Chick Corea is rightly described as one of the most important and influential players in American jazz. Son of big band director Armando Corea, Chick says he can’t remember a time when he wasn’t playing the piano, which he formally began studying at the age of 4. Before he was even out of his teens, he was playing around Manhattan with the likes of Sarah Vaughn, Stan Getz and Herbie Mann.
And by the time he was in his late 20s, Corea had already been enlisted by Miles Davis for his first smoldering forays into fusion—among Corea’s other resume-topping achievements, he was one of two session keyboardists on Bitches Brew. Corea’s three years with the Davis electric group were marked by great leaps forward in his technique and compositional style, which grew to incorporate Miles-sanctioned radicals like dissonant tone clusters and creepy electronic effect into a vocabulary already flush with dazzlingly original touches.
Corea’s avant-garde explorations continued after his departure from the Davis group with Circle, a democratically boundary-free experimental group that displayed Corea’s don’t-fence-me-in composition style to magnificent advantage. Not surprisingly, Corea has always taken inspiration from classical music, especially rule-breakers like Mozart and Bela Bartok. Spontaneity is always the byword; Corea has expressed his admiration for Bartok, a round rejecter of evergreen compositional conventions, on more than one occasion. “That’s what draws me to music or a performance,” he told a reporter earlier this year. “In a composition, I can tell how spontaneously a composer is composing. Was he sitting there, erasing a lot and pulling his hair, or was the music just flowing out without a thought?” Corea has never strayed too far from classical, occasionally recording and touring on the music of Mozart and Bartok to keep his technique tight and, perhaps, to find inspiration; in the late ’70s, Corea and Herbie Hancock toured with the Hungarian’s two-piano music. More recently, The Mozart Sessions, with Bobby McFerrin, was chosen by Time magazine as one of the best classical releases of 1996.
But Corea’s music has always included elements that make it accessible to a broader audience than just jazz fanatics. In his post-Circle ensemble Return to Forever, Corea did first with Latin styles and then with progressive rock what Hancock did with funk, which is to say he tied them to jazz in a way that broadened the base of both styles and got people seeking out the ensembles and players he claimed as influences. His enormously popular Elektric Band continued in this vein; period compositions like “Forgotten Past” combine undeniable rock elements with electric and acoustic jazz, delicate piano work with John Patitucci’s woody bass and the Dave Weckl’s cliometrically precise percussion. The Akoustic Band, reprising elements of the Elektric and with a slightly different lineup, has graced Missoula before—in 1992 at the University Theatre.
Now Corea returns with Origin, a roughly two-year-old ensemble that’s got tongues all a-wagging in the jazz community. Word on the street is that Origin puts the Akoustic Band away, and if you saw that show eight years ago, you know that’s saying something.
Chick Corea plays University Theatre on Sunday, Oct. 24 at 8 p.m. Tickets $21 in advance, $23 at the door. Call 1-888-MONTANA.