Q&A: Chick Corea on his regrets, Grammys, future plans and more

The acclaimed jazz composer has a busy year ahead.

Retro Chick Corea Akoustic Band. The trio plays St. Petersburg College's Music Center in St. Petersburg, Florida on January 13, 2017. - Press Handout
Press Handout
Retro Chick Corea Akoustic Band. The trio plays St. Petersburg College's Music Center in St. Petersburg, Florida on January 13, 2017.

Chick Corea is hands down one of the most decorated jazz composers of all time, and he is certainly one of fusion's most important pioneering minds. At 76, he shows no signs of stopping and has booked an extremely busy 2018 for himself. He took a few minutes to check in with CL, however, before he and his Akoustic Band cohorts (Dave Weckl and John Patitucci) ready themselves to play two shows at St. Petersburg College. 

Read our piece on Corea here, and see our full Q&A — along with info on the show — below.

Chick Corea Akoustic Band.
Jan. 13. 6:30 p.m. & 9:30 p.m.
Saint Petersburg College Music Hall
6605 5th Ave. N., St. Petersburg. $55-85.

I was running around, too, let me put my headphones on so I can hear you better — one second. Can you hear me now?

Yes, I can. Thanks. That just reminded me of an interview you did once and you talked at length about really liking the monitors to be right onstage so you could hear each other play.

Oh, where was that?

I forget, but so many of your interviews are very technical.

Oh, yeah. Yeah. 

Thinking 10 or 15 minutes to talk?

Yeah, go ahead. I have plenty of time in the evening after all of the activity of the afternoon. 

OK, what kind of activity is that. I don't know if you're in Florida right now, but you don't have a show until the 13th in St. Petersburg.

Yeah. I'm actually travelling around, back and forth. I'm here for a day, and I'm running around. I'm preparing for the year. I got a bunch of meetings — some business some music — music preparations to do over here, and I am certainly preparing for this live recording we're going to do. I am am excited about it.

Awesome, I think that leads me to two questions. You expressed some interest in working with more larger ensembles and symphony orchestras. Same goes for writing some jazz concertos for Kenny Garrett or John Schofield — is that what some of these meetings are about?

Well' I'm preparing for that as well, but I've got, you know, several groups that I am writing new music for. Especially the one that is about to happen, which is the new Akoustic Band with Dave Weckl and John Patitucci, so I am gathering together repertoire and writing some new music. I am also working on putting some orchestral commissions together, but they're not solid yet. I've got a list of them. I want to do more composing.

OK, so the year for you looks like a new Akoustic album with John and Dave?

Yeah, well we have a summer tour of Europe in July. Then August, someone in August and September we have a trip to Australia with six of seven concerts, and that's one group. But then I am also taking out my young trio earlier in the year and later in the year with Carlitos Del Puerto and the bass and Marcus Gilmore on the drums.


Is that the trio that went to Hawaii with you?

You mean the last Hawaii date? Because I'm going back to Hawaii. The last Hawaii date was with Brian Blade and Eddy Gomez.

OK.

Yeah, yeah. But, my rhythm with Carlitos and Marcus is the rhythm section from my young band called Vigil that I had out a couple years ago, so I'm doing various projects, but most of my concerts this year are gonna be solo piano. 

Yeah, I saw those solo dates in Switzerland, and you've got that Trondheim Jazz Festival where you'll play with that orchestra.

Yeah, I am also going out with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.

In April.

Wynton is taking a break, so I am gonna lead the band for a couple of weeks.

Tough gig. Is that particularly intimidating for you? I feel like you've done so much, and at a very early age knew that this is what you want to do and this is what you're good at. Is that intimidating to take over for someone like Wynton? I mean I feel like you're cut from similar clothes, a strong musical pedigree. 

Well, he grew up in a musical family, too. A real musical family. All his brothers and his father is great piano player. You know, I didn't have any brother or sisters, but my dad had a band all through the 30s and the 40s when I was growing up in the 40s, so I was surrounded by musicians and music — it was a great way to get started, actually.

Was the fact that you were an only child something that you thought about growing up or was music kind of able to be that main joy in your life so you didn't have any room or regret or think of the things that you didn't have?

Oh, I have no regrets. I started enjoying making music when I was a little kid, and I've continued to my whole life. It fills up my days and my years, and I can't think of anything I'd rather be doing.

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Before St. Pete shows, Chick Corea shares jokes, insight and more

Right on. I like that. I like hearing you talk and looking at the entire breadth of what you've done. I just talked to Derek Trucks the other day, and he's kind of similar to you in that he lives and breathes this music thing, and he's in search of sounds and phrases. He's reaching back into the past and also improvise while composing at the same time; and he does it with so much joy and humility. I was wondering — where do you put all the Grammys?

Oh, we keep them in storage, pretty much. Yeah — they're nice accolades, but we don't have them hung around.

Right on. You really don't have any time for that, I'm guessing.

I'm out on the road a lot, which I enjoy, to be performing playing in different situations, but composing is really a basic thing to all the music that I play. Even when I first started playing music. I always loved to write, but I would write for my own bands, not on a commission basis, but I would just write music, and that would be the music I perform. My mentors in that record are, you know, Horace Silver, and Thelonious Monk, and Duke Ellington, and even Mozart and Bach. They were keyboard players, but the things that they played with their keyboards were their own compositions.

For sure, I like that you mentioned some of your mentors because when I watched that Trio interview from Hawaii. You guys mentioned mentors. Members of your Trio are big on mentors and a jazz education formal and especially informal. How do you feel about the state of jazz in 2017 and looking forward into 2018? Anyone you love in particular? Someone to look out for?

Well, the young players, the world is just bubblig with them. The amount of talent there and their creativity is just amazing. Now even more so that it's easier, I guess in the past you learned an artform more locally. Like you had to find a master in the area to work with and apprentice with and so forth. The travel was hard. Your perimeter would be more or less local. Now it's wordly. You can travel, and you don't even have to travel. You go on the internet and find whatever you want. So the musicians and the artