Thriving Away From the Straight Line

by Will Layman

If Scientology is all you know about Chick Corea, you are missing out on one of the best pianists in jazz history. Here he talks with PopMatters about his eclectic career, his most recent record and his passion for improvisation.

With Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes making headlines in the celebrity tabloids as famous members of the Church of Scientology, it is tempting to be cynical or snarky about jazz pianist Chick Corea. But Corea’s own sincerity and talent really won’t allow it. You can chuckle about Tom Cruise all you like, but Corea’s spirituality opened the gates for a lot of great music. Though the majority of Corea’s work—including his just-released The Ultimate Adventure—has been cloaked in, of all things, science fiction, fantasy and self-help imagery, the work stands on its own.

Corea was one of the earliest celebrity Scientologists. In 1968, at a time when he was one of the hottest young jazz pianists in New York, he became interested in the religion derived from science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard’s philosophy. It was a turning point. By 1975, Corea had joined Miles Davis’s quintet, participated in some of era’s most epochal jazz recordings, formed his own band, wrote a series of enduring jazz standards and became arguably the most successful modern jazz artist. “It was a total learning experience for me. It was around 1968, 1969, and some of my biggest gains in life came when I extroverted and reached out and saw that the world was made of people.”

While Corea’s vocabulary brims with terms and quotations picked from his study of Hubbard, his own story is amazingly universal. “Music is communication,” he states simply. In the 1960s, Corea recorded jazz in a post-bop style for the Blue Note and Atlantic labels, coming up through groups led by Blue Mitchell, Mongo Santamaria, and Herbie Mann, accompanying Sarah Vaughan, shining with both originals and standards in a trio format (most notably on Now He Sings, Now He Sobs), and dipping seriously into the avant-garde with the group Circle, which featured Anthony Braxton on reeds. But by the time he emerged from the Miles Davis group, Corea was explicitly seeking to connect to audiences more directly—to harness the dancing, human qualities of jazz for a more expansive audience. “As musicians we tend to get into the technicalities of music—styles, forms, sounds, instruments—and really the human and spiritual part gets lost sometimes,” Corea says. “But it’s always there strongly, because that’s what makes us move and emote and feel.”

To make his music more direct, Corea first tried to tap the sense of airiness and spiritual yearning then in the air. His band Return to Forever was at first essentially a samba band, featuring the Brazilian percussionist Airto Moreira and his wife, Flora Purim, a vocalist. On light, bubbling melodies like “Sometime Ago” and “Light as a Feather”, Corea combined songful, rhythmic improvisations with fanciful lyrics and propulsion. As RTF morphed into a somewhat bombastic “fusion” band (featuring Lenny White on drums, Stanley Clarke on bass, and several electric guitarists), the names of the projects and songs remained fantastical: “Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy”, “Theme to the Mothership”, “Romantic Warrior” and the like. “I’ve always been drawn to fantasy and the magic world,” Corea explains.

It’s no surprise, then, that his latest project is another trip into a fantasy realm—a musical setting of an L. Ron Hubbard novel. “Music to me is a trip into the imagination,” Corea says. “Even my older work tended to based on literary things, like The Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland, then The Leprechaun, and My Spanish Heart.”

Lewis Carroll is one thing, but for most jazz fans, the idea of Scientology’s influencing the work of such a prolific and talented musician can be hard to take. But with The Ultimate Adventure the connection is impossible to ignore. Hubbard is someone who Corea credits as a teacher, friend and, ultimately, musical collaborator. “The first time I took an L. Ron Hubbard book and set some music to it was with last year’s project To the Stars, featuring my Elektric Band,” Corea says. “It was very challenging, compelling and inspiring to me.” The new project, however, is both broader and deeper in conception—including some of Corea’s oldest musician friends and stretching the pianist’s composing and playing in new directions too. Corea explains the new project’s depth and density as a reflection of a rich source: “The characters in the book are so real that there’s a depth to it that allows me to really get into it. It also gives a wide breadth of what will apply to the character and the place. I could write four or five different pieces with different tempos and different things to them all of which would work to portray the characters.”

Whether the novel lives up to the music or not, it’s hard to deny Corea’s description of his music’s multidirectional nature. The Ultimate Adventure is his most comprehensive single disc—a recording that seems to summarize much of the pianist’s great career. Not only does the record call in the services of musicians from different periods of Corea’s life, but it also blends sounds and approaches that span decades—and reaches forward.

“It was a conscious decision for this record to reflect the collective styles I’ve played in and people I’ve played with,” Corea says. “I wanted to differentiate this project from To the Stars. When I started writing this music, I thought, I’m gonna keep this really wide open and use a wide palate.” So, while the sound of The Ultimate Adventure is dominated by flutes, hand percussion and Corea’s signature acoustic touch and Fender Rhodes sound, there is a generosity to the architecture of the record.

Chick Corea
multiple songs: MySpace

Corea used several methods in composing The Ultimate Adventure. “Once I had the flavor of the story and the characters clearly in mind, I just started writing themes and music and combining a lot of different things. Then as I worked, certain themes and directions connected to particular characters or moods—almost like I was working backwards.” Some of the compositions grew out of percussion and piano improvisations with percussionist Hossam Ramzy. “He came to the house and we jammed—it was not an idea to compose. But I’m interested in his kind of music, his flavors and his rhythms. And so those tunes were not something I would have come to on my own.”

