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The Maestro Chick Corea (1941-2021)

Corea toured India in 2018, playing shows in Mumbai and New Delhi

Sunil Sampat Feb 12, 2021

American pianist Chick Corea live in concert in Mumbai in 2018. Photo: Prashin Jagger

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The jazz world has lost another giant in the passing away on February 11th of Armando Anthony “Chick” Corea. Corea was certainly one of the most influential jazz musicians of the past 50 or 60 years. He was a true giant of jazz. His musical footprint is huge, as is his influence on generations of musicians who follow in his footsteps.

The 1960s saw the emergence of not one but four brilliant piano stylists as if in a cluster; Joe Zawinul, Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett and Corea. Each has had an indelible impact on the growth of jazz from that point on, each in a different way. This has been a true blessing for jazz and the direction in which it has moved from that point on. Incidentally, all but Jarrett have played in India at one time or another.

Corea has a multitude of achievements to his name, including the composition and performance of “Spain,” which has become a jazz standard, right up there with those from Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie or Miles Davis among others. He started playing piano at the age of four and started playing professionally in his teens in the Latin bands of Mongo Santamaria and Willie Bobo. While his influences came from Bud Powell and later Horace Silver, Corea always had his own sound, a very fluid style on which he built as his career progressed.

While he played with the likes of Blue Mitchel (trumpet), Herbie Mann, Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie and vocalist Sarah Vaughan, Corea had a big, career-defining break when Miles Davis invited him to play in his band, playing “new” sounds which were based on electronic instruments. Corea was part of Davis’ breakaway album Bitches Brew and played on Filles de Kilimanjaro, Miles Davis live at the Filmore and In a Silent Way, gradually replacing Herbie Hancock in Miles’ scheme of things. By now Davis had even persuaded Corea to play only the synthesizer (electronic keyboards) at the expense of the acoustic piano.

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After his stint with Davis, Corea joined the avant-garde band Circle with Anthony Braxton and others, but left this group to form his own band Return to Forever, a band meant to play melodic Brazilian sounds; however, this band, with the induction of Joe Farrell (flute and saxophone), Airto Moreira (percussions) and others metamorphosized into a fusion band with high paced compositions. This was the phase when the classic “Spain” was written and performed. The versatility of each of the band members allowed Return to Forever to play a wide range of sounds.

Later, Corea focused on bands playing jazz-rock with a heavy emphasis on electronics. He even formed his Electric Band. He would, however, play in big bands and even played classical music! After the era of the electronic surge in jazz abated, Corea gradually returned to playing an acoustic piano. He also had a group called The Akoustic Band.

Every American jazz musician we’ve met is keen to visit and perform in India and we’re happy that Corea was able to do so in 2018. He played in Mumbai and Delhi. At the Mumbai concert, played at the Rang Mandir in Bandra, Corea played solo piano. A memorable part of that concert was his invitation to pianists in the audience to join him in performance. Louiz Banks joined him, sharing the piano and they played a memorable duet. Banks matched Corea evenly on that occasion! Ironically Corea passed away on Banks’ birthday.

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A wonderful tribute to the legend of Corea was paid to him in Delhi. The original schedule was for Corea to play at the Siri Fort auditorium. Due to lack of response, this concert was canceled. In stepped Arjun Sagar Gupta, himself a fine jazz pianist, and owner of Delhi’s Pianoman Club and invited Corea to play at his venue. Corea agreed with one condition: he would play only on a Yamaha piano, with whom he had a performance contract. Not able to find an appropriate piano, Gupta persuaded him to play on a Steinway piano. There was a major stumbling block in bringing the Steinway into the club. The main entrance was too narrow for the piano! Gupta decided to break the wall of the club, brought in the piano and hastily had the wall erected! After the concert, this process was reversed as the piano was taken out of the club. Not caring about the inordinate expense involved, Gupta was happy and honored just to have had Corea play in his Pianoman Club.

We cannot think of a greater tribute to the legendary Mr. Chick Corea. Rest in peace, sir and remember that the music you have left behind will last for a long, long time.

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