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Chick Corea reflects on music making

Chick Corea.
(via Wikimedia Commons)
Chick Corea.

Jazz pianist and composer Chick Corea replaced Herbie Hancock in Miles Davis’ band in the late 1960’s  and blossomed as a composer, band leader and improviser through decades of genre-bending traditions, especially those electric jazz-rock fusion years that lead him to form, among other groups, Return To Forever, the fourth edition of which is about to embark on an extensive U.S. tour amidst their 2011 World Tour featuring Frank Gamble on guitar, Jean Luc-Ponty on the violin and Larry White and Stanley Clarke on drums and bass respectfully.  St. Louis Public Radio’s Aaron Doerr spoke with him by phone, asking him about learning music, the role of one’s environment, and jazz and the complexity of reaching a wide range of people with a genre so rooted in musicianship and technical skills.  

Aaron Doerr:  How have you been doing and happy belated birthday!  You just turned 70 this past June.  Do world tours age you quicker or keep you young?

Chick Corea: Oh yeah no... I definitely love to play and travel so travel's part of the deal, you know... and you get used to it.  You get used to the actual physical traveling - you get all those little things together that you have to have together for hotels, and planes and busses and all that, but… definitely playing the music keeps me fresh.
You have one date in Boston MA.  Is that near Chelsea, your hometown, and do you think of Chelsea as your hometown or would you associate growing up more with a place like New York, where your career as a jazz musician really started?

Well I have… they're like ‘Phases’ you know?  Definitely my home - my birthplace - is Chelsea and that's where all my high school friends are and… I still keep a connection with them so you know, that’s a really nice warm connection.   My musical birthplace is more New York than anywhere else although, you know, I had a lot of great experience musically in Boston.  But... New York is more what I consider my musical home.

You’re sharing your dates in the U.S. with Dweezel Zappa, son of the great Frank Zappa, whose music may be the perfect blend of jazz, rock and pop.    Can we expect a surprise sit-in on “Peaches en Regalia?”  Did you ever learn that song?  I think it’s in the published and legal version of the Real Book, which is the sort of bible of jazz music and standards as far as songbooks go.  

Oh yeah, you know I’m actually not that familiar with the Zappa repertoire although I’m a big fan of Frank’s music, and I’m just getting to know Dweezel so it's all an experiment right now but it should be great.

I have a feeling a lot of my questions might be answered in your book, which is from 2001 and titled, A Work In Progress (2001) ... Is it out of print and only available on your website?

Yeah it was never published by a publishing company, but we print copies of it from home...

It’s advertised as a look into your performing and practicing mind, which I would think would be a universally valuable resource for musicians.  Did you always want to get your thought process down on paper?  Is it written for musicians?

It's definitely written for musicians or anyone interested in music, but my concept for the book is sort of… you know everyone has to find their own way artistically.  It's not a mystery how art works - everyone innately knows that so…  I don't believe that setting down a whole lot of rules about how to do this and how to do that is the way to go, although if you're interested in that, there are  lots of books written about how to play the piano, how to play the violin, how to compose, how to do this, and how to do that.  My book is more or less... giving answers to questions about how I do things.  Like, ‘This is what I’ve discovered,’  ‘This is the way I study,’  ‘This is the what I’ve found to be useful,’  ‘This is what I think about… what I don't think about’ and then another person can have a look at that and take from that what might be useful for them and leave the rest.

You studied music education at Juilliard for six months before your career as a musician got underway.  Is that right?  

… Yeah, I attended Juilliard for a short period of time.  It was more an excuse to be in New York - where all my jazz heroes were, as I was, you know, a young man out of high school and my first time away from home and so forth, so going to school was the acceptable way of being away from home but, it quickly turned out that really, really what I wanted to do was work with the musicians, meet musicians and play and work it out, you know?

Going in, did music education seem somewhere where you could advance and maybe shed some light to new musicians?  Was that an interest?  Did you want to be a teacher?

