Chick Corea on his new band The Vigil

April 1, 2014

“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 little bit.

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 interested. 


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 the song.


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.

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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.

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