When the news arrived on Thursday that jazz pianist, composer, and bandleader Chick Corea had died of a rare form of cancer two days before, the music world was shocked. It was not just that Corea was a jazz “star” in an era when jazz was losing relevance, but that in his late 70s, he seemed more vital than ever. During the pandemic, Corea—already known as a collaborative and affable musician—was sharing his practice sessions online and reaching out to the world.
His eighth decade didn’t see him dialing back or growing more distant. After he released Chinese Butterfly in early 2018, he brought the band into small clubs such as Washington DC’s Blues Alley where you could sit five feet away from the master as he spun his lines. Chick Corea danced behind his keyboards even then, seeming ageless—a restless sprite with an incredible touch. When he turned 75, he played with 15 different bands for a two-week stint at the Blue Note in New York. He was a kid in a candy store or a sandbox. The name of his final album? Plays, of course.
His sudden absence is jarring because we expected to hear more of his signature rippling runs and harmonic brilliance. Corea was one of a quartet of extremely popular jazz pianists who changed the way music was played beginning in the 1960s. McCoy Tyner died less than a year ago, though he had not been active for more than a decade. Keith Jarrett only recently announced that a condition had forced his retirement from playing. Only Corea and his contemporary, Herbie Hancock, were still active.
Except for Tyner, who remained a jazz purist restricted to tonal post-bop jazz and acoustic instruments, Jarrett, Hancock, and Corea were all restless artists. Hancock fronted electric/funk bands and had a hip-hop hit with “Rockit,” and Jarrett made many classical music recordings and wrote orchestral pieces. Corea, however, was doing all of that and more. He was a fusion pioneer with Return to Forever and played avant-garde with Anthony Braxton and the band Circle. Corea composed classical works with and without improvisation, and he played duets with everyone imaginable (singer Bobby McFerrin, Italian pianist Stefano Bollani, Flautist Steve Kujala, many, many more). Also, Corea formed bands that played something closer to “smooth jazz” and bands that played hard-nosed modern jazz—and, somehow, everything in between.
Across 81 studio albums as a leader, another 25 live recordings as a leader, and then scores of albums as a sideman across his entire career, Corea was an unerringly superb pianist—a thrilling soloist, a propulsive and sensitive accompanist, and a band member even though he was a superstar. It is equally valid that, beginning in the mid-to-late 1970s, he recorded music that didn’t meet with critical acclaim in concept or historical taste. It was brilliant music, often, but baroque or super-glossy, punched up with string quartet or vocals or the new toys that Corea was still mastering: his banks of synthesizers. Just as the young Corea turned the Fender Rhodes electric piano into a highly expressive, singing instrument for jazz improvisation, he developed a unique synth sound as well—but that didn’t make the way he used the synth always artistic.
It could be hard to make sense of Corea as he straddled serious jazz and commercial styles — particularly once he started his popular “Elektric Band”, his discography is dominated by over-flashy fusion, mushy smooth jazz rounded corners, and unctuous saxophone lines. But Corea was making music that he seemed to love even when other critics or I didn’t. But how can we blame this incredible musician for experimenting with synthesizers at precisely the moment when the commercial bottom was falling out of acoustic jazz? Often enough, Corea still made it all beautiful.
Here, in chronological order (by recording date rather than release date), are my ten favorite Chick Corea recordings, spanning different eras of his astonishing musical life—though I think the best of the best was mostly recorded before the ’80s kicked in. I have also omitted some live recordings on which he performed widely with musicians through his career, summing things us. With a nod to my friend Eugene Holley, I recommend his dazzling The Musician from 2017, recorded live at New York’s Blue Note, featuring much of music and the collaborators detailed in my Top Ten.
