At 70, the Keyboard Superhero is Just Getting Started
by Michael Gallant
The musical odyssey of 16-time Grammy winner Armando Anthony “Chick” Corea didn’t begin with lessons or recordings, a transcendent concert-going experience, or an inspirational music teacher. Rather, the lifetime of creative brilliance of the first artist ever to grace our cover launched simply—with a flying piano.
“I was an only child growing up in Chelsea, Massachusetts,” he recounts from his current home near Tampa, Florida. “We had a three-room apartment on the fourth floor of this building on the corner. It was a pretty tiny place—my parents’ master bedroom, a living room where I slept, and a kitchen. In the middle room, there was a big window and I remember seeing, at age four, a crane lifting up this piano into the air.
“There I was, this small kid, seeing a piano fly towards us! My mother had bought it for $40, and there was no way to get it up the stairs, so we had to hire carpenters to open the big window and haul it through.” Chick’s amazement with the spectacle quickly translated into fascination with the instrument itself. “It was this huge Trowbridge player piano,” he continues. “For me as a kid, it really was the ultimate toy.”
Chick pauses in thought, and the silence that follows emphasizes the power of the anecdote. From a young boy’s wonder at a levitating instrument, dozens of groundbreaking albums, immeasurable influence on the way the world creates and appreciates music, and decades of joyful creativity were born.
Having just celebrated his 70th birthday on June 12th of this year, Chick finds that he still has much in common with the spellbound four-year-old in the story. “The piano has always continued to seem like a toy to me, something to play with, something to spend hours and hours exploring—so in the most important sense, nothing has changed!” he says.
While many would consider the dawn of one’s seventh decade to be time for retirement, Chick is gaining creative momentum—in his own words, “Where I am right now, I’ve just begun to scratch the surface.” Currently on tour with the reborn Return to Forever IV—featuring original bandmates Stanley Clarke (bass) and Lenny White (drums), as well as world-class new members Jean-Luc Ponty (violin) and Frank Gambale (guitar)—Chick continues to innovate in the world of electronic jazz. On the acoustic side, his new album Forever features live piano-trio renditions of classic Return to Forever tunes, as well as jazz standards, culled from his recent tour with Clarke and White.
Here’s what Chick had to say about Forever—and an illustrious career, still in full force, that will likely be remembered . . . forever.
Where did the inspiration for the trio record come from?
Stanley and I—and Lenny, too—our roots of playing, and where we all came from, was acoustic jazz of the ’60s and ’70s. When Stanley and I first got together with Lenny, it was in the electric context of Return To Forever. Stanley would pick up the acoustic bass sometimes, and we would always manage to play some jazz throughout the ’70s, but we never quite got enough of it. We were creating an electric band and focusing on playing and composing other kinds of music.
So during the 2008 reunion tour of Return To Forever, we got another taste of playing as a trio. There was one spot in the show where I would play piano solo, and I always liked having Stanley and Lenny accompany me. We’d play a standard every now and then—“Green Dolphin Street,” “Solar,” or some other tune—and decided that it would be a nice exploration to go into that area completely for awhile. That’s how we put the 2009 tour together with the trio.
Who chose which live tracks from that tour to include in the CD?
It was a combination of choices made mostly by me and Lenny. I had some remembrance of which shows I thought were particularly good, but we did 50 or 60 concerts. It was difficult to listen to 60 concerts’ worth of music in one production sitting, but I did manage to scan through and pick out some strong stuff. It was difficult because we’d line up all of the takes of, say, “No Mystery”—we played that one a lot—and each one had its own flavor to it. I kept wanting to put out the whole tour [laughs], but that’s not done too much.
How did you choose which specific takes to use?
Different things would catch us. I’m always looking for the take that just flows and sparks the whole way through. There were a lot of those, so then it came down to choices about what directions we went in, and whether that direction was ever documented before. Or I would hear a take and say, “That’s the only time I can remember where I played this tune that certain way.” Different criteria would come in to make different renditions stand out.
Did you consider putting out, say, four different, outstanding versions of the same tune?
There’s a certain small percentage of listeners who might like to listen to how one song develops over a series of concerts. It’s interesting to me to listen to how we took a song the first time we played it, and then each successive performance of it, hear the alterations and stretches being done to it.