No, because I really don't think in art... actually in anything that...  Teachers are not needed.  Inspirationsare needed and datais needed and encouragement is needed but… That kind of attitude where one person claims to know what another person doesn't know - I never enjoyed that relationship!  So, I’ve found - in my example - that… music and art and the act of creation - creativity - it's innate in everyone.  The real help, I think, is the way to encourage that or illicit it or draw it out of another or help another person find his own way - that kind of thing  - rather than just give a person streams of data.  Because you can go to libraries and read all the books you want.

But surely some people are more talented than others.

Yeah it's a philosophical and spiritual question isn't it?

You know, I'm really curious about the humanity behind the musical mastery we know and love of Chick Corea today.  I've always wondered for someone like you: Is there anything hard about what you do onstage?  Do you ever “mess up?”   You know what I mean?  And I know we're probably not talking about wrong notes here… or are we?

Well I mean, I mean that’s the way you learn.  You learn by challenge.  You set the bar for yourself. That's the way I see it… Every person - it's kind of a private thing - you have to... challenge yourself to do better all the time and then when you… put that kind of stress on yourself, there's always bound to be goof-ups.   Because if you're doing something totally comfortably all the time, then you get really comfortable about it and then you get more comfortable about it and then all of the sudden, the adventure’s  gone, see?  So…  I guess each person can set the dial on how he sets his life to the amount of adventure they like - and that would be equal to the amount of mistakes they're making.  

And as far as playing the piano, do you have an example of risk-taking nowadays -  have you ever wondered ‘Well this seems like a good idea. I’d like to try it,’ regardless of whether it works or not?  I'm wondering what kind of risks we might be talking about.

You know, we'd have to sit down with the video or the audio of one performance and listen through to it and I could go ‘See there I was comfortable,’ and ‘There I’m taking risks,’ and ‘There I’m really out of my mind,’ and ‘There nobody understood me,’ and ‘There everyone understands me,’ you know what I mean?  It's every night is a new set of challenges.

I think that answers my question of what it means to be successful when you're onstage - you've talked about breaking through to somebody or real communication and involving the audience and the charismatic playfulness that your music has.  It must be important to attract as wide and as far-reaching an audience as possible.  Is it hard to share that with the enormous amount of musicianship and technical expertise to people who may not pick up on it?

You know I have always found that… once the audience arrives at the club or the venue or wherever we're playing, you know… I have found  98% are pretty open to whatever gets given to them and I think probably  myself and the musicians that I associate with have established enough of a precedent that the audience knows they're gonna get improvisation, and they're gonna get… things that are happening at the moment onstage and I think that's one of the things they come for.  As a matter of fact, I’ve noticed… a couple of times we've tried this... I’ll give you one example -  a cute example:
    We did, we recorded a video in Montreux  recently. We played the Montreux Jazz Festival - and they had cameras and so we did two sets and we recorded,  and then the show was over. We did an encore and the show was over, but there were a couple of tunes that there were enough problems with that we wanted to redo.  
    So we went out onstage after the second set and I said to the audience,  ‘Look thanks for coming’ and, you know ‘It was a pleasure playing for you but... we wanna redo a couple of things because we just were making a video and  you're welcome to stay if you want but we're gonna kind of go into editing mode here’ you know?  So we took a ten minute break, came back out again - everyone stayed - and we just went over sections of pieces as if we were in the studio and the audience loved it!  They liked that more than they liked the show!
    We were making mistakes and we were stopping and we were talking to one another and we were like, rehearsing and I noticed that the audience felt like they were let in on something really…you know,  private and something great.  

Wow, what an awesome perspective…It must've been a very awesome perspective for that audience to see.  

Yeah, you know, I’ve tried that a couple of other times if I’m recording live and… I figure… we travel long distances to play for audiences and after you go that far just to be onstage for an hour or an hour and a half, it’s... unfulfilling to me sometimes - I need longer.   Remember in the seventies I used to play sometimes three, four-hour concerts…  Somehow it doesn't work so much these days.  So that third set is an opportunity to stretch out when the venue allows it.

