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Classically inclined: Pianist-composer Chick Corea knows Miles, Mozart

August 16, 2013


Aug. 16--Calling pianist-composer Chick Corea one of the most recognized jazz musicians of the last 50 years tells only half the story. Corea, who began playing piano at age 4, hasn't limited himself to a single music since he began taking piano lessons at the age of 8 in Boston with concert pianist Salvatore Sullo. Before that, Corea had been exposed to a variety of music in his home. His father, a jazz trumpeter, encouraged his son to play a number of instruments, including drums, and Corea took a particular liking to the sounds of jazz-funk pianist Horace Silver. His first jobs were with the Afro-Cuban bands of Mongo Santamaria and Willie Bobo, influences that continue to surface in his music today. He went on to work with Blue Mitchell, Stan Getz, Herbie Mann and Sarah Vaughan. But his first recordings, notably the 1968 landmark Now He Sings, Now He Sobs, aren't limited to Latin-influenced jazz or jazz funk. They display a sophisticated sense of composition that integrates a number of genres. As noted music producer and critic Michael Cuscuna writes in his notes to the CD issue of the reco rding, the music held a lyricism that reflected the French impressionists. Later, influences of 20th-century and new-music composers surfaced in Corea's early '70s avant-garde work with saxophonist Anthony Braxton, percussionist Barry Altschul, and bassist Dave Holland.

Even as he won a huge following through his electric-keyboard and synthesizer play with Miles Davis and with his own group Return to Forever, Corea showed a willingness to embrace classical traditions through orchestration and in his solo piano pieces, which contain the sort of figures and decoration one might attach to the classical styles of Haydn and Mozart. But even these descriptions fall short. More than one critic has pointed out similarities to Bartok in Corea's excellent Piano Improvisations recordings of 1971 (issued in two volumes) and his wonderful 1983 recording Children's Songs. These miniature pieces set the stage for the larger works to follow.

While Corea's wide-ranging influences might seem to indicate a lack of direction, they come together in his compositions to form a personal and identifiable style. "I'm often asked about what others consider my diversity of tastes," Corea said in a 2010 interview. "Actually, the simple, most truthful and direct answer is, I never think about it. I follow my interests and find that it leads me to trying to understand other cultures and the artists that create within them. Often, rather than seeing another way of music as only a 'curiosity', I want to understand it more intimately -- and that leads me to studying the music of and participating with the musicians of that culture." Miles Davis put it succinctly after Corea joined his band in 1968. "[Corea] can play anything he wants to play, just like me. He's a music lover."

In the last two decades, Corea has obscured the lines between classical and jazz composition further. He re-orchestrated what's probably his best known composition -- "Spain" -- for orchestra and recorded it, along with his Mozart-influenced Piano Concerto No. 1, with the London Philharmonic. In 2006, he performed Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 24 in C Minor and premiered his Piano Concerto No. 2, The Continents, in the Spirit of Mozart, with the Bayerische Kammerphilharmonie in Vienna. (This outing is now available on a Deutsche Grammaphon release, The Continents: Concerto for Jazz Quintet & Chamber Orchestra). While Corea mixes jazz and classical traditions, his music doesn't seem to have two distinct sides but sounds all of one thing. Recently, he's worked with the Harlem Quartet, notably on a piece for string quartet entitled The Adventures of Hippocrates. He also includes the quartet in a more jazz-inflected composition, "Mozart Goes Dancing."

Corea is slated to premiere Not Serious Music for piano, clarinet, violin, and cello at Music From Angel Fire on Wednesday, Aug. 21. He'll be among friends -- violinist Ida Kavafian and cellist Fred Sherry appeared on Corea's 1976 date The Leprechaun as well as on his 1985 Septet recording for string quartet, piano, flute and French horn. And Corea has written a piece for clarinetist Richard Stoltzman and marimba player Mika Yoshida entitled "Marika Groove."

Pasatiempo: What composers were you exposed to as a young piano student and which, over the years, did you favor?

Chick Corea: My good teacher Mr. Sullo kindly showed me into Mozart and Bach's world. He also showed me a little bit of Chopin and a few other legendary gentlemen of that era. It was my first exposure to classical music. I remember mostly enjoying watching him play -- he had a lot of fun when he played. My favorites through the years have been Scarlatti, Mozart, Scriabin, and Bartok. More recently Henri Dutilleux. But that is only a short list.

Pasa: As a composer, you don't seem to acknowledge category, whether jazz, classical, Latin, or fusion. What are you conscious of (or not conscious of) as you move between what audiences would consider classical or composed music and jazz, with its improvisational component?

Corea: I have always most enjoyed composing music -- and so I have come to use the piano as a way to play my compositions. Composers such as Horace Silver, Thelonious Monk, and Duke Ellington were role models for me. I always thought that if the great European classical composers had had more contact with the African and Spanish folk elements in music, they would have thrived even more. Of course there was the matter of communication over great distances.

The ways that styles of music are categorized has never been of much use to me. I have learned to stay close to the streams of creativity that most attract my interest, no matter how they're labeled.

Pasatiempo: You've composed for orchestra and various chamber groups. What do you favor when it comes to orchestration? What are your influences there?

Corea: The orchestrations of Bartok and Stravinsky were the first "classical" orchestrations that really grabbed my attention when I was young. They sounded like jazz to me. I consider it a great skill that I would like to improve upon to be able to make a large orchestra sound so fluent and beautiful.

I most enjoy composing for my own bands and ensembles -- ones that I will be a part of, playing piano or keyboards. I like taking it through the whole process of composing, rehearsing, recording, and then performing the music on tour many times. I then feel I've made a good connection with my music to the public. Every format is enjoyable -- and depends mainly on the musicians I'm playing with, whether a duet or a large group.

Pasa: You're familiar with the musicians who'll be performing the piece you're premiering at Angel Fire. Is it true that you wrote with them in mind? How did that affect the music, both in what you wrote for the individual musicians as well as for the feel of the piece in general?

Corea: Ida Kavafian, Fred Sherry, and Richard Stoltzman are all old friends of mine -- all of whom I have the highest respect and admiration for as adven- turous musicians. My first attempt to write for strings was on the Leprechaun recording. My wife Gayle sang on my arrangement of her song "Soft and Gentle" and introduced me to Ida and Fred. We have since shared many memorable tours and performances together. I've always admired Richard's magical clarinet playing, and we have had several opportunities to perform together. So this opportunity to have Ida, Fred, and Richard play my composition is very exciting for me. And I certainly wrote the piece with them in mind.

Pasa: Are you moving more toward being a classically connected composer now? It seems that there's a trend in the direction in the last 15 years. Has it been conscious or just the direction the music has taken you?

Corea: As I said, my main focus is on the musicians I enjoy playing with, whatever style of music. I do best when I don't consider musical style while I'm writing -- only effects and results are important to me. I do love to compose and will always try to find new combinations and ways to create. I'm looking forward to performing with my friends.


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