Retro Reprint: Chick Corea's 'Keyboards & Music'

In his original column for Keyboard, Chick Corea explored issues that affect musicians

Well, I’m no writer, but I love to communicate. I love music and I’m particularly fond of the piano and keyboard instruments in general. So I’m going to write some stuff down that I hope you’ll be interested in and find useful in your own music.

In 1975, Chick Corea wasn’t only a legendary jazzfusion keyboardist, he was a Contemporary Keyboard columnist! His first column, appears unedited here.How about for openers: “The War Of The Electric Instruments Against The Acoustic Instruments.” Who will win? (Some rising diminished seventh chords here.) Will the Electric Instruments with their voltages and filters annihilate the mild-mannered Acoustic fellows? Or, armed with reason and staunch tradition, will the Acoustic side show the cocky Electric brigade the folly of youth, and subdue their wild roar?

Here is how I feel about the whole thing. It’s so simple, it’s a bit funny. Let’s start with some straight facts. A Fender Rhodes Electric Piano is a Fender Rhodes Electric Piano. A Steinway is a Steinway. A table is a table. You get the idea—each thing in life is what it is, and is to be looked at and evaluated separately. L. Ron Hubbard, my favorite philosopher, says: “Sanity is the ability to differentiate.”

Now, every instrument has its own particular timbre and response, and every musician has a result that he would like to achieve musically. This result is a combination of a way he would like his music to sound, and the effect on his environment (other people mainly) he would like to achieve.

The rule here seems to be that one should use the tool (instrument) best suited to produce the above results. You know, if you wanted to drive a nail into a two-by-four, you wouldn’t use a feather. Wrong tool. And if you wanted to tickle your friend under the chin, you wouldn’t use a hammer.

It’s obvious that instruments like the acoustic piano have hundreds of years of tradition behind them. Years of research have gone into the development of the instrument itself, and many creative composers and performers (Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Ravel, Debussy, Satie, Bartok, Stravinsky, Tatum, Tyner, Rubinstein, and Jarrett, to name only a few) have composed for and played the piano. The result is a really fine instrument. This is how a really high level of quality comes about—it doesn’t happen in a year, or even in a single lifetime.

Now we turn to our youthful Electric fellows. The synthesizer and electric piano only began to be developed about ten years ago. It’s a new field of instrument-making, so new possibilities are given to the musician. In searching for new musical applications, new possibilities for performance, you’re bound to get coarseness, and a lot of the screeching and ungracefulness that goes along with learning.

But the entity that produces sound and music and beauty is not, ultimately, the instrument; it’s a real person, who wants to create something. (Definition of “instrument,” according to the New World Dictionary: “A thing with or by which something is done.”) The musician uses the instrument. The person is the creator, the instrument is the machine— whether it’s made of wood and strings or integrated circuitry. Hooray for the person. A few cheers for the instrument. (Big fat E major chord).

So it’s obvious that the major thing is the beauty of the musical creation and the quality of the effect on the listener. Then comes technical expertise and the tools used to help create the result. The two things (the effect and the means used to achieve it) must be differentiated and evaluated separately. This will make things a bit easier to grasp.

So you prefer John McLaughlin to Julian Bream. Great! Or Vladimir Horowitz to Keith Emerson. Wonderful! I like vanilla ice cream better than chocolate. Fantastic! Maybe we can go to Howard Johnson’s some night, I’ll get vanilla, and you can have whatever flavor you like—Acoustic Delight or Electric Dip.

Here’s how I look at some of my musical tools. The piano solo records that I recorded around 1971 [Piano Improvisations, Vol. 1, EMC/Polydor, 1014; Vol. 2, ECM/Polydor, 1020] are a real good example of how I like to use acoustic piano. It’s my main instrument, one that I have played so much that it is easy to express subtleties. I’m able to make a real personal kind of statement. With the formation of Return To Forever, I began to use electric instruments more for a couple of reasons. One has to do with playing music with a drummer who plays strongly. And acoustic piano is not made to be played with a big drum set and cymbals. Electric keyboards work really well with drummers, because you can play at a volume that is compatible with a big drum set and strong, heavy rhythms. That’s the general idea of working with a drummer, and all of the Return To Forever albums have this concept behind the use of electric keyboards, to one degree or another. Also the use of the textures of electric keyboards are fascinating to me as a composer, and that is the other reason I use them in Return To Forever.

 “Señor Mouse” is a piece of mine that has appeared in a number of different versions. I wrote it while I was staying with some friends in a rented farmhouse in Switzerland. I wrote the piece on the Fender Rhodes piano that I had set up in my room, and the original bass line of the piece was conceived for electric bass coupled with the bottom of the electric piano, plus a good strong Latin beat. So the conception was very electric. I used the piece with Return To Forever when Flora Purim was still with the group, and at that time it was the only piece on which Stanley Clarke played electric bass.

Later on, I had a project with vibraphonist Gary Burton to do some duet music [Crystal Silence, EMC/Polydor, 1022]. Gary liked “Señor Mouse,” and he gave me the impetus to use the piece on the album, which uses acoustic piano exclusively. The whole feeling was looser in this version. I used the piano rhythmically, to kind of take the place of drums, while Gary played the solo lines. The feeling was very rhythmic, but light.

When I rearranged “Señor Mouse” for a later edition of Return To Forever, I had a much more physical rhythmic impact in mind (and of course more instruments and textures). So the tune comes out sounding really different on Hymn Of The Seventh Galaxy [Polydor, 5536], in that it is a totally electric piece—but the melody lines are exactly the same, and the structure of the piece is the same. I had a different effect in mind, so I used a different set of tools.