The Art of Synth Soloing: Chick Corea Continued

Play synth solos like Chick Corea
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Play synth solos like Chick Corea

Picking up from last month, let’s contin ue exploring some of Chick Corea’s masterful synth playing. After disbanding the classic Return to Forever lineup in 1976, Chick expanded his palette of players and sounds, and recorded an astonishing string of albums that showcased his growing arranging skills and musical vision. Last month we explored tunes from The Leprechaun (1976) and The Mad Hatter (1978). This month I look into music he made in the ’80s and beyond.

The Spanish Influence

With My Spanish Heart (1975) Armando “Chick” Corea got in touch with his Spanish heritage. This became another signature aspect of his playing: the ability to merge Spanish folk and dance music into his jazz and fusion oeuvre.

Ex. 1 is reminiscent of the title tune of the 1980 release Tap Step. During this solo the band vamps on Bb the whole time, while Chick plays highly melodic lines that suggest some other harmony (notated in parentheses). It progresses with very simple lines and harmony, until bar 13, where he superimposes a Gb major scale run. Is this a use of the flatted sixth scale tone, which is common in minor Spanish, Gypsy, Hungarian, and Jewish music, or an advanced tri-tone substitution (Bmaj7#11) for the F7/dominant V7 chord in the key? Either way it’s a wonderful color and takes the solo to a new level.

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It’s Elektric!

After Tap Step, Chick concentrated on acoustic jazz for a number of years (with a few exceptions). So it was a big deal when he formed The Elektric Band in 1986. Given the timeframe, his keyboard rig changed greatly, embracing the advent of digital synthesizers and MIDI. Most prominent was the use of Yamaha GS-1, TX-816, and DX series synths (all FM technology), and a move to more layered sounds. He also listed using a Synclavier and Fairlight CMI. But he never retired the trusty Minimoog!

Their premiere recording, The Chick Corea Elektric Band (1986) is a classic, and features the burning tune “Got a Match?” Ex. 2 is based on the opening of his solo. Note the use of two-and three-note motifs, and the clarity and development of his lines. Simple? Yes, but he’s pacing himself and making compositional sense with each note.

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Ex. 3, the start of his next chorus, is based on what is called “harmonic planing.” This is where you move chords and scales around in some sort of parallel motion, without worrying about the key center and functional harmony. (George Colligan covered this in more depth in the March 2015 issue.) Bar 17 starts with a pentatonic phrase that slips from F major/D minor to Gb major/Eb minor in the next bar. He then repeats the same melodic shape/planning concept but now down a fifth. In bar 21 he continues to work the melodic shape, now arpeggiating a G minor triad and then moving into a jazzy Phrygian dominant scale phrase. This is a great way to “suggest” a V7 chord before a coming to a minor chord.

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Ex. 4 is classic chromaticism, where Chick doesn’t outline the harmony/run scales, but creates excitement with another three-note motif. Remember, this tune is going by fast—300 bpm! Towards the end of the phrase the band is holding the A7, building the tension that will spill over at the start of the next chorus (bar 65).

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Burning Elektricity

Ex. 5 is a short run based on the tune “Kaleidoscope” from their second album Light Years (1987). I share it to show how a line based on the C Dorian mode (which fits a minor seventh chord) can be made interesting. Chick starts out with a chromatic descending line from the seventh tone of the chord, then a one-note turn before finishing the run on beat 2 of bar 2. This moves into a straight scale descent and then starts a three-note ascending motif on beat 3. He keeps it interesting by starting to repeat the first note of the grouping going into bar 3, and then frees himself in the second half of the bar, including an arpeggiation before finishing the phrase. This shows how a master develops their lines even when the note choices seem simple.

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My final selection comes from the tune “99 Flavors” from Beneath The Mask (1991). It’s a brash, funky tune and features his signature Minimoog. Ex. 6 is the last chorus of his solo, which starts with some repeated pitch bends, a common technique of Chick’s. The 2nd bar is a G whole-tone scale (all whole steps), which works well against the advanced harmony of the chord. I’m not clear if it is as I notated, or is an A7b9b13, or even A9b13 over D in the bass. They all work well!

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The end of bar 27 starts another chromatic descending phrase, which seems to move into a Db major scale working over an A dominant seventh chord. The Ab note would seem to clash with the tonality (heck, the Db/C# seems to clash with the D in the bass) but moving by quickly this is a great tension-building device. It resolves nicely at bar 28 and then quickly develops into an ascending two-note figure that navigates the chord changes nicely. Also note the great rhythmic placement and variety that Chick uses. That phrase ends in a very colorful arpeggiated Dbmaj7 with a sharp fifth over the G bass, which is likely a G half-diminished chord (a minor seventh with a flatted fifth). Introducing that color leads nicely into the final chord, as does his ending note, which is the sixth/13th of the chord.

Going Strong

Now in his 70s, Chick is still playing, writing, and constantly performing live, in ever-changing situations. A bold musical explorer, we all have much to learn from him, and to enjoy as well.
Thank you, Mr. Corea!