“I wanted to give a name to this band that had a specialness
to it,” legendary pianist and composer Chick Corea says of his nimble
new group, the Vigil. “I haven’t had my own band where I write the
music, hire the musicians, and oversee the project, for over ten years. I
missed the sense of musical community that happens in a band—the kind
of environment where things are constantly growing.”
Continuous growth has been a mainstay of Corea’s career since its inception. From early landmark outings like Now He Sings, Now He Sobs, to
his work alongside Miles Davis, to his acoustic and electronic
explorations with Return to Forever and the Elektric Band, the only
thing you can predict about Chick Corea is that you just don’t know where he’s headed next.
On The Vigil, he returns with a captivating set of
compositions and a ferocious band with which to bring them to life.
“Galaxy 32 Star 4” brims with ensemble interplay and electric piano
prestidigitation. “Planet Chia” pits Corea’s signature Spanish-tinged
piano work against shifting harmonic and rhythmic tides. On “Portals to
Forever,” Corea’s revered Rhodes sound—custom-sampled into his Yamaha
Motif XF—anchors a trance-inducing stew of guitar, horns, and
percussion. At 72 years young, Corea has never sounded more energized on
record. He took time to speak to us about the project, and about
keeping a vigil on your own musical identity.
What was the impetus to put this new band together?
In this day and age with the nature of live work, I can’t
expect even a young, upcoming musician to hang with me if I’m going to
take a break. He or she has got to do other gigs. So I thought that this
time, I’d put together a band where the concept will continue to be the
same thing. I gave it a moniker, the Vigil, and then whoever’s going to
be in it will be in it. And so far, everybody from the first group I
put together is still here, except that the bass position has changed a
The name “Vigil” is about me wanting to stay connected to
the music I grew up with and love—the lineage of Black American jazz
music. As I learned more about the music of the world, I connected with
Spanish-speaking communities: South American music, Puerto Rico, and
Cuba. Those are my personal, musical roots and communities by choice. So
I want to keep a “vigil” on that.
It’s also about how there are always invitations from
presenters of music such as record companies and promoters. The
businessman’s idea of how to make something a success is by observing
what kind of music “brings people out” and then doing more of the same. I
understand that way of thinking—it’s “business sense.” But it’s an
invitation to an artist to compromise. So another part of the Vigil was to not
make that compromise, which I’ve never really done, but it gets harder
and harder to avoid. For example, we “stretch out” and play rhythms that
are grooving to me, but sometimes the audience doesn’t pick up on them
because they’re so subtle. These are almost the exact opposite of the
elements that make music easily reachable by audiences, like vocals and
nice steady rhythms. But I want to keep that sense of adventure in
music. Otherwise I’m gonna die! I need unknowns in the music I’m playing
with my friends—enough improvisation and spontaneity to keep me
How did you choose the particular members of the band?
I knew I needed to get musicians who were young enough in
their musical careers that the gig would be good for them. There’s a
point where musicians need to start forming their own bands and doing
their own thing. For instance, I worked with [bassist] Christian McBride
and [drummer] Brian Blade, who are two of my favorites. Christian had
agreed to do the first summer tour with this band. But he couldn’t do
the recording because our schedules conflicted. With young musicians,
the exchange between what they give me and what I can give back to them
is nice and even. I give them gigs and some adventurous music to play,
and they give me their time and their devotion to come on the road and
stay in the band. That’s how I found [guitarist] Charles Altura, who’s
an amazing musician and quite a sensitive concert pianist as well.
Stanley Clarke recommended him to me.
I’ve known [drummer] Marcus Gilmore since he was a kid,
because he’s Roy Haynes’ grandson. Roy brought him by the Blue Note when
he was 14 and told me, “Listen to my grandson play.” Marcus got up and
we played my tune “Windows,” and he just knocked me out. I thought,
“Thank God there’s a guy that age who can play with that rhythm feel.”
Carlitos del Puerto on bass was also recommended to me by Stanley
Clarke. He’s having a blast.
Were you thinking of this band in particular when you wrote the music for the album?
It would be a fairy story to say I wrote all of this music for
this project, because the practical side was that when I made the
decision to put the new band together, I didn’t want to take two years
to make it happen. I wanted us to go out on tour the next season. In
order to do that, I needed to make a record quickly. So I pulled
compositions that I had been writing. I had written “Galaxy 32 Star 4”
for the 2011 Return to Forever reunion, but we never got around to
playing new music, so I had that composition sitting there. “Planet
Chia” I wrote for an experiment that Stanley Clarke and I did at the
Blue Note in early 2012. “Portals to Forever” was actually the only
piece I wrote specifically for this band.
What about the song “Royalty”? That one has a great piano intro. . . .
Roy Haynes invited me to play on his recording about a
year and a half ago. I admire Roy so much and we’ve been friends for so
long that I wanted to write a song and dedicate it to him. So I wrote a
song in 3/4 time and called it “Roy-LT.” I brought it to the date, but
it didn’t fit. He liked it, but he wanted to do more of an improvisation
with piano and drums on a couple of tracks. We didn’t use it, so I had
You didn’t announce any song titles when you played at the Blue Note. Was that intentional?
