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  • Chick Corea The Downbeat Interview

    Chick Corea: Further Explorations of Bill Evans

    By Marius Nordal (Downbeat)

    Chick Corea will mark the 20th anniversary of jazz piano hero Bill Evans' death with a major two-week engagement called “Further Explorations” at New York's Blue Note club from May 4-16. Joined by Eddie Gomez on bass and Paul Motian on drums – both of whom played with the legendary Evans in some of his more popular and influential trios – and special guests John Scofield, Lee Konitz, and Hubert Laws, Corea will perform some rarely heard Evans compositions and will also premiere original material written in his spirit. Corea and company aim to rekindle the rare trio interplay that Evans established on landmark albums like Sunday At The Village Vanguard and Waltz For Debby. Other illustrious guests – many of them Evans alumni – are expected to show up and join in the exploration, which will be filmed for a future documentary release.

    This spring, we conducted an email interview with Corea, who has been out on the road performing in a variety of configurations. We asked him to share his reflections on Evans and give a preview of the upcoming Blue Note show. “Further Explorations” will be just one of many serious engagements in a year filled with big gigs for Corea. Also on the agenda for 2010 are solo piano dates, duos with Gary Burton, an extended tour with the Freedom Band (featuring Kenny Garnett, Christian McBride and Roy Haynes), duos with Stefano Bollani, a trio reunion with Haynes and Miroslav Vitous, and a new trio outing with McBride and Brian Blade. As if that weren't enough, Corea will kick off next year with a gala performance of his own compositions with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.

    Marius Nordal: You've mastered so many facets of music, ranging from serious composing, complex Latin rhythms, lush harmonies, down-home groove playing and even channeling some Bartok and Scriabin – who were some of the heroes and influences that led you there?

    Chick Corea: Music started for me in our three-room apartment on Everett Avenue in Chelsea, Mass., 1941, where my dad played his 78 r.p.m. vinyl. I got to hear Bird and Diz, the Billy Eckstine big band with Sarah Vaughan and Art Blakey, and later Miles on his first recordings with Bird on the Dial label. My dad, Armando, and his musician friends all tried to play jazz and emulate Miles and Bird.

    After I started playing the piano, I got deep into each new Horace Silver recording as it came out; I followed Miles with each of his new releases from '51 onward and, later, did the best I could transcribing Bud Powell, Wynton Kelly, Red Garland, and then later on, Bill Evans, McCoy and Herbie. That was all great ear-training, by the way.

    When I finally made it to New York after high school in '59, I was fortunate to work with many great musicians and bands through the '60s: Mongo Santamaria, Willie Bobo, Thad Jones and Mel Lewis, Maynard Ferguson, Herbie Mann, Kenny Dorham, Joe Henderson, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Blue Mitchell and Junior Cook – then a big break, working with Sarah Vaughan and Stan Getz with Roy Haynes and Steve Swallow. Shortly after, in '68, I joined Miles' quintet with Wayne Shorter, Dave Holland and Tony Williams then Jack DeJohnette. Of course, then there was the '70s, '80s and '90s, all learning experiences – but maybe that's for another article.

    Nordal: Bill Evans generally had a gentle, lyrical approach to the piano – you're often more dynamic, energetic and rhythmic. Did he influence your compositions or concept of touch and sound on the piano when you were developing musically?

    Corea: It was Bill's sound that I loved as soon as I heard it. He knew how to touch the piano gently and elicit such a beautiful and recognizable tone from the instrument. Up to that time, most jazz pianists were accustomed to playing inferior instruments: old, out of tune, out of regulation and generally beat up. That was the “club piano.” But Bill was aware of the fine sound that a well-prepared grand could deliver. It's odd that Art Tatum is the only pianist I know of before Bill that also had that feather-light touch – even though he probably spent his early years playing on really bad instruments.

    Bill's harmonic sense and approach to the standards certainly made a big impression on me. I was more encouraged to produce a beautiful sound on the piano.

    Nordal: Could you describe the times when you met Bill Evans personally?

    Corea: It was just briefly, a few times at Top Of The Gate, where Bill's trio would appear in the lounge for weeks on end. Being friends with Eddie Gomez was my intro to Bill. I sat in on Bill's last set a few times when there was hardly anyone in the club. I played with Eddie and Marty Morell and sometimes Jeremy Steig on flute, when Bill would take a break and hang out at the bar.

    I remember after the set one night meeting Bill at the bar and presenting him with a song I wrote for him titled “Bill Evans.” He politely accepted the sheet music and we exchanged some social communication. I would like to have gotten to know him better. I remember him being very kind, soft spoken and sharp witted.

    Nordal: I hear that you're preparing some original material for the Further Explorations concert. Are you channeling your inner Bill Evans in this process? Have you unearthed any unreleased Evans tunes that you're going to play? If so, how in the world did you find them?

