Chick Corea isn't just a pianist, composer, and 14-time Grammy winner. He's a visionary who drastically altered the shape of contemporary music by continuously pushing into new realms of thought and sound. Getting his start performing alongside Latin jazz luminaries Herbie Mann, Willie Bobo, and Mongo Santamaria, the 66-year-old Massachusetts native replaced Herbie Hancock in Miles Davis' band for a two-year stint, 1968-1970, contributing to landmark recordings Filles de Kilimanjaro and Bitches Brew.
"Working with other collaborators in music is the richest part of my life," says Corea, en route to the Detroit Metro Airport for a one-off performance at Tokyo's Budokan with Japanese pianist Hiromi Uehara before rejoining Bobby McFerrin and Jack DeJohnette for a handful of dates.
As founder and leader of Return to Forever, the most commercially successful group formed by alumni of Davis' electric ensembles, Corea fostered a futuristic fusion of blistering jazz and space rock that proved light-years ahead of critics. For the first time in more than a quarter-century, RTF's most prominent formation – Corea, bassist Stanley Clarke, guitarist Al Di Meola, and drummer Lenny White – is reuniting for a world tour, beginning with a historic two-night stand at Austin's Paramount Theatre.
Austin Chronicle: First and foremost, why is Return to Forever reuniting now?
Chick Corea: It's interesting to try and explain. It was a combination of forces involving our individual interests over the years. The four of us would go and do our individual projects, and of course, we would hear from the fans and other musicians, "When is Return to Forever getting back together?" It came down to our own interest in revisiting our repertoire and friendship that we had as a traveling band. The schedule finally opened up for summer 2008.
AC: How many years had it been since all of you were in the same room together?
CC: We did a short reunion tour in 1983, and I guess that was the last time the four of us had been in the same place.
AC: Why did RTF call it quits to begin with?
CC: Sometimes the public in general will latch onto the negative aspects of anything that happens and forget about all of the positive stuff. It wasn't really a breakup; it just came to an end. It was a very natural process. We're all creative beings, creative units that are always constantly changing and evolving ideas about what we want to do. During the years that we worked together on the road, there was so much experience and emotion in our lives and therefore changes in our outlook. Each member of the group began their own solo recordings during that period. That was something that I encouraged, because I knew that it was a positive expansion for everyone. There was a point where we had a recording outlet for the band, and each of us had a solo project. That's when I recorded The Leprechaun and Spanish Heart [both 1976]. We never took to managing to keep everything together. Now we're making an attempt to put it all together again without having to stop our solo efforts as well.
AC: What was your original vision for Return to Forever?
CC: I had just come from working an interesting and enjoyable year and a half in a free-jazz group with Dave Holland called Circle. It also had Barry Altschul and later Anthony Braxton. It was pretty improvisational music. While incredibly fun to play, and certainly there were a lot of listeners that enjoyed it, it wasn't very accessible to most people. After a while I began to want to play grooves and rhythms and lyrical melodies and so forth. One of the first songs that I put together for Return to Forever was written while I was with Circle. When I made the transition back to New York and put the band together, my concept was to make lyrical music with a lot of groove to it.
AC: As technology continues to make it easier to create and capture new textures of sound, is it becoming easier to make meaningful art?
CC: To me, it's always been a matter of the user of the technology. No matter how "advanced" the technology is – whether it's back in the old days with the harpsichord and no electricity to these modern times where I'm talking to you on headphones while I'm driving – how the user uses technology to communicate is everything. In the matter at hand, the keyboard technology that's available now is impressive. Stanley's, Lenny's, and Al's rigs aren't very computer-oriented. They're pretty straightforward: an electric bass, electric guitar, and drums. But my rig is pretty advanced, with a combination of digital technology, old analog sounds, and an acoustic piano.
AC: Are you updating your sound for the reunion?
CC: If I compare my rig from back in the 1970s to what I'm using today, everything's updated. There are two parts of my setup that are from the old days. One is a Fender Rhodes piano, which has been modified, tweaked, and maintained through the years by my technician friend. It's actually a one-of-a-kind instrument because of all of its restorations. The other is a modern-day version of the Minimoog from back in the 1970s. The Minimoog has the same sonic properties, but it's a little easier to manipulate because it has some digital aspects to it as well. I also have Yamaha keyboards that are completely digital, and I'm using some software synthesizers on a laptop.
AC: How significant were the Bitches Brew sessions in harvesting your vision for RTF?
CC: It wasn't just the Bitches Brew sessions. My entire tenure with Miles was very significant in my formation of musical concepts. Actually, I'd take it back further than that to 1949, when I was 8 years old. That's when I first heard Miles' trumpet playing as part of Charlie Parker's band on my father's 78 rpm vinyl. I followed Miles' career all the way through the 1950s and Sixties, and all the musicians that came through his bands were a huge influence on me. When I finally got to work with Miles in 1968, it was a period where his own ideas about the music he wanted to make were changing rapidly.
The first band I was in had Tony Williams on drums, Steve Holland on bass, and Wayne Shorter on saxophone, but then that morphed into playing some of the music that went onto Filles de Kilimanjaro. Jack DeJohnette came in and replaced Tony Williams, and then that quintet did a lot of touring, and Miles began to play rhythms that weren't particularly jazz rhythms. They were more rock rhythms, but we played them in a jazzy way. It was a lot of free-playing rhythmically and so forth. The band was a really wild band in live performance.
