Celebrating Chick Corea’s legacy

Chick Corea is pictured at the Das Zelt-Musik-Festival in 2019. Via Wikimedia Commons

The music world was dealt a major blow when piano legend Chick Corea died on Feb. 9 at the age of 79.

His death was announced on Feb. 11 in a statement that quotes Corea as saying, “My mission has always been to bring the joy of creating anywhere I could, and to have done so with all the artists that I admire so dearly — this has been the richness of my life.”

Many prominent musicians were quick to offer their words, with trumpeter Wynton Marsalis writing that “He left an uncommonly deep canon of diverse and high quality music.” Pianist Christian Sands also honored Corea, describing him as “An architect building his own language one note at a time.”

Corea made his recording debut as a leader in 1968 with the release of “Tones for Joan’s Bones,” an album whose brightly colored psychedelic artwork is indicative of the ethereal post-bop sound that characterizes much of the project. That same year he also released “Now He Sings, Now He Sobs,” an album that helped define modern piano trio music, was also released in 1968.

Even at an early point in his career, Corea was quick to embrace the innovations of fusion, contributing to Miles Davis’ landmark album “Bitches Brew” (1970). A year later, in 1971, he formed Circle, an avant-garde quartet with saxophonist Anthony Braxton, bassist Dave Holland and drummer Barry Altschul. The group’s album “Paris Concert” (1972) is abundant with periods of extended improvisation, disjointed melodies and strident sounds, shattering traditional music-making standards in an effort adventurous even for free jazz.

Although these earlier years were significant in their own right, perhaps the single most defining moment of Corea’s career came in 1972 with the formation of his band, Return to Forever. The album “Light as a Feather,” released that same year, featured some of Corea’s most popular compositions, including “Spain” and “500 Miles High.” The project’s eclectic mixture of fusion, jazz and samba elements coalesced into the sound that epitomizes Corea’s immense creativity for many listeners.

Although Return to Forever continued to be the crown jewel of Corea’s catalogue through the 1970s, his 1976 album “My Spanish Heart” has also cemented itself as one of Corea’s most important works, namely for the track “Armando’s Rhumba.” The unconventional orchestration, which features pizzicato violin and lacks any percussion save hand claps and snaps, showcases a different side of Corea from his work with Return to Forever.

A series of wide-ranging collaborations characterized the period following Return to Forever, with Corea releasing two albums featuring duets with Herbie Hancock. The lush, layered sound achieved by the two pianists marked a new endeavor, and the chemistry between the two is apparent. Another new venture was his work with trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, saxophonist Joe Henderson, bassist Stanley Clarke and drummer Lenny White. The band’s first outing, “Echoes of an Era” (1982), sees the group as a backing band for R&B singer Chaka Khan in her first foray into jazz. “Griffith Park Collection” (1982) features the same band without Khan in the foreground.

Corea’s next major undertaking as a leader came with the formation of the Chick Corea Elektric Band in the late 1980s, featuring newcomers like drummer Dave Weckl and virtuosic bassist John Patitucci. The Chick Corea Akoustic Band, consisting of only Weckl and Patitucci as accompaniment, balanced this headfirst plunge into electric jazz. A standout track from this era is “Got a Match,” included on the Elektric Band’s self-titled album (1986). The blistering tempo and spindly melody create an effervescent jazz-rock sound emblematic of progressive jazz of the era.

Although Corea continued to push his creative limits into the 21st century, many of his later projects centered around revisiting and retooling the works that cemented his position as one of the foremost figures in jazz. Reunions with collaborators like Gary Burton, Herbie Hancock and Return to Forever proved fruitful for Corea, and his 2019 live album “Trilogy 2” with bassist Christian McBride and drummer Brian Blade offers exciting new takes on classics like “500 Miles High,” and “Now He Sings, Now He Sobs.”

Through his intensely diverse array of projects, Chick Corea had a hand in shaping music from jazz piano trio, jazz fusion and Latin jazz. Though he is now gone, he leaves behind a rich musical legacy that will continue to inspire musicians and listeners alike for decades to come.