    Corea: I have a pretty deep collection of Bill's recordings and I have found a few tunes, both well known and not so well known, that I will bring up for consideration with the guys. For now, I'll have to keep my sources private.

    Of course both Eddie and Paul have actually played in some of Bill Evans' most important and well loved trios, so we'll be mostly taking this opportunity to simply re-explore some of his greatest and well known pieces. It will be interesting to see how Eddie and Paul respond to them in 2010.

    Nordal: This Explorations series may be the jazz event of the season. How did this all come into being?

    Corea: My interest in this project began with a basic idea: my desire to play with Eddie and Paul. Eddie is an old friend and has always been a genius rhythm section partner. Paul is a treasure of a musician who I've had too little time playing with. I've thought about us three as a trio for a long while – so finally, we'll make it happen. We are reaching out to invite some friends to join us, and that's being worked out right now.

    Nordal: I've always considered you to be one of the three main jazz piano giants of the past 40 years – Herbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett would be the other two, in my opinion. Since you have always had such a strong jazz voice, does it seem strange or awkward to momentarily yield to Evans' style? Any second thoughts or breaking out in rashes at midnight or anything?

    Corea: As I said earlier, my main interest is the experience of playing trio style with Eddie and Paul. Any “yielding” will be towards finding common ground with these two amazing artists.

    Just another thought on the matter of tribute: the concept of “Tribute to...” is commonly used to promote projects where the name of a famous artist is invoked to draw the public's attention. This kind of promotion can be fine if it is really heartfelt from the performing artists, whereas too often it is clearly the idea of the promotion people and not the artists that will be participating. I have always felt that every time I performed a piece composed by another artist or made popular by another, I was paying tribute to that artist. I play “Pannonica” and it's a tribute to Monk. I play “Oblivion” and its a tribute to Bud. I play “On Green Dolphin Street” and it's a tribute to Miles.

    With our Further Explorations project, given Eddie and Paul's close and deep association with Bill Evans along with my admiration of Bill and his legacy, there will be a natural tribute paid to a great man whether we're playing our version of Bill's compositions or playing anything else we choose. We've taken the concept of “Explorations” - which is also the title of a Bill Evans album – and applied it respectfully to this special trio project with the intention to do some exploring ourselves.

    Nordal: Over the years, as you've played in all the radically different groups and contexts you've exposed yourself to, do you find Bill Evans' influences surfacing in unexpected places?...like maybe in the middle of a screaming arrangement for Return to Forever?

    Corea: Some people say we're merely a collection of our experiences and influences. I think that would be short-changing the imagination of an artist. I suppose I could pick apart my or any other musician's performance and list the things he's doing that remind me of someone else. This is probably a game we all play from time to time. The positive side of this is that music and art on our planet is a wonderful and ongoing culture – with new ideas being added to that evolution every day.

    But to answer your question more directly, there are those times when I will intentionally invoke an emotion or a turn of phrase from one of my heroes. While actually playing, though, I'm not conscious of making decisions like that.

    Nordal: I've noticed that even though you, Herbie Hancock and Ketih Jarrett have all followed various musical paths these past 40 years, you all have one striking feature in common: when relaxing, really dipping into the musical soil and playing old fashioned groove-time and speaking your own language, you all channel Wynton Kelly's rhythmic feel. Did he come up with some magical, post-1950s groove that blended well with '60s modernism?

    Corea: Wynton is one of my piano heroes, and he did bring a popping bluesy groove onto the scene that holds a unique place in our piano culture. He provided an elegant and appropriate accompaniment to Miles' sophisticated ideas. In fact, all the Miles Davis pianists have carried forward the tradition he began. I can even hear Wynton's influences in Bill Evans, and certainly in Herbie's playing.

    Wynton Kelly's recordings were so much a part of our household that even my daughter Liana took to transcribing some of his pianisms and actually does a very decent job of sounding like him.

    Nordal: The last “Big Bang” of major jazz activity seemed to end by around 1975. By that I mean that John Coltrane had long since moved us beyond bebop and you and Miles Davis had already helped establish the mature electric jazz movement. Jazz and even pop music seemed to look towards the future. As a creative person, how does it feel now to work in an era where so many only revere the past? Are we really living in an era where most of the original jazz voices are all 60 to 70 years old?

    Corea: That's an interesting question, which probably deserves some extensive discussion amongst those who notice something about the phenomenon you're referring to.

    I don't know the answer, but I will give you a perception I have. It reminds me of a question interviewers liked to ask years ago – the “Is jazz dead?” syndrome.

    What I personally observe is the continual creativity of artists that I come into contact with everywhere on Earth, young and old. There seems to be no lack of invention, creativity and technical advancement in music and every other art form. I think it takes many decades to be able to make a correct evaluation of the current scene. In present time, there's too much noise from the media, too much information – most of which is beyond our grasp – to be able to distill it all so quickly. The other factor is a gradual de-emphasis on individuality in artistic presentations and in our culture in general. These days it's the “Jazz Festival” and the “Tribute to Miles Davis or John Coltrane” - not the work of an individual artist. New music is hard to find in the media.

