.

The concept of communication with an audience became a big thing for me at the time. The reason I was using that concept so much at that point in my life –in 1968, 1969 or so- was because it was a discovery for me. I grew up kind of only thinking how much fun it was to tinkle on the piano and not noticing that what I did had an effect on others. I did not even think about a relationship to an audience, really, until way later.

But then the thing that interested me about rock or pop music, was that that appeared to be the entertainers’ sole reason for living. To create an effect. And I thought: “Gee, that is interesting, I never even thought of that, and here I am, doing it anyway!” So I began to admire and learn from those I considered to be great entertainers. Some of them came out of rock music, but not all.

There was also Charlie Chaplin, there was Fred Astaire, there was Duke Ellington. There was Louis Armstrong, there were great actors and actresses of the screen and stage. I missed the wave that others my age were experiencing, with Elvis Presley and The Beatles. I was off with Bartok and John Coltrane at the time. But later on I even felt admiration for Elvis Presley!

(MdH:) And The Beatles, as musicians?

(CC:) Not as musicians, more as entertainers and songwriters, singers, bards or minstrels. I admired the videos they made, the way they performed… I mean, after being over-awed by musicianships such as Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, John Coltrane and Bela Bartok, it is not possible to be overly impressed by the musicianship of folk musicians. But that is not to say that there is not an artistic depth that can be very inspirational…

Stevie Wonder was one of the first pop entertainers who to me had so much of the fine art in his music that it sparked my interest. I thought to myself: “Here is a musician, or a singer, here is a guy who is communicating to the masses of the planet, and yet his compositions, his voice, the quality of his music is very high. This is magic, this is a trick to do.” And it has always been a dream of mine to do something like that.

(MdH:) Are you constantly composing, is it an autonomous flow, or are you mainly writing for specific projects?

(CC:) When I compose for others, I sometimes write something new. But mostly I use material I have written before. Someone like Gary Burton will come to me and ask, “Do you have a song?” and I then I think: “Maybe he will like this one that I am not using”.

Recently, I put together a book called ‘Çhick Corea Collection’. I finally took some hours and found all of the compositions kind of in the corners of my workroom that had not really been used but were complete compositions. And I kind of cleaned them up and finished them off, and made them so that they could be used as a lead sheet or a piece of written music. Altogether there are about eighty pieces like that.

(MdH:) In the past you have worked with fellow pianists like Herbie Hancock, Friedrich Gulda and Victor Feldman. Are you interested in doing the same with a new generation of pianists?

(CC:) Well, you know, funny that you should ask, because there is a piano festival coming up that I am organizing. And there are going to be some young pianists playing with me, playing alone and together in various combinations. The idea came from how much fun it was to create the Klavier Sommer that we did in Munich, starting in 1980. I got together with Karl Heinz Hein, who promotes the Klavier Sommer, and the first summer it was only piano.

Pianist Nicholas Economou was there, Friedrich Gulda, Martha Argerich and many classical pianists from Eastern Europe. It was a lot of fun, just to get together with a bunch of pianists, you know. I miss that. So I decided, “You know, I like to try this again, but more with jazz pianists.” So I am developing something with pianists, and maybe next year there are going to be performances in France and in Germany…

(MdH:) Can you mention pianists who will perform in your festival? How about that guy in New York, Armen Donelian?

(CC:) Yeah! I know his playing. He is very, very good. There is a lot of young guys that are playing great. The reason that I am not mentioning any participants in that festival is because it might change and there might be others instead. One I know I am pretty sure will be included is Billy Childs, who is a fine composer as well as a great pianist. But other guys that I have known for a while, I am sure you are familiar with them, but…

(MdH:) You are known for taking ironic turns in your music. Take for instance a piece called ‘Ginkakuji’ that you wrote for an Eddie Gomez record, in which the middle piece sounds like a nagging children’s song. Does, to quote the late Frank Zappa, humour belong in music?

(CC:) Oh, of course! It is a great pleasure to make people laugh, especially if you can do it with just musical things. I think any emotion is completely valid in music. Making a piece of music, whether it be a recording or a live performance, is like telling a story. More and more I see it that way. That is what performers and artists try to do for people, they try to tell them a story of some kind or other.

I am not saying that you are able to do and attain that constantly, because life is hard too: we must survive and work and sleep and do other things (chuckles) to keep life going. Whether it is a dark story or it is a dark story, it is a story. And the reason why I like music is because it gives the participant, the listener, a lot of space and room to use his own imagination. Especially music without words, it takes a creation on the part of the listener to involve himself.

As far as irony is concerned, I will say that some of my favourite artists are comedians… Steve Martin, for instance, who may not be as appreciated in other languages because he uses language as a comedian. He is the Charlie Chaplin of the 1980s and 1990s to me. He is an amazing producer, maker and storywriter of movies, but also an entertainer, comedian and philosopher.

(MdH:) Like Bobby McFerrin?

(CC:) Well, Bobby is a bit of a off-hand comedian. He makes people laugh without trying, you know. But even the real genius comedians, like Steve Martin, like Robin Williams, they are incredible. They are philosophers and they make people laugh. They lighten people up, they take the seriousness away from them. I think that is a great service! (laughs)

(MdH:) You mentioned before being inspired by actors and movies. Did you ever compose film music?

(CC:) You know, I tried once. I did a movie. I am not going to even tell you what it is (Corea scored the music for Abel Ferrara’s 1989 movie Cat Chaser -MdH), because I am not proud of what happened (laughter). But I may try some other time. I think I need to find the right people to work with to do that right. I think that there is a tendency in the movie business, as in any business, for the composer to be given directions by non-musical people. That is what I experienced. I did not have creative freedom and was given directions by someone who was confused about what he wanted. It was just a relationship I was not used to, I guess. But I do admire some music that is made for movies. For instance, Toru Takemitsu and his score for the movie ‘Ran’. (whistles) Wow!

(MdH:) What are your plans for the near future?

(CC:) After recording this project, I want to re-develop my chamber music and my piano solo. My interest is wide in piano solo, and I don’t have a set path. I know that when I challenge myself to go on stage with solo, I discover things. I will try to open up the performance with a very free improvisation. But I also sometimes get very much attracted to the idea of playing a piece of written music. I have written music for the piano that I would like to try to perform as well.

Like in this new piece, Timewarp: there are some sections where each note is written out. And then there are other sections that are built on structures and there is pure improvisation. In piano solo, I like to explore all these ways.