1. Now He Sings, Now He Sobs (Solid State, 1968)
The Band: A piano trio with bassist Miroslav Vitouš and drummer Roy Haynes
Its Brilliance: After arriving in New York from the Boston area, Corea had been accompanying flutist Herbie Mann and vibes master Cal Tjader (both early proponents of how Latin grooves could animate more pop-jazz) as well as trumpeter Blue Mitchell and other post-boppers. But Now He Sings, Now He Sobs fronted his playing in the classic piano trio format and his own compositions. Haynes played with Corea in Stan Getz’s quartet and was an ideal partner—light and swinging but plenty aggressive—and Vitouš brought a Scott Lafaro-esque willingness to spar with Corea. Can an artist sum up their career in what was essentially a debut? Yes.
Brilliantly composed tunes (“Matrix”, “Windows”) appear next to collective free improvisations (“The Law of Falling and Catching Up”, “Fragments”) as well as one standard and one Thelonious Monk tune. There are moments when you can hear Corea’s penchant for dancing Latin rhythms burst through, even on this self-seriously modern recording. If the Bill Evans Trio records of the 1960s were a template for piano trios in the future, this was another one—seemingly neither over-indebted to Evans but also building on his shoulder. If you had to pick only one Chick Corea album…
Killer Track: “Steps—What Was”, which flies out of the gate as the opening track and changes the way you hear jazz piano. It’s that good.
2. The Miles Davis Quintet – Live in Europe 1969 (The Bootleg Series Vol. 2) (Sony, 1969)
The Band: Miles Davis, trumpet; Wayne Shorter, saxophones; Corea; Dave Holland, bass; Jack DeJohnette, drums
Its Brilliance: Corea replaced Herbie Hancock in Davis’s scorching quintet just as the great trumpet player was shifting from standards to original super-charged post-bop to fusion music that added funk, psychedelia, and free playing to his aesthetic. The studio records of this time are rightly lauded, and Corea appeared with on Filles de Kilimanjaro, adding Fender Rhodes electric piano to the band’s sound. With In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew, Corea would be a part of the sound-shifting studio experiments Davis created with producer Teo Macero. Then Corea would be a part of the expanded-band live recordings where he can be heard dueling in the band with Keith Jarrett as a running mate.
But these recordings of the so-called “Lost Quintet” didn’t get officially released until 2013, though fans were passing this stuff around for decades. It’s marvelous, combining the tribal sound and freedoms that came with the big jam tunes with the quintet’s fleet individualism. Corea has a huge hand in creating this music—as you can hear the mixture of free playing and lyrical playing that he had been bringing to his dates at the time.
On these sides, we also hear his first encounters with the Rhodes, an instrument of which he would be an unquestioned master. He bends texture and touch to make this lunk of a piano snarl, coo, ring, and thrum. The audio is only so-so, but everything powers through, and Corea is heard in greater relief in the smaller band. They are abstract and grooving and avant-garde, but then there are moments of supreme and utter lyricism.
Killer Tracks: “Bitches Brew”, “I Fall in Love Too Easily”
3. A.R.C. (ECM, 1971)
The Band: A piano trio with bassist Dave Holland and drummer Barry Altschul
Its Brilliance: Given the size of Corea’s discography, it may be indulgent to include another early trio record, but Corea is now recording for ECM with three-quarters of the band Circle (without Anthony Braxton). All three players are ferociously creative, balancing lyricism and freedom, swing and open groove playing. Corea is a fully mature artist by now, coming out of the Davis band but not yet ready to make the leap to more fully “popular” jazz. Holland, his contemporary, is also a complete musician, about to create his own masterpiece, Conference of the Birds. Altschul didn’t become as huge a figure in the music, but the evidence here is that he is playing with peers, and his contributions are unique: a clattering soundscape that is less bound to jazz’s history-making it just right.
Killer Tracks: “Neffertiti” is the excellent Wayne Shorter tune, deconstructed here but recognizable, and “Vadana”, which begins with a set of phrases that could have been played on even the most accessible Corea recording but then unspools as a very open improvisation, shifting from ballad time to fast swing—all intuition and brilliance, Corea’s filigreed right hand-matched by a silvery left hand and Holland’s continual lyricism.