In Memoriam: Chick Corea

One evening back in 1981 I came home from school to find my brother Jeta sitting in the living room with a new vinyl record in front of him. I stared at it dubiously, wondering what he had acquired this time. A face I’d never seen before stared back at me from the sleeve.

I had no idea then who Chick Corea was. Living in Darjeeling in a corner of India, any jazz was scarce to come by. I had recently started playing the guitar, and was caught up with the notion of “improvisation”, even if all I knew back then was the A minor pentatonic scale. I turned the sleeve over to find that no, there was no guitar player in the lineup. Would this be much fun?

On first listening, I couldn’t connect with the music at all. It seemed subdued and even a little banal to me. I didn’t realise that my hearing had a long way to go before I would begin to perceive the music for what it was. 

It grew on me gradually. My first point of contact was with Bunny Brunel’s fretless bass. At that time, I had never heard of the instrument, not having discovered Weather Report. Slowly, the other performances began to reveal themselves. The leader’s Fender Rhodes textures and wailing Moog lines sounded interesting, though I had no comprehension of the scales and harmonies involved. Joe Farrell’s flute on Slinky became a favourite solo to listen to. Of course, there was no way then that I could actually play this music. But I liked. There was an emotional quality to the phrasing which was all very new for me. 

Soon, I heard Chick’s Musicmagic, and some of his earlier Return to Forever work. Al Dimeola’s guitar, particularly on the track Romantic Warrior, became a source of interest. It seemed that yes, Chick was all right really and that perhaps I could progress by listening to his music. I even began to play my guitar more diatonically, hoping to emulate some of the phrasing. 

And then, a year later, my cousin Anmole introduced me to a cassette copy of Three Quartets.

(In hushed whispers)

“My friend in the States just sent this over. It is an outstanding album. But you might not get it.”

I reached for the cassette. “Let me hear it?”. 

I took the tape home, started listening, and was transfixed. This music was very different from RTF or any other Chick albums I had heard until then. It was in a mainstream format featuring him on the acoustic piano, Eddie Gomez on the upright bass, Steve Gadd on the drums, and Michael Brecker on the tenor saxophone. That was where the resemblance with any mainstream jazz that I had heard before ended. This was serious music, replete with abstract harmonies and scales, with a very free and open rhythm section, and long, complex solo playing. 

And it all made sense to me in a way I could not explain. 

Through the 1980s, I gradually heard more Chick Corea, and he quickly became the biggest musical influence I had at the time. I had no idea how to break into the music myself, as there was no possibility of receiving instruction in jazz, or of finding accomplished cats to hang out with. I started to hear the tremendous diversity in his music: the raucous fusion of RTF, the pop-flavoured sounds of the Electrik Band, sudden authoritative indulgences in serious jazz, and introspective solo piano moments. 

Finally, after hearing Cappuccino from the album Friends, I decided I’d had enough of gawking from the sidelines. It was time to wade into it myself, figure out the changes and the notes, and see if I could make any sense of it. The track was very challenging, being an uptempo swing featuring Gomez, Farrell and Gadd along with the leader, and it took me several hours to see the structure clearly. But it made sense. 

Being primarily a guitar player, I couldn’t really find a way to perform Chick’s music till 2006 when I started working with Rose Eilert, a very capable jazz pianist from Sydney, well-versed in jazz theory and traditions. She could understand the forms and harmonies far better than I did.

I crossed over into bass playing, and we started to perform in a trio format regularly. While most of our earlier output was influenced by Bill Evans, Chick Corea gradually entered the repertoire too. 

I discovered that it was far more delightful for me to play the upright bass in the context of Chick’s music. Timekeeping was always vital and gave me much to do with a drummer, and the harmonies were open enough to let me phrase very freely. And yes, Cappuccino became a mainstay of our gigs. 

Eventually, I grew out of much of Chick’s music. RTF now sounded dated and not very subtle to me. Albums such as The Leprechaun, The Mad Hatter and Musicmagic were bloated with saccharine cliches and excessive, indulgent orchestration.

There had been a time when I’d enjoyed his work with the Electrik and Acoustik Band formats, which were commercially very successful for him. The level of musicianship and precision is quite extraordinary on these, and there was always something to learn technically, particularly in the area of timekeeping. But the music was, finally, rather forgettable.

In November 2018 Chick Corea visited India to perform a solo piano concert in Mumbai, which I attended. His playing was outstanding, of course, but I was distracted by his propensity to speak all the time, mix classical pieces with jazz renditions, and resort to gimmickry such as having his portrait painted during the concert. I realised that, regardless of his prowess as a pianist, it wasn’t possible for me to listen to him playing alone for more than half an hour. 

I realised I’d grown out of nearly all of Chick Corea’s music, except his mainstream jazz ensemble work. This was, and still remains, significant for me. Especially three albums: Three Quartets itself, Now He Sings, Now He Sobs, and Time Warp.

Nevertheless, I felt sad when news reached me of Chick Corea’s passing last month. He had been a very long-standing icon in my own musical journey, and I’d spent most of my serious listening time with his work over the decades. I don’t think anyone expected him to depart suddenly, as he had lost none of his dexterity and capacity to perform, along with the sheer joy that he exuded onstage. 

Chick’s place in jazz history is secure, of course. He spanned a considerable variety of styles, played with some pivotal figures as well as talented newcomers, and influenced countless jazz musicians across the world. His body of work will remain important as a repository.

I thought back about his music and how it had touched me over the years. Chick was the key influence who showed me a way out of pentatonic box shapes and provided an insight into modern harmony, creative timekeeping and expressive phrasing. 

This little piece does not directly emulate any of Chick’s styles, but it captures a small part of what I distilled from his music. Maybe he might have even liked it. 

Photo Credit: Luciano Viti – Italy 1992