The news of Chick Corea’s passing is difficult to process, since he was not only a true giant of music but so alive, so vibrant. The reverence for his artistry, mastery, and versatility is near-universal. He simultaneously modeled unbridled joy and presence, intimidating chops, and unassuming humility and would be a beloved figure for that even if he didn’t have a truly incredible discography and 23 Grammys (not a typo – putting him in the top 10 all-time, regardless of genre/context). His distinctive style as a pianist, his compositional body of work, and his vision as a multifaceted bandleader (SO many remarkable and intricately-conceived ensembles) are all things that alone would make him superlative, a giant among mortals, but of course he accomplished all these things. I would call him inimitable except that few musicians in modern jazz are as literally imitated as Chick.
It feels raw/soon to be writing about him, but I wanted to share a small sampling of music of his that has particularly inspired me and in many cases shaped my musical conception. Even if it weren’t for the rawness (for me and others) of his passing, the idea that I am writing about the guy who played on Miles Davis’ In A Silent Way, Bitches Brew, and Live Evil, Stan Getz’s Sweet Rain and Captain Marvel, Wayne Shorter’s Super Nova, and Bobby Hutcherson’s Total Eclipse, and am not even including these on the list is utterly ludicrous (though I suppose I can at least cheat and shout them out). There are many other recordings I love and wound up omitting, including some by frequent collaborators like Ron Carter, Joe Henderson, Airto, Joe Farrell, Bobby Hutcherson, and John Patitucci, as well as comparatively obscure music by Cal Tjader, Pete LaRoca, Eric Kloss, and others. And of course Chick’s own discography as a leader is as enormous as it is diverse, and there are literally dozens of those albums that belong here.
Acknowledging the absurdity of narrowing this down to 10, here we go, in chronological order:
1 ) “Chick’s Tune” from The Thing to Do by Blue Mitchell (1964)
Apologies to others who spent time in the Music Library at Rutgers in the early ‘90s because I wore this record out. Hearing Chick fill what had once been Horace Silver’s shoes behind Blue and Junior Cook is a delight and this is an early example of his pen, a couple years before Blue recorded Chick’s iconic “Tones for Joan’s Bones.”
2 ) “Windows” from Laws Cause by Hubert Laws (1966)
I first heard this, the original recording of one of Chick’s best-loved tunes, on his underrated album Inner Space, most of which features a remarkable quintet with Woody Shaw, Joe Farrell, Steve Swallow, and Joe Chambers. Only later did I realize that this track was borrowed from a Hubert Laws album, featuring the iconic rhythm section of Chick, Ron Carter, and Grady Tate (who would go on to play on Stan Getz’s Sweet Rain, one of my all-time favorite albums, the following year. This is an absolute clinic in how a modern jazz waltz should be played.
3 ) “Steps/What Was” from Now He Sings, Now He Sobs (1968)
Speaking of how a modern jazz waltz should be played, “What Was” is an unimpeachable Exhibit B. That it comes on the back end of a “medley” with one of the most burning minor blues performances in all of modern jazz pushes it up a notch. That it comes from this album with his iconic trio of Miroslav Vitous and Roy Haynes on one of the most influential piano trio albums in jazz history . . . well, I’ll just point out that it was, literally, in the context of this album that I learned the meaning of the word “motherf****r” as it applies to the baddest of the bad in jazz.
4 ) “Nefertiti” from Paris Concert by Circle (1971)
It’s interesting to me how little I hear folks talk about the collective quartet Circle, in which Chick was joined by Dave Holland, Barry Altschul, and Anthony Braxton. Folks in the straight-ahead jazz world tend to look down on Braxton and folks in the avant-garde world don’t seem to pay that much attention to Chick – if either of these things is true of you, just give a (long) listen to their version of this Wayne Shorter classic and I suspect you will be compelled to begin a deeper dive from there.
5 ) “Spain” from Light As A Feather with Return to Forever (1972)
Like probably thousands of other musicians of roughly my generation, my first conscious exposure to Chick Corea was when I was maybe 15 and my high school jazz ensemble played an arrangement of his “Spain.” Shortly thereafter I found Light As A Feather for two bucks at a record store. To say that it (in general and this track specifically) was a watershed moment in my life as a jazz listener wouldn’t even be doing it service, and to this day hearing his Rhodes soar over the pocket laid down by Stanley Clarke and Airto is pure joy. I didn’t even realize at the time that this iteration of Return to Forever had subsequently gone on to revolutionize jazz-rock fusion, which I would (obviously) eventually discover.
6 ) “Armando’s Rhumba” from My Spanish Heart (1976)
Too much reference to Spain in a row? Too bad. I discovered this record in college and hearing him, Clarke, and Jean-Luc Ponty grooving over the multitracked handclaps on this one was another sonic and musical revelation, one that I now realize influenced a number of my subsequent experiments (including an ill-conceived attempt soon after hearing this to simulate the handclaps as the percussive background for an original quasi-tango piece I played on melodica – don’t hold that against Chick).
7 ) “Song to Gayle” from Duet with Gary Burton (1978)
There is so much to choose from among Chick’s many recorded collaborations with vibraphonist Gary Burton. I nearly chose something from the all-star quintet album Like Minds, but hearing the intimacy of their duets is too sweet to resist, from their first duo album in 1972 (the year he married Gayle, the subject of this ode) to their Tiny Desk Concert over 40 years later.
8 ) “Blues Connotation” from Play with Bobby McFerrin (1990)
When I was in high school and these two released a duo album, my expectations were unfairly high. As so seldom happens in such cases, my lofty expectations were exceeded by the joy of their interplay. I enjoy the goofy moments and I enjoy the moments of breathtaking virtuosity by both artists, and I chose this track for the additional component of the pure daring and in-the-moment presence of their improvisation and interaction.
9 ) “Check Blast” from To the Stars (2004)
As I became aware of Chick’s music in my adolescence, I was pulled between two perceptions of his music of that era (the ‘80s), one of how particularly relevant it was to rock-oriented and jazz-curious folks I knew and how dismissed it was by the more jazz-serious folks I knew. As such (and as I moved more into the jazz world) I approached his Elektric Band at arm’s length. When they reunited for this sci-fi-themed album, I was old enough to approach it with fresh ears and my goodness, it’s burning.
10 ) “Now He Sings Now He Sobs” from Triology 2 (2010)
It almost seems like heresy to cite a later version of this, the titular song from the aforementioned trio classic from over 40 years prior. But in the hands of his trio-mates here, Christian McBride and Brian Blade, it’s not so crazy to point out how brilliant it is. And, maybe most importantly, how even this deep into his career, Chick could still burn the house down with all the fire and creativity and sheer mastery that marked his whole career, something that it is difficult and surreal to write in the past tense.