The use of older colleagues lends the project a different gravity. Corea admits that as he gets older, he better appreciates how “a great part of the richness of my life has come from musician friends of mine, musicians whom I’ve spent time creating life with.” In 2001, Chick celebrated his 60th birthday by spending a three-week residency at The Blue Note in New York City, playing a diverse repertoire with a vast array of his old bands and collaborators. “Life dovetails around,” Corea says. “I’ve found I want to connect even more. So when I was writing this project, Hubert Laws’s flute playing came to mind, and I thought how nice it would be to invite him. And we were in L.A. and I thought maybe Vinnie Colaiuta could play some. And then I thought, Wow, I haven’t been in a recording studio with Steve Gadd lately, and it was just one thing after another. I found the project growing when these other musicians would come in and add another viewpoint to the music.”

The result reflects Corea’s career not only because it evokes Return to Forever, the Origins band, the Elektric Band and some of the early free jazz but also because it generally defies the concept of differentiated styles as a matter of philosophy. And this may be the most Corea thing of all.

“I don’t care about styles” is the kind of defiant statement you expect from a creative artist. Jazz musicians are almost uniformly disdainful of the word jazz, at least as it is used to hem them in. So too is Corea. “I’m not interested in it. Jazz at one time probably had a pretty specific meaning applied to one or two bands. The word has spread out to the point where it has no meaning, none at all. We get into the vagaries of semantics, then nothing happens.”

Corea has maintained a vigorous independence, not only taking a restless approach to making many different kinds of creative music over 40 years but also moving freely among his various methods and styles. “From an early age I discarded the idea of chronology and influences and the notion that life builds. It doesn’t look like that to me. It looks like life is here now, and I should be participating with it, helping people, doing what I want and what I see as effective to do.” Unlike his former employer Miles Davis, who seemed to be an arrow shot into the future, Corea has been almost perverse in moving around and back. The Ultimate Adventure embodies that ethic.

“One of the best decisions I made in my life, a policy I set for myself, was to follow my own creative path,” Corea says. “When I first moved to New York, around 1965, Herbie Mann called me to suggest I record for Vortex, his new label. He wanted me to do something with a Latin tinge—some conga drums and so forth. And at that point I made a decision: I would create the way I like to create and just make it work.”

It was a fateful decision. “I had this quintet I’d written music for,” and Corea chose to record that music for Atlantic instead of the more ersatz Latin date, creating the classic album Tones for Joan’s Bones. “And so I’ve done that, and I think that gave me a way of operating in my life—I always made music the way I wanted to make it. I produce my records. When I collaborate with another musician, it’s a real collaboration.”

The result has been one of the most diverse and economically successful careers in jazz. Corea started his own record imprint, Stretch (now distributed by Concord Records), and he works constantly on new projects. He became musical director for Stan Getz on the tour associated with his Columbia album Captain Marvel (named for a Corea tune—that fantasy element again). “When I toured with Stan for Captain Marvel, we did a gig at the Rainbow Grill in New York on a bill I’ll never forget. I had Stanley Clarke on bass, Tony Williams on drums, Airto on percussion, and then we were joined by Joao Gilberto as an additional artist.”

He is currently composing music for 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birthday. “The city of Vienna offered me a commission to write a piano concerto in the spirit of Mozart, so I’m going to tour Europe playing a Mozart piano concerto and my own concerto. And I’ll be improvising not only in my own work but on the Mozart too, without a doubt. I think it was intended by the composer, and it’s a fun thing to do.”

Even if the word jazz won’t comfortably hold him, Corea admits to being most deeply an improviser, “I don’t give that much thought to how much improvisation there should be when I’m putting music together—I just want what makes good music. But I have to admit, if I had to choose just one way of making music, it would be just to improvise all the time.”

Though his 65th birthday looms this summer, there is still something puckish about Chick. Behind his interest in spirituality and Scientology, before his fascination with space operas or wood nymphs, over and above his serious gravitas as a contemporary composer (he was recently named National Endowment of the Arts “Jazz Master”) he is still palpably a little kid from Massachusetts playing the piano. He still practices all the time, and he mainly wants to play for people.

“I like people to smile, feel good, get inspired, feel positive about life, get challenged. Some positive effect is what I intend with my music. It’s a kind of stupid simplicity, but you can wander around and be very mechanical about life and not notice that life is lived by a lot of people and we survive together and we help each other survive, and music is part of it. Music is part of the scene, it’s one of the things that keeps people uplifted and exchanging beautiful things with one another.”

So you ask him what it’s like to do that, to play for people and truly to be communicating at a deep level. And, man he wants to give you a deep and even L. Ron Hubbardish answer. “That’s too big a question,” he says at first. “It feels a lot of different ways. It depends.” But you can hear him thinking about music—that big mess of nonlinear music that is his life—and the excitement just starts to get to him. The little kid comes to the fore.

“Music is a creation,” he says. “Usually we’re taking in information—reading books, watching TV, listening to people talk. But music is a way to put something out—an outflowing.” And the rhythm of Corea’s voice picks up and syncopates some: “I’m going to play, I’m going to send this sound out, I’m going to do something. It’s an aesthetic thing to do, a beautiful thing to do, a creative thing to do.” And he smiles a smile bigger than his new project, bigger than three weeks at the Blue Note. Even bigger than Tom Cruise’s goofy Katie-Holmes-induced smile.

“Playing music?” he says. “Playing music feels great!.

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