Music is a crucial way in which we give voice to our emotions. For some of us, it’s the essential voice. Those who play music well empower our mental health.
So when Chick Corea, the peerless pianist of jazz, died last week at age 79 it felt like a breaking point for a music that has lost so many creators—and, as some think, lost its way. Then there was the pandemic and that unbelievable impeachment trial with its implications for a dreadful future. It seemed to me that the bottom was falling out of our culture.
Well, one alternative to the gloom was to sit down and listen to Chick’s music. Over the years I’ve collected a lot of it and continually marveled at the variety and depth of what he wrote and played.
The journey started for me in 1968 with one of his first trio albums, Now He Sings, Now He Sobs (with Miroslav Vitous and Roy Haynes—all of it here plus outtakes).
I was writing a music column then and had never heard anything quite like it. Here’s part of what I wrote for The New Leader in March 1969:
Recently I have been listening to Chick Corea, a young jazz pianist of already wide experience who is now playing with the Miles Davis band. His earlier recordings never prepared me for what I heard on his latest, Now He Sings, Now He Sobs (Solid State SS18039), which is easily one of the most beautiful and technically accomplished discs in the world of post-Bill Evans piano. Corea prefers a free-floating modal jazz, usually in bright tempos, with long and complex improvisatory lines.
That album made Chick’s reputation and changed the concept of trio jazz forever. He continued to explore all kinds of musical forms, making sense out of the nascent jazz-rock movement with his group Return to Forever (1975) and his many subsequent groups (the Chick Corea Elektric Band, the Akoustic Band and more). His progress into classical, Latin and Spanish music is traced in the Rolling Stone obit here.
In 2012 Bobby McFerrin and Chick gave a bright new twist to the latter’s most famous composition, “Spain”:
Chick never stopped exploring music. But, as the Guardian’s John Fordham notes, he always seemed to come back to a more traditional trio jazz, and that’s how I best remember him. One of his later albums, Trilogy (2013, with Christian McBride and Brian Blade) is a favorite of mine.
Here’s a 2007 trio with John Patitucci and Antonio Sanchez which shows the depth and expansiveness of Chick’s love of jazz. He had an absolutely unquenchable spirit.