But I tried to take the viewpoint of the audience and wanted to make something that was widely listenable. We’re always having that problem with jazz in general. A music that’s so spontaneous and so creative and has so much origination in it—there are a lot of new ideas spilling out all the time. For a lot of people, jazz has too much motion, too much change. That’s why a lot of people say, “Ah, I don’t like jazz. I can’t follow it.” So I try to take the viewpoint of the audience and find a track, occasionally, where we settle into something melodic and simply rendered. That’s always nice, too.
So it’s important to have something that may be complex and creative but also listenable and accessible?
My tastes are wide, and it’s always a challenge for me to decide what direction to go in terms of balancing my own wilder personal taste with a form of rendition that I feel will reach people and communicate something to them. It’s a nightly challenge.
When you’re playing, do you ever consciously think, “This is getting a bit out there. I should draw it back?” Or is it more of a subconscious process?
Well, neither. It’s all occurring at once. A performance tends to balance itself out. If I find myself pursuing a certain thought during a song, a certain exploration, I’ll just take it where I need to take it. It’s after the song is finished that I can really make a quick, split-second judgment of how it got across. One way is, physically, you can see how the audience responds to what you did. But also the main way is to just feel what the atmosphere of the emotion is in the room, and I make the judgment that way. There’s not much thinking, more just perceiving the emotions going on with the crowd.
Do you ever find yourself judging your playing while you’re actually playing?
I think I have finally, in my older age, cut that terrible habit out. [Laughs.] It’s a very non-productive way of doing anything. It just slows you down to a snail’s pace.
How would you advise other musicians to achieve that?
That’s nothing that can be achieved mechanically by practicing. It’s in the realm of the spirit, in the realm of an ability to be comfortable with your bandmates, with an audience, and with yourself, really. Some of it is a matter of confidence, being secure in your abilities, being able to have the courage to realize your own thoughts. Every musician has his or her own taste and goals, and the challenge in life is to bring that forth when you’re onstage and actually performing— to follow that through to its final conclusion without any barriers or considerations except for achieving that. That doesn’t tell you how to do it, but that’s the ideal.
Can’t a lot of experience performing help you get closer, though?
Playing a lot does help. It won’t be the complete answer since you can go out and play forever, keep having the same problem over and again, and reach a ceiling above which you can’t get. But definitely drilling it and playing, that’s one of the best ways to increase ability.
On Forever, you have two different versions of “Señor Mouse”—one electric and one acoustic, one on each of the two discs.
Well, the electric one—that was when we were rehearsing at Mad Hatter Studios in Los Angeles for a single date at the Hollywood Bowl. It was friends getting together with [original Return To Forever guitarist] Billy Connors. We hadn’t played as a group for a long time, and it was the first time Jean-Luc Ponty had played with all of us as an ensemble. We were just rehearsing, and we decided to record some of the rehearsal, which included more of an electric version of “Señor Mouse.”
Then, when we got into the trio format with acoustic instruments, we decided it might be fun to try some of the Return To Forever tunes with acoustic instruments, so the renditions came out pretty differently. I enjoyed doing that.
Were there any challenges switching between electric and acoustic arrangements?
The two instruments that really are different, in the way we use them, are bass and piano. With an electric sound, I’m using the Fender Rhodes, usually, or an electric keyboard of some sort, and Stanley’s using his electric bass. Lenny’s playing drums in both instances, but with the trio, his kit is slightly smaller. When you bring a tune like “Señor Mouse” into an acoustic context, the general pressures and density of the sound are so different, and the communication tends to be more intimate. You’re closer to one another, for one thing, and the sounds aren’t so heavy, so it becomes a different sort of expression. Especially with this trio, we were able to be a lot looser playing acoustically—looser with the ways we improvise, since the dynamic range tends to be wider. We took more chances.
What were you using for the Rhodes sound on the album?
That was the first version of my own sampled Rhodes. I did an extensive sampling of the vintage Rhodes I’ve had for decades and triggered it from a laptop with a Yamaha Motif XF8. Then I was also playing some Moog Voyager as well, like for a lead sound on “Captain Marvel.”
Now since then, Yamaha’s people have helped me take that extensive sampling of the Rhodes and put it into the Motif’s new Flash memory, so it’s now in the Motif XF as a Voice. I don’t have to use the laptop to get the sounds anymore, and it really solves the cartage problem of the old Rhodes. And actually, it has some qualities about it that are even better than the old Rhodes. Mainly, it’s the fact that the Motif is a well-honed, well-crafted keyboard that feels great and is very even sounding, whereas the old Rhodes always had a lumpy feel to the action. It was never made as precisely as a piano keyboard, whereas the Motif is a weighted keyboard like a piano. So it’s actually easier to play, and I have the possibility to put effects on it and use the pitch wheel and modulation.
Some musicians feel that the specificaction of the Rhodes keyboard, the physical connection to the tines, is a vital part of the instrument.
In this regard, tastes are going to vary and that’s totally fine. Whatever anyone feels comfortable with is what he or she feels comfortable with.
How do you approach using those enhanced abilities for your sampled Rhodes—pitch-bend, modulation, and such—but still have it sound organic?
It’s all so personal and subjective. What sounds artificial and unconvincing to one person could sound great to another. Either you like it or you don’t, and that’s always going to express itself differently from one keyboard player to another.
We’ve all done stuff that sounds great at one moment, then we listen later and say, “What was that cheesy sound?” Or vice versa. I’ll be doing something at the moment and I’ll wonder whether it works, and then I’ll listen back to it later on and notice how the performance was really smoking and the sound really worked—and I’ll have a totally different opinion on it. Artistic judgment and opinion—it’s infinite, and it could vary even in one individual from moment to moment. You can’t even begin to imagine what differences in taste we have between different artists.
It seems like it would take a lot of guts to record a rehearsal and then release it to the public. Were you nervous at all about how it would be received?
Not really. I listened to it and I thought, “This sounds pretty good.” That was the only time that this particular group was ever recorded, and there was a specialness about it. That’s why it seemed like a nice idea to share it with listeners.
It had a vibe and energy that a lot of studio recordings, even by great players, don’t even come close to.
Yeah, the reason for that is that none of us were “making a record.” We were all rehearsing, so it was pretty relaxed, and there’s always a nice quality of humanity when there’s that relaxed feeling of just playing music. For me, that’s the ultimate objective in what emotion I’d like to present to an audience. I’d like to make listeners feel the feeling I get when I’m just completely in the zone of creativity, which is a very relaxed place to be.
I’m sure many musicians dream of having careers that are as long, vital, and varied as yours. What advice could you offer to help them get there?
There’s a built-in code, or set of principles, that’s very natural to everyone. Once you go in the direction of wanting to be an artist and attempting to create something beautiful, that’s in the realm of aesthetics, and that set of principles becomes even more apparent. They apply to everything—but in particular, things like being true to your own goals. Everybody’s got something they want to achieve. How much energy you put into it, and how little you are tempted to vary from your own goals by the other pressures of life, is really the way it’s done. This is true not only for my successes, but also for the successes that I’ve seen other artists have when they follow their own dreams and really do it thoroughly, continuing to expand on it as time goes on. Really learning how to play the piano and get a gig—that’s all important and that has to be done—but in terms of ultimate success, the individual has to seize his or her goals and never let them go.
I was talking about music with a friend recently. He told me, “My philosophy is, if it ain’t fun, I ain’t interested.” I told him, “That’s my philosophy, too.” If you’re really doing what you love to do, it’s going to be fun. And if you stay in that realm and take every challenge that comes along and manage it—things like finances, keeping your life in order, keeping your body healthy—it enables you to reach your goals.
Success is going to be different for every individual because every individual has different goals. But that’s a surefire policy as far as I’m concerned.
So one of your goals is simply to do what’s fun.
It’s not so much a goal as a monitor. If I’m having fun pursuing a certain aspect of music, for example, I must be doing something right. What you’re doing also has to be productive, though—I’m going to have fun at a movie, but that’s not going to make me any money. [Laughs.] If I’m going to have fun doing something that I really love to do—and that activity also exchanges with people, and people like it and are willing to give me something back that helps me pay my rent—then I’m really happy with it. That’s the case when I play a concert or make a recording, which are things I really love. Earning enough to pay my rent, live pretty well, buy a car, and then buy my next keyboard—that’s really good.
How do you feel your relationship with the keyboard has changed throughout your career?
I’m still fascinated by any keyboard I see, whether it be an upright piano; a Bösendorfer, Yamaha, or Steinway concert grand; a Motif or Moog Voyager; or some software synth with a tiny little virtual keyboard on the screen. I guess I’m very lucky, and maybe smart, too, to have been able to make a living working with keyboards because it’s really what I love to do.
I’ve never viewed my life as a progression, though. It’s a straitjacket to view life as a history. It’s more fun to view it as an ongoing process that’s continually happening. Being a musician is great fun and it’s creative—and my tool for music is the keyboard. Fortunately, the keyboard is now attached to a lot of different sound sources. This graphic keyboard with notes from low to high, it’s become a universal hookup.
How would you describe your relationship to acoustic versus electric music, and how has it changed over the past few decades?
As I get older, the mechanics of music—the exact sound and what instrument I play—become less and less important in terms of “I must sound like this,” or “I like this keyboard more than I like any other.” More and more to me, my task is figuring out how to get my creative ideas across to numbers of people, and it’s an ongoing challenge.
I don’t want to get stuck to any instrument. Times and cultures change, as do ways of communication and styles of music. Everything is in a constant flux, so my joy is to be living and in good communication with the culture. And in that sense, the success of my artistic communication is more important than any instrument I use.
Of course, I did grow up with that Trowbridge upright piano being hauled through my window at four years old, and I’ve never gotten over the love of the acoustic piano, so I’ve always considered it my basic tool for creativity. But I love it all.
Chick on Gear
On tour with Stanley Clarke, Lenny White, Jean-Luc Ponty, and Frank Gambale as Return To Forever IV, Chick uses twin Yamaha Motif XF keyboards to captain his rig. “The new Motif is a deep and powerful instrument,” he says. “There’s facility to do so many things. For ReturnTo Forever IV, I’m using two—a Motif XF8 MIDI’ed to an XF6. I’m using the Flash memory in the XF8 to hold a special sampling of my old Rhodes that sounds killer on the Motif. In Master mode, I’m using the zones out of the XF8 to address the voices on the XF6 that I want to layer with my main keyboard sound in the XF8. It’s a slick arrangement.”
Chick layers strings, pads, organs, and Clavs with the Rhodes sound without lifting his hands from the keys. “Using the zones as channels out of the Motif XF8, I use two foot pedals to control the volume of sounds on the XF6,” he explains. “I can then bring these sounds in and out with the pedals. I use the Song mode on the XF6 to house multiple voices. It works great.”
Using the knobs, “I can tweak the reverb and chorus/delay—plus easily edit the ADSR [envelope] of the voice I’m working on, all without having to go into Edit mode.”
Onstage, Chick uses a Yamaha AvantGrand in place of the CFIIIS grand shown above, thereby taking tuning and mic bleed concerns out of the live equation. Chick also rips on a Moog Voyager, which sits on top of the Motif rig. “I also very much like the Little Phatty,” he comments. “It really smokes, and it’s smaller than the Voyager, but it’s got a unique sound as well.” As a backup to his Motif Rhodes sample, Chick keeps a Yamaha CP1, which he recently tapped for Rhodes sounds while on tour in Australia.
As Chick begins his 70th year, his rig refl ects a lifetime’s worth of wisdom—and a focus on his top creative priorities. “I’ve gone in the direction that simpler is better for me,” he says. “The sampled Rhodes, which is part of the Motif, and then the Motif itself, have enough fl exibility and basic pad sounds to service me from now until the third universe turns upside down and green,” he laughs.
“In live performance, I really don’t tend towards wanting to be a sound designer guy,” he says. “The performance I go for is to have the minimal amount of sound change that seems appropriate for each song, and I don’t enjoy creating orchestral sounds from keyboards as much as I do being the rhythmic player, or the soloist, or the one who’s comping chords. I think it’s an interesting world to be able to create a credible, varied, orchestral sound with electric keyboards, but my own interest tends to be towards composition and spontaneous use of instruments.”
For more on the Return To Forever IV tour, visit return2forever.com.