    These are just a few thoughts off the top of my head on the matter. But if one wants to find exciting new forms and new approaches and amazing artists doing their thing, one would have to get off the proverbial “beaten path” and go looking in the small clubs and in musicians' apartments and studios.

    Nordal: I sometimes watch you on YouTube playing some Mozart piano concertos quite beautifully. Is that something you would like to do more of? Is the stress of playing someone else's music note-perfect in front of a huge orchestra worth the effort?

    Corea: Playing Mozart doesn't come nearly as easily as improvising and playing my own music. But playing with an orchestra or a competent chamber ensemble can have an atmosphere so inviting that I just want to try to something within it. Orchestral and chamber musicians have learned how to blend their sounds together – and that's a musical point I hold very dear and try to attain myself in every band I play in. So there's a certain comfort in working with orchestral and chamber musicians.

    Add to that that all my life I have spent time listening to, reading the scores of and practicing the piano music of certain composers to enhance my knowledge and ability as a composer and pianist. So I thought that I should involve myself further by actually trying to perform some of this orchestral music. Bobby McFerrin and my wife Gayle both encouraged me along the way to actually take my practice-room work to the stage.

    That having been said, my greater goal is to write my own music for chamber orchestras – something which I've attempted a few times with various degrees of success – but a form which I would like to continue to develop.

    Nordal: For centuries, European masters such as Bach, Mozart and Chopin based their music on dance rhythms of the day. More recently, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and Bill Evans and other great jazz players also based their styles around 20th century dancehall rhythms. Usually those two- or four-beat swing patterns.

    By 1970, though, pop music had abandoned that swing feel and replaced it with newer dance rhythms and movements based around straight eighth notes and electric instruments. You formed Return to Forever right on the cusp of this change, and it certainly played a role in helping serious jazz catch up to what a new generation of dancers were doing.

    How does it feel to you today to alternate between musical identities? I refer to playing traditional, harmonically rich, swing-based Bill Evans-type music contrasted by all the more contemporary eighth-note and Latin music that you're known for?

    Corea: The question of styles of music, rhythm and popular dancing can only be resolved in my mind by noticing the constant element: change. By this, I mean society's change, not the spirit of the artist. The actual spirit of the art and the artist's awareness of aesthetics in life are usually highly developed and stay the same, which make them the real constant here.

    I think this sense of spirit is part of every human being, whether it's realized and developed or not. That's why “everybody” loves music and art (eliminating the 2 percent of real Scrooges) whether they are pro, educated in it or not.

    I've seen some definitions of “aesthetic”and here's one I like: “Artistic, pleasing to the senses, in good taste, elegant” and so on.

    The part that seems right to me is the part about something, anything, being “pleasing to the senses.” And this is totally a subjective sense, unique to each individual.

    All this is to say that my own tastes are pretty wide, and one part of that desire is wanting to bring something that audiences consider pleasing and aesthetic today. I've never considered this wrong or a sellout as some might say because I will always use my own sense of aesthetics to keep it alive. No matter what some young musicians may believe today, jazz didn't stop evolving in 1955.

    As a continual student of music and art, I get interested in all the new creations and forms, I always try to bring to audiences what I'm personally excited about at the moment.

    This question of “styles” is interesting. Let's talk more about it.

    Nordal: During your 1950s early roots period, Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown, Erroll Garner, Ahmad Jamal and Dave Brubeck won polls and critical acclaim, filled stadiums and generally seemed to “own” the piano or piano trio scene at the time. Recently I was astonished to see that some of the most prominent and influential college jazz history texts today have literally excised most of those names and replaced them with George Russell, Lennie Tristano and Cecil Taylor. That would seem similar to banishing Elvis, Chuck Berry or the Beatles from pop music texts.

    Do you think universities, to some extent, might be erasing the common street history of jazz and replacing it with an alternative, academic, fantasy universe?

    Corea: I don't have any direct info on this, but it doesn't surprise me. This would be a very good subject for an astute investigative reporter to delve into. I'd buy the book!

    Nordal: Finally, with the wide variety of gigs you have coming up this year, how does the Evans tribute fit in with your schedule, and what are your hopes or expectations for the Explorations concerts.

    Corea: Balancing my composing and prep time at home for gigs like these and then going out on tours to play them is always the challenge. The Explorations Series concerts here give me a focal point when consulting the muse in my home study, which is something I love to do.

    That's where the balancing act really is – in the preparation of each project. Once I get to the rehearsals and gigs, group-life takes over and away we go!

    My hope for concerts is to make great music with two of my favorite musicians and fulfill a dream I've had about this trio combination for a long while. I'm looking forward to two weeks of fun. (6/2010)



    Chick Corea Artist Page

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