Then Miles went more directly toward a rock sound. At that point, some time after Bitches Brew, Dave Holland and I decided to go on and form our own band and explore our own free music expression. When I put Return to Forever together, I picked up on a rock & roll or funk music sound: electric piano, electric bass, a groove rhythm, and so forth. Airto [Moreira], the first drummer for Return to Forever, did some amazing jazz samba, or whatever you want to call it. That first band was more or less a rhythmically Brazilian sound. When Lenny came on, we went totally into a more rock and funk groove.
AC: How did Miles persuade you to turn on to the electric piano?
CC: [laughs] There was no persuasion. He just pointed to this funny-looking thing on the stage and said, "Play that." I remember the night. I'll never forget it. We were at the Jazz Workshop in Boston, and the band was announced. I was following Miles, and I headed toward the acoustic piano like usual. I didn't even notice this other thing onstage. There was no sound check. He kind of diverted me from going to the piano and pointed to what I now know was a Fender Rhodes. He said, "Play that." So I went over and tried to figure out how to "play that." I hated it. I hated it. It was like a toy compared to what I considered a real instrument. Then I understood gradually – or not so gradually – what Miles' intention was. He heard a different sound, wanted to try a different direction.
AC: Back then, the concept of fusion was really controversial, but now, due in part to advanced technology, everything is a fusion, and people are finally coming around to some of this stuff. Does it surprise you how long it's taken some people to catch up?
CC: No, not at all. It's real predictable. The general public will lag 20 to 50 years behind any new development, especially in the arts. In fact, people who develop new things often get hung and assassinated or whatever. They're not believed at the very least. That's a pretty common thing. I think the ethic amongst the musicians themselves then was to just ignore criticism. That's what you have to do, ignore the derogatory write-ups and the people that don't like what you're doing. You have to take it in stride.
AC: Obviously you were drawing on some of the other fusion acts of the time, but outside of groups like the Mahavishnu Orchestra, what rock & roll bands were inspiring you?
CC: In actual fact, the only pop and rock bands that I had any interest in back in those days was Stevie Wonder's music. I really loved everything that he did. I also liked those first recordings by Joni Mitchell. Her songs and the freedom of her expression were very appealing to me. As far as what I drew from pop music in those days, it wasn't much. That happened later as I became more curious about what pop and funk musicians were doing. My biggest influences were still jazz musicians and classical composers. The Mahavishnu Orchestra was a big revelation, the way that John McLaughlin used the electric guitar. I also loved what Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter were doing with Weather Report.
AC: I'm intrigued by the Brazilian sounds and rhythms prevalent in RTF and your solo career as well. Where does that influence come from?
CC: There was a natural attraction to the Spanish-speaking world and culture since I was a kid, starting with a dance band I played with in Boston that had a few Portuguese musicians – Phil Barboza and his group. I was also turned onto New York salsa with Tito Puente and those guys. That was my first exposure to that kind of groove, and it really opened me up. The Latin tunes extroverted me. Through the years, I managed to find myself wanting to work with Cuban, African, and Spanish musicians. When I moved to New York, I spent a year and a half with Mongo Santamaria that was really great. I worked with Willie Bobo's band after that. Herbie Mann had a whole Latin feel in his music. Stan Getz had João Gilberto, which was great. I worked with João for a while there. Then later on, I came across this music in 1970s culture.
AC: Can you describe the process of interpretation you've done with L. Ron Hubbard's works recently?
CC: My love of L. Ron Hubbard's writing goes all the way to 1968. Shortly after that, I began to be interested in his science-fiction writing, which he did so prolifically in the 1930s and 1940s. I would reread some of the books, and I tended to like more of the science-fiction and fantasy novels. When I was rereading To the Stars one time, I began to see it musically. One of the characters, Captain Jocelyn, is also a pianist, and there's a scene that describes his piano playing and the music in it. I began by writing a piece of music that I thought was like what Hubbard described in that scene, and then a whole trove of creativity started happening. I started painting portraits of the characters in the book, and I turned it into a full-fledged project. Then I did it again for The Ultimate Adventure.
AC: These fantastical, science-fiction themes are part and parcel of Return to Forever.
CC: It's an interest in imaginative views of the universe. It's something that a lot of people enjoy, thinking that we're not isolated here on planet Earth, that there's something happening out there that we can even somewhat scientifically verify through telescopes and so forth. It's an exercise of the imagination.
AC: Do you have any memorable experiences in Austin?
CC: My memory of Austin is playing at the One World Theatre. I played there with Steve Gadd and Christian McBride. In fact, a recording was released in Japan called Super Trio.
AC: Was there a reason that Return to Forever wanted to start the tour in Austin?
CC: We actually asked management to find a really good location where we could rehearse comfortably and put on our first shows in. It turns out that this venue in Austin has been very helpful and accommodating. We're all preparing now. All of the guys are pretty busy until we meet at the end of May. We're trying to get as much of the old repertoire under our belts as possible before we meet. It'll be a whirlwind, again.
Return to Forever blasts off its world tour at Austin's Paramount Theatre, Thursday & Friday, May 29 & 30. Strap in.
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