Chick Corea is about to Paint The World with a new Elektric Band
By Ralph Burnett (1993)
One of the great things about being a writer and living in Los Angeles is the opportunity to do in-person interviews. Chick Corea, however, is proof that the only true way to live in L.A. is to be out of town most of the time. When we finally connected, Chick was vacationing on a ship called the Freewinds somewhere near Aruba in the Caribbean. (Although presumptuous, maybe next time I'll actually get to bang on his Bosendorfer -- the one he composes on -- and raid his refrigerator). Weather conversing face-to-face or ship-to-shore, Chick's charm eludes geographical boundaries.
The history and success of the Chick Corea Elektric Band is the stuff of jazz lore. Since it's formation in 1985, the unit has recorded five albums that have all surfed atop Billboard's charts and have been nominated for and won Grammy awards. Add to that the fact that this is perhaps the only band in contemporary jazz in which each member has developed a loyal following as a solo artist. John Patitucci, Eric Marienthal and Dave Weckl have all released albums for GRP Records, and Frank Gambale for the JVC label. In annual reader polls for the various instrument magazines, each member of this band has embellished his respective list in one form or another. In jazz, as in life, all good things must come to an end. After the Elektric Band had recorded their fifth album, Beneath The Mask, the winds of change began to blow. "We had reached a transition period," says Chick, "and we all knew it was time for a change. It was a natural process, the right thing for everybody, a mutual agreement of free spirits who wanted to peruse their own music."
Chick's attention, however, did not immediately focus on realigning his bands, but instead the realization of a 10 year dream -- the formation of his own label. "The basis of Stretch Records really just came out of a simple idea to continue to make the quality of music more broadly than we try to do with our own bands," says Chick. "I come across musicians and young players who are creating fiercely and at any one time there's not room for more than three or four guys in my bands so the opportunity of having a label gave us the possibility to start to give other artists a platform for creating." Chick is co-partners with his long time friend and manager Ron Moss and it's no surprise that the label is distributed and marketed by GRP/MCA. Since it's launch in the Fall of last year, Stretch has released highly acclaimed albums by John Patitucci, Robben Ford & The Blue Line and Bob Berg, as well as two previously recorded titles by Chick: Three Quartets and Touchstone.
When you've led as many bands, or I should say great bands, as Chick Corea, you wouldn't expect the sheer enthusiasm that Chick exhibits towards his new unit, the Chick Corea Elektric Band II. With the exception of Eric Marienthal, the band has all fresh faces. "I said to Eric," recalls Chick, "'you know the band's changing over Eric, maybe now is a point where you'd want to go out and do your own thing.' [Eric] made it clear that he really wanted to continue playing in the band. So we worked it out that way because I love the way he plays and I'm happy that he's able to work his schedule out so that he can continue with the band."
New bassman Jimmy Earl was first introduced by way of the Akoustic band. "Patitucci's schedule started filling up and we were on a world tour just a few months before the European section of our tour," explains Chick. "It looked a good idea for John go and do these other gigs that he had so I didn't want to stop him from doing it and I quickly went to see if I could find a bass player to do that part of the European tour with the band. I listened to a bunch of tapes, I got a bunch of recommendations, but finally one night I went down to the Baked Potato in Los Angeles and heard Jimmy play with this group, and it really blew me away. I asked him to come to Europe so he played a couple months in Europe with the old band and really delivered hard. I'm really enjoying playing with Jimmy a lot, he has a very wide open musical concept."
The son of well known Chicago pianist, Larry Novak, 23-year-old Gary has been in Los Angeles for about three or four years now. "I heard of his name through friends of mine," Chick explains, "and he came down and played with me one time and really did all the things I love to hear done and more as a drummer. To start out with I asked if he would come and play with the Akoustic group and he really did that job so very, very well. He's got a very wide musical range and delivers music in a very mature way for a young guy."
"Mike Miller's been on the L.A. scene for a good while," continues Chick, "and is very well known and appreciated by the musicians here. I just came across his playing more recently when we got together to jam a little bit. It worked so well that I really wanted to try and see if he would come and tour with the band and make the record and he seemed real up for it so we went ahead and made the record. We're going to be starting a world tour in September, were going to tour three and a half months in the United States and then were going to do a tour of Europe starting in March."
The musical differences between bands I and II are evident on Paint The World but remain quintessentially Corea. "Over these last seven years with the electric band," says Chick, "I came around to the realization that my strongest instrumental points are with the piano and the Fender Rhodes itself. So [on this album] I kind of let go of a lot of the synthesizers that I had been fooling around with. The new Elektric band's concept is just a slightly larger orchestration with guitar and the Rhodes then the Akoustic band's approach, which is a little bit looser and freer with only the acoustic piano." Aside from covering "CTA", an old Jimmy Heath be-bop tune all of the music on Pant The World was composed by Chick. "This time, because the band was in flux changing personnel and so forth," says Chick, "I didn't really have a set band long enough to get together with the other guys to compose together. So I took the tunes I wrote for the new band into rehearsal and kind of let everybody in the quintet mold the pieces until it started to feel like band music. Then we went into the studio and recorded."