So you're never worried about… I mean, of course the goal is to communicate with the audience and to fulfill the musicianship in your mind and what you're able to do.  Do you ever feel like you're risking ‘talking over their heads’ so to speak?

Nah, never.  Never - it never enters my mind and as a matter of fact, like I said,  my observations lead me to believe that the audience loves to be given the whole thing, and… there's nothing that they can’t understand.   And the trick of that is - it's not a trick but the answer to that is... it's just allowing each other in our world of freedom to be.  You know?  Nobody’s the same.  The audience is thousands of people out there but each one's an individual. He's got his own taste, his own background, his own language sometimes,  and, his own freedom to even be changing his mind during the concert. So, to try to second guess what someone is gonna like or understand or not understand is fruitless.  The only thing I can do is demonstrate my joy of living and creation for people and hope they get pleasure out of it and I don't need to analyze it any further.

You wouldn't say that your playing would be more free or fulfilling within an audience as similarly rooted in the jazz tradition as yourself?

No, not necessarily.  Using categories like that is just too “filmy” and non-real cause there's too much crossover of experience so naming categories never helped me get to any truth.

Are you glad the days of defending, the exhausting struggle to define electric jazz and fusion are over?

I was never part of the argument.

Well I’ve read a LOT of interviews –

-  I always watched it from a distance and kind of chuckled to myself and let people go at it for one another and I saw it to be a fruitless conversation.

Can you explain something? People talk about, expertise and musicianship and risk - like we said – risk talking over people's heads or getting too involved, yet there are certain staples like Beethoven, Ravel, Duke, Armstrong,  or... "Stairway to Heaven," .... and I wonder what goes into making something so universally recognizable and appealing?

It's just the amount of agreement.

What do you mean?

Well, the amount of agreement is the degree of agreement amongst the people who are looking at it makes something more real - more and more real. So, many people like Louis Armstrong and remember him, so more people and then another decade goes by and then more people - it's the amount of agreement.  That's what makes popularity. It's built into the definition of the word by... coming from the word “populous” it's like public - the amount of agreement is what causes that.  It's got nothing to do with Truth;  it's got everything to do with agreement.  

Agreement, perspective, things that you can't measure or practice...  

Yeah, I guess. I’m not sure what you’re getting at at this point....

Well it seems like, for example, pop music, or soundtracks to Wizard Of Oz, or… it doesn't take any effort for an audience to right away latch on to something like that.  Or, to look at a Dali painting - they know exactly what it is and they have an immediate reaction to it.

Oh I see.  You know what?  I know what's happening in our little discussion at this point is see... I judge… I like to judge things by the viewpoints of individuals - not groups.  A group's viewpoint is like a poll.  It's like agreement again.  It's like how many people agree on what - which agreement could change tomorrow see?  Cause people have the freedom to change their minds.  

You could do a survey of a hundred people and ask them a hundred  questions on Monday, get certain answers, and then survey them again on Tuesday, and get different answers. What I’m driving at is I don't think truth can be found in studying groups so much as it can be found studying the creative potentials of an individual and what he does.  That's what I’m interested in.  And so I grant that to my  “audience” quote-unquote which is…  they’re a bunch of individuals constantly changing.  So I don't try - like I said, again - I don't try to second guess them.  I accept them on face value.  They've  come to the show - there they are - and here I am - and here we go!   

And it works, it works every time... Chick Corea thank you so much and enjoy your first U.S. date tonight and I hope your sound check goes well.

Thanks Aaron, nice talking to you man.  

Thank you very much.  


Return to Forever and Zappa Plays Zappa appear in St. Louis at the Fox Theatre on Thursday, August 25th.    For ticket pricing and show information visit Fox Theatre's website or contact Metrotix.


Aaron is the audio engineer of "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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