When we first started touring, for months I was announcing
every tune. I was trying to make it entertaining, and everybody in the
band announced different tunes so that the audience got a touch of their
personalities. It seemed like it was going over well, but it became a
strain to keep switching hats, from making the music to being an
announcer. So recently on the Asian tour, I thought, “They can find out
the name of the song anyway, so I’ll just play and keep things
seamless.” The musical flow just kept going that way, and it allowed almost a rest period in between tunes where I’d play a little soliloquy.
There’s a goal I have that I think everybody in the band
shares as well, which is that we all want to get across to an audience.
We want to please them in some kind of way. We don’t want to pander to
them, but we want to include them. There’s no rote way to do that. You
don’t have to smile and bow all the time, or tell a joke or announce
song titles. Or, you can if you feel like it. But if the intention is there to include the audience, that’s the most important thing.
When I heard you play your own Rhodes sound on the Yamaha Motif XF8, I felt like I was sitting in front of an actual Rhodes.
That’s a sample I did of my vintage, beautiful,
tweaked-over-decades Rhodes Mark V. Every time I’d come back from a
tour, my technician Brian Alexander out in Los Angeles would tweak it up
and improve things on it. By the time we sampled it around five years
ago, it was really in beautiful shape. Later Yamaha figured out a way to
take these huge samples we’d created, and allow them to be placed in
Flash memory and played on the Motif XF. It’s a good illusion. It works
for me, plus I don’t have to repair my Rhodes every time it spends ten
hours bouncing around in a truck on the way to the gig.
You’re also using the Minimoog Voyager on this project?
Yeah. It has a sound that sails over the ensemble.
What piano are you playing on the road these days?
Yamaha has a new concert grand called the CFX, which is my
favorite piano of all time. That same technology is also used in their
seven-foot grand, the CF6, which I wanted so that I could fit the
percussionist on the stage. I’m enjoying playing that piano so much.
I’ve played Yamaha pianos since the 1960s.
Why Yamaha over other pianos?
They’re nice people! [Laughs.] Really, they are.
What happened, though, was that each new iteration of their concert
grand became better and better. By the early 1980s, I actually preferred
the Yamaha concert grand to the Steinway. Now with the CFX, it’s
absolutely my favorite. Plus, Yamaha’s R&D department is quite
active and intelligent. They’re always improving their instruments. The
Motif XF is beautiful. I’d like to get deeper into the sonics and synth
engine inside of it.
When I saw you live at the Blue Note, there was an
almost continuous evolution to each song. How do you stay so seemingly
excited at every turn?
Well, if I’m not interested in what I’m doing, how can I get anyone else
interested? It’s just a matter of pulling elements together. Life keeps
changing, the world changes, promoters change, audiences change. For an
artist, the changes that are happening in our society aren’t always in
an “up” direction. But I consider the challenges part of the adventure.
For example, just to travel and be on tour these days is really hard,
compared to ten or 20 years ago. Now it’s stressful, so I have to tell
myself, “If I’m gonna play music and present it to audiences, I have to
travel.” It gets back to the idea of “the Vigil”—to have that hour or
two onstage that’s unencumbered and problem-free enough that we can get
into the matter at hand, which is just making music.
What words of advice do you have for aspiring artists who hope to have a career like yours?
All of the musicians that I know and admire had one simple
intention: They wanted to lead a creative life and create something
they really loved. It gives me great pleasure to see others, especially
young guys and girls who are coming up, want to make music. I
know they might need some encouragement, because they might not be
getting it in their homes. Their parents or their teachers might be
saying to them, “Hey, you should do something more predictable,” or,
“You need to have something to fall back on.” But I like to encourage
others into the arts, and one of the things I tell them is that it’s a
great life. The reason why is because you’ve found something that you
love to do. Then, in addition to that, you not only get to enjoy the
feeling of doing what you love to do, but you also get to see someone
else receive pleasure from it. So it’s a good life, and it’s something
that people everywhere really need. It’s what keeps us alive.
If I were to offer one concept or piece of advice, it would be this: Think for yourself. Because what happens when you study music is that all of this information is coming in at
you. You read books, your teachers tell you things, you look at
YouTube, you see musicians play live, and so on. It’s like a flow that
comes into you, but in order to be a musician, you now have to do something that directs that flow outward. You
have to play your instrument. So when you play that phrase or write
that song, how are you going to know when it’s good? When someone else
tells you? Wrong. You’re going to know it’s good when you know
it’s good. You have to be your own judge. There’s a kind of integrity
and ethics about it. You have to take on the responsibility of your own
tastes and say, “No, that wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be.” So if
you say that, you must have some concept of how you want it to be. That’s good. So now make it how you want it to be!” Think for yourself. That’s my whole philosophy.