If you have any idea in your mind that the music on Paint The World will disappoint die-hard Elektric band fans, one listen will dispel your fears. The same boundary bucking wizardry you've come to expect, is in full bloom with this new ensemble. The title cut "Paint The World" is a fitting reference to the Elektric band's annual globetrotting. "We average about 180 concerts a year," says Chick. "It's my biggest pleasure to take the music around and play it to audiences everywhere. I like to think of the band as this little unit traveling around together, bringing our little message to each town. And I got this vision of us walking around the world, painting each town as we come into it."
It was in the late 60's that Chick joined Miles Davis' band and helped mold the landmark albums In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew. "Miles' impression on me was always one of an artist who never waited for other's approval to go ahead and do what he really envisioned that he would like to do," remembers Corea. "He had a very, vary strong purpose in following through the musical ideas that he had. He was always so clean and direct about that and it was very inspiring to watch and very inspiring to be a part of. Even if something was very experimental or was not proven or was unsure, if he had it in his mind to do, he would go ahead and do it."
"About a year and a half before Miles passed away," continues Chick, "I started to listen to some of his recordings from the 50's and the 60's and there was this one record which I personally think is a real classic. It's a live album, I think it's called Miles At Newport, and It's got Cannonball Adderley, John Coltrane, Wynton Kelly, Jimmy Cobb and Paul Chambers, and they deliver a very beautiful set and Miles plays some really classic choruses. There's this one little lick that he winds through his solo which I've heard him use here and there before, which is a really old time kind of dixieland lick that he converts to his own, and I used it as the basis of writing a tune for him which I call 'Blue Miles.' I wrote 'Spanish Sketch' as a dedication to him for the work that he did in Sketches of Spain, and that kind of a Spanish feel which I've always liked very, very much. So in performance we took to doing those two tunes as a set of music and I decided to put them on the record."
"'Ished' is a tune," Chick says, "that has been pronounced a lot of different ways." There's "ished," (one syllable) the way Chick says it; there's "ah-sheed," a kind of Arabian twist that I came up with; and Chick even claims that some have pronounced it "i-shed," which is a dead giveaway as coming from an Anglo-Saxon or a snake. So depending upon where you catch Chick on the road, this is one title that is subject to change. This song, which is a very open musically, was written while the "old" band was in performance. Says Chick, "I decided I wanted to add something to the repertoire that was a lot looser. There was a point where the band was playing a lot of tight arrangements and I felt that we needed something that was more improvisational."
"'Tone Poem' and 'Tumba Island' are based on sort of a rhythmic feel that I've been getting into hanging around the islands down here," says Chick. "In fact down here in Curacao, Aruba, Bonaire and in some of the other islands, they have bands called Tumba bands. Tumba is a very African based rhythm that the islanders have turned into a dance rhythm. I got with some of the local musicians down here and learned some of the basic elements of the Tumba and wrote these pieces."
"'Silhouette' was just an improvised introduction really to the tune 'Space' which follows it," explains Corea. "There really wasn't much thought put into that except to create that mood that you hear on the record. When I listened back to it, I thought it could be a silhouette for space."
"The Ant and the Elephant" started out as a road joke to which Chick sheepishly acquiesced, "I'll tell you that privately sometime." He continued (in a manner of changing the subject), "I just thought that the title was cute enough to evoke images and let the listeners create their won little story based on The Ant and The Elephant. It's in the spirit of parables, fables, or stories that have morals. . . . This is the story of the Ant and the Elephant. You know, the little ant, and the big elephant and they get together and (laugh) you can let your imagination take over from there."
The title for the song "Ritual" describes a form of non-written communication that most musicians share on stage, explains Chick. "'Ritual' came out of just that thought that there are certain grooves and rhythms and ways of playing in jazz that are really heavily agreed upon with jazz musicians. It's sort of like a secret language and guys will know what you mean." Needless to say, the recording of this tune wound up sounding very personalized.
Between Elektric band projects, Chick is anticipating working with his new Akoustic band. "I began an association about a year and a half ago with Bob Berg, actually we met down here in the islands unexpectedly. I've known Bob for years but he was playing a gig in Antigua and I heard him play and we made plans to do some gigs together. In fact, he came aboard the Freewinds ship that I'm on and we played a little bit here and had a great time. So he became a part of this first tour I did with my new Akoustic group and it clicked so well we decided to try and continue it on as a quartet. So now we've done several tours with Patitucci on the bass and now Gary on drums and we plan to do another tour next fall and then make a recording with the quartet."
Before I finished the interview, I wanted to get one thing straight for once and for all: Where did "Chick" come from? "My birth name is Armando Anthony Corea and Chick is purely nothing but a silly nickname given to me when I was too young to protest. I guess it just kind of just stuck. I get the idea that my first grade teacher and certain others around when I was a real tot, found it difficult to pinch my cheek and say, 'oh little cute Armando,' you know -- so they just called me 'Chickie.' But my third grade teacher was an Italian woman named Miss Della Salla, and she used to upbraid me to no end for not using my given Italian name. 'You hava sucha greata name, Armando, why donta youa use it.' I said, 'well my mother calls me Armando' and that made her feel better. Amongst the Italians Armando was the preferred name but no one in Chelsea, Massachusetts could kind of get their minds around the concept -- Armondo."