Chick Corea. The name is as unique, identifiable and indelible as the sounds from the 75-year-old jazz pianist’s lengthy recording and touring career.
From solo and duet to big band and orchestral projects, Corea has proven restless and amoebic for more than 50 years. His early classical and jazz training is most evident on his acoustic catalog, much of which ranges from solo to quartet, but the Chelsea, Mass., native is anything but the product of a music school or conservatory.
The benefits of his self-teaching and open-mindedness will be on display Feb. 24, when he performs in a dual show with another trail-blazing pianist a generation younger, 53-year-old Cuban sensation Gonzalo Rubalcaba, at Knight Concert Hall in Miami.
Corea had short educational stints at both Columbia University and the Juilliard School after moving to New York City in the early 1960s, but it proved telling that he found such conventional studies too confining. Big Apple sideman work with trumpeter Blue Mitchell, flutist Herbie Mann, and percussionists Willie Bobo and Mongo Santamaria led to Corea’s 1966 debut recording Tones for Joan’s Bones. And one particular association a couple years later would further the young pianist’s musical tributaries.
From 1968 to 1970, Corea was part of trumpeter Miles Davis’ band, appearing on multiple live recordings and studio epics like Filles de Kilimanjaro, In a Silent Way, and Bitches Brew. It was Davis who encouraged Corea to switch to a Fender Rhodes electric piano, furthering the pianist’s serpentining voices on multiple instruments.
Through the 1970s, Corea’s band Return To Forever featured him morphing from electric piano on the group’s early Latin jazz explorations (with vocalist Flora Purim, saxophonist Joe Farrell, bassist Stanley Clarke and drummer Airto Moreira) to synthesizers as it transformed into the amplified jazz/fusion era.
Still, Corea has consistently mixed tradition with transition by returning to his roots, which include his Italian and Spanish heritage. And in Rubalcaba, he finds a percussive, propulsive inspiration for musical conversation.
“I can honestly say that no one else reminds me of Gonzalo,” Corea says. “He’s a genius and one of a kind. And I’m certainly looking forward to some fun with him at our upcoming show.”
The historic Corea imprint continually deepens as he jumps from project to project, always seeming to land on his feet with perfect balance.
“Chick is such an inspiration that my master’s jazz recital was all Chick Corea compositions,” says Brad Keller, one of Palm Beach County’s top keyboardists and musical educators. The Delray Beach-based Keller studied at Broward Community College, Florida State University and Florida Atlantic University,
Keller has performed with luminaries like trumpeters Maynard Ferguson and Red Rodney, multi-wind instrumentalist Ira Sullivan, steel drummer Othello Molineaux, and drummer Duffy Jackson. He’s also been an adjunct jazz piano instructor for 11 years at Palm Beach State College, and a full-time music instructor for five years at Eldridge Gale Elementary School in Wellington. The veteran musician and educator recognized something special in Corea while still in college.
“I first heard Chick on Return To Forever’s ‘Light As a Feather’ album,” he says of the band’s second offering from 1973, “and I first saw that band live at FSU in 1974. My love and respect for his playing and composing is limitless. His melodic, harmonic and rhythmic genius, combined with impeccable technique, form a perfect storm of creativity.”
Light As a Feather featured Corea’s composition “Spain,” one of several of his works that have since become considered jazz standards, along with “La Fiesta,” “500 Miles High” and “Windows.” The 1974 incarnation of Return To Forever that Keller saw live had transformed into the synthesized fusion vehicle that earned Corea the first of an astonishing 22 (and counting) Grammy Awards — Best Jazz Instrumental Performance by a Group — for the 1975 RTF album No Mystery.
Return To Forever then expanded into a big band that also featured Corea’s wife, vocalist/keyboardist Gayle Moran, by the late 1970s. It was during that time that Corea started a series of recorded duets — featuring various personnel over the years — with the pianist he replaced in Davis’ band, Herbie Hancock. Celebrated duet partners since have included vibraphonist Gary Burton, vocalist Bobby McFerrin, banjoist Bela Fleck, and pianist Hiromi Uehara. All of whom have informed Corea’s current excursions with Rubalcaba, a pianist whose dazzling technique delves from even deeper classical and jazz studies than Corea’s.
Yet for the two pianists, purposely not having a plan going into their show together seems better for both artists and audience.
“We probably won’t decide what to play until shortly before the performance,” Corea says, “or maybe not until we actually sit down at the pianos to play. We already share enough common themes to work from, and we both love to improvise spontaneously. So spontaneous improvisation will be on the menu at Knight Concert Hall.”
The two artists have played together occasionally since the 1990s. Rubalcaba recorded a duet medley of Joaquin Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez and Corea’s “Spain” with his jazz elder at one of his most frequent performance venues, the Blue Note in New York City. It appeared on Corea’s 2003 live CD Rendezvous in New York.
“I don’t remember the exact time line,” says Corea, “but my first meeting with Gonzalo was very joyful, and we became friends for eternity. When we began to play duet concerts, it became evident that this was something we would want to do more and more of.”
The format for this two-piano show features solo sets by both Corea and Rubalcaba, and then a series of duets between the pianists, which are sure to feature even more on-the-spot spontaneity. Corea is known as one of the great improvisers in jazz history, and that’s one of many facets of the elder statesman that have influenced Rubalcaba.
“Gonzalo is a true improviser,” Corea says. “And along with this comes his deep understanding of music and his unique and amazing technique as a pianist. It’s hard to describe, actually. There’s no one else who does what he does. Not even close.”
“Gonzalo is brilliant,” Keller says, “and seems to come from a similar sensibility as Chick. His improvisations are remarkable for their inventiveness and beauty.”
Though he celebrated his 75th birthday last June 12, Corea’s schedule didn’t allow for a birthday party at the Blue Note until last October. But what a run it was, extending from the middle of that month into mid-December. Featured sets included runs by the keyboardist’s self-titled “Elektric Band,” first established in the 1980s; a series of rotating piano duets, a Davis tribute series with other alumni, sets with Burton that also included the Harlem String Quartet, and Return To Forever material in both acoustic (with drummer White, saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, flutist Hubert Laws and bassist Avishai Cohen) and electric (with guitarist and former Davis bandmate John McLaughlin, bassist Victor Wooten, and White) formats.
“The two months at the Blue Note were a complete joy,” Corea says. “A bash beyond all bashes!”
One gets the impression that, for this ageless and limitless jazz giant and his audiences, that’s the sincere reaction after every performance.
Chick Corea and Gonzalo Rubalcaba play solo sets and duets at 8 p.m. on Feb. 24 at Knight Concert Hall, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami ($45-$125, 305-949-6722).