“We traveled all day, I’ve got a salad coming from room service, and we can talk for a while,” legendary pianist and composer Chick Corea tells me from his hotel room in Istanbul, Turkey. With a seemingly never-ending tour schedule, and an unquenchable musical hunger to match it, at 76, the jazz piano patriarch is still breaking new musical and technological ground.
Following the release of his acclaimed new CD and movie box set The Musician, and the continued success of his online educational workshops, Corea made time to talk to me about how after nearly six decades in music, he’s just getting started.
Your new 3 CD box set and video documentary The Musician is astounding. You recorded it during your 70th birthday celebration at the Blue Note in New York City, and as if those shows weren’t impressive enough, you recently recorded the mammoth celebration for your 75th birthday as well.
And that one was way more intense, because it was twice as long! We’ve got eight weeks and 80 shows of glorious, freewheeling, friendly, beautiful, spontaneous music made with all of my friends. Everything was recorded and also shot on video. But I don’t know what the hell to do with it! But it was really a lot of fun. It was such a joy, and when I get together with that many friends, I always contemplate what a charmed life I have – making music with all these incredible people. It was like floating on a cloud the whole time.
When we last spokein 2014, you left us with some pretty inspirational words of advice for aspiring artists in the modern era. You said, “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.” This still seems to be your overarching approach to making art.
Absolutely. I’m no politician, and I’m no corporate executive, although in some lifetime I would like to be an architect, because I love building stuff. But for this job of making music, I see it to be a glorious mission. In actual fact, musicians themselves are kind of pure hearts. They have dedicated their lives to making creative music and all of them in their own way, love to see the effect of people being amazed and uplifted positively by music. So, I see it as a mission. Now that I’m older, I just want more and more people involved in the arts. Because it’s the antidote. It aligns with all of the great efforts of people to help each other on the planet.
I also see my friends, rightly so, getting interested in politics and what’s going on with the government. And I’m interested to a certain extent myself. But the attitude that musicians have is kind of universal – we’re non-political and non-religious, and we’ve got this pure, simple goal to create – to create music and make life beautiful. All we need is more of that! That’s why these online music workshops that I’m doing are my passion now.
In an age where so many older musicians are mystified by the brave new world of technology, at 76, you seem to be constantly embracing it and using it to inspire and educate.
The reality of it starts right on the street. As I travel and play my gigs, I’m always meeting a lot of people. I meet young musicians and fans, and when I talk with them, I see what it is that inspires them. I get invited to give lectures and workshops in various cities, and I’ll ask musicians, “What do you guys want to know?” And they’ll ask me questions like, “How do you voice a chord?” Or, “How do you write a song?” Or, “What’s improvisation all about?” There are a lot of technical questions, which are fine, because talking shop is a pleasure for me. But then I see that sometimes there will be that moment where I can say a simple thing to a fellow musician, like, “All of these questions you’re asking get resolved by you starting to rely on your own judgment of things. Your judgment of what sounds good and what doesn’t sound good, what you think works, what you like – it’s yours. It’s good to learn from your environment and from making a discipline of copying from your heroes. But when it comes right down to it, you have to trust your own judgment and think for yourself.” And sometimes a simple statement like that will affect someone. They’ll go, “Wow!” They’ll have a life-changing moment. And it always amazes me. I saw by first-hand experience that just being there for my fellow musicians had a good effect. It’s inspired me, so I’m really going to do all I can to learn about the internet and how to do this thing mechanically. I’m going to ask all my friends who are under 40, “How do you hook me up?” [Laughs.]
We live in a time where musicians are challenged by the chaos of social media. We seem to be constantly promoting gigs and Facebooking photos of our gear, but that compulsion to participate online is often at odds with the need to improve at one’s instrument. How does someone quiet their mind in this electrical age?
The first thing I think of is that basic simple truth of “You have to trust your own judgment.” That’s always senior to everything. When you look out at life, there’s always some kind of complexity going on. You made one picture of the modern day, with all the social media and noise. But I just finished a wonderful biography by Walter Isaacson about Benjamin Franklin. And it took me back to the days when America was being formed, and these people came to the land and they didn’t know anything about what was happening here. They were pioneers. Imagine the amount of uncontrolled stuff that was coming at them. It’s similar to the “noise” on social media. They were looking at a plane with trees and terrain, and they weren’t sure how they were going to make a living and eat and provide for their family. So, we’re back to that idea of trusting your own judgment and using it to start making choices.
Do young musicians come up to you and decry the death of live music in 2017, or do you think that there’s still a vibrant, live music scene today where people can showcase their talents?
That’s a good question, and I think it’s a matter of really coming into present time and looking at the world clearly as it is, right now in this moment. The urge to create and the subject of music will, of course, never die, because it’s native to every living being. It’s part of everybody. Whether they’re professionals or not, the artistic and creative impulse is there. Times are changing, and the way we interact together is changing on an exponentially faster route. Whether you want to focus on the fact that it’s a declining statistic or not, is up to you. That’s why I personally try to be a “solver” rather than someone who points out problems. I want to solve a few problems by making things into a game and into fun. I was in a taxi in San Francisco about a year ago, and this young, African American girl in her twenties was driving the cab. She was really bright, so I said to her, “Just out of curiosity, as a musician who is playing here in town, have you ever heard of the name Duke Ellington?” And she looked up and said, “No, I’ve never heard of that.” I said, “What about Louis Armstrong?” She replied, “No.” But check this out: I said, “Have you ever heard of Miles Davis?” And she looked up and said, “No.” I mean, check it out! [He laughs]. You see? It changed me. I think that’s just something we have to contend with – constantly, exponentially changing times. So, you have to be quick on your feet. You have to think, “Alright, the internet now is the way to market something.”
Let’s look the business terms of “marketing” and “promotion” and put them into a more “street” vernacular. If you play the piano and you come to a town and you want a gig, you’ve got to go find somebody. Right? You can’t stay in your apartment all day! [Laughs.] You’ve got to go find somebody and introduce yourself. “Hi, I play the piano. Can I sit in?” What are you doing? You’re promoting yourself, right? You have to. That’s what life is about. It’s communication – you show people what you do, and if they like it, they’ll call you for it, and then confidence builds up until finally they’ll give you some money for it too! I think if we kept that whole idea and used social media and the internet in a natural, human, communicative way, that’s the thing to do. Because it’s the way to communicate now. You’re not going to get a gig in the way you did 20 years ago.
Speaking of 20 or so years ago, I’m staring at a Xerox copy of a talk you gave at the Berklee College of Music back in 1985. I got it when I attended the Eastman School of Music a few years later. It’s entitled “Chick Corea at Berklee – Cheap But Good Advice for Playing Music in a Group.”It says things like, “If you don’t hear anything, don’t play anything,” and “Don’t improvise on endlessly – play something with intention, develop it or not, but then end off, take a break.” Do you remember that talk?
I remember that. Wow, that guy was saying some true things! [Laughs.]
There’s another line of yours I particularly like that reads, “Don’t make any of your music mechanically or just through patterns of habit. Create each sound, phrase, and piece with choice – deliberately.”
Yeah. That’s another way of saying “Don’t try to market yourself as if the world was 1960, because it’s not. It’s 2017!”
It’s amazing that even 32 years ago, you were already formulating your concepts for coursework, which you are still teaching, now partly online.
Well, people would always ask me questions, and I don’t like to see any kind of advice being given in an authoritative way, especially with art. You don’t say, “Beethoven was better than Brahms,” or “This period of Miles Davis’ music was better than that one.” It’s all subjective. All you have to do when giving people advice, is let them know that it is advice. In other words, this is my experience and it might not work for you. All of a sudden, that puts a little bit of a human element into it, and it avoids sounding like I’m telling someone they’re wrong if they don’t do these things.
Getting geeky for a minute, the last time we spoke, you were playing a Yamaha MOTIF XF8 with the samples of your Rhodes, along with a Moog Minimoog Voyager. But recently, I saw a video of you on-stage in New York playing a Vintage Vibe electromechanical piano.
I used the Vintage Vibe at the Blue Note, but it’s not something that I can carry around, so I’m now playing my Rhodes samples on the Yamaha Montage. It’s just a better quality sound than the MOTIF. After this trio tour is done and I take a break, I’m going back out with the Elektric Band. I’ll be using the Montage, along with a laptop that the Montage triggers through [Apple] Mainstage. I’ve got a bunch of plug-ins from Spectrasonics like Keyscape and Omnisphere, also Absynth and Kontakt. Those are for more abstract sounds, but my main playing sound is the sample on the Montage that I made years ago of my Stage model Rhodes years ago. And I put the Moog Voyager on top of it. I also still stand up and play the [Yamaha] KX5 shoulder keyboard. They don’t make them anymore. It’s the same keyboard I used to take out with the Elektric band. Yamaha won’t make me another one!
I think the question everybody wants to know is, what is the secret to looking and playing like you do at 76 years of age? You seem to be aging backwards!
[Laughs.] There’s no secret. I’ve been doing what I’ve been doing for a long time. I eat well and I try to take care of myself. I went on a nutritional diet about five years ago and I lost a lot of weight. And I’ve been doing Scientology since 1968, which always keeps me fresh. There’s no mystery to it.
It looks like I have to go on a diet and become a Scientologist!
Well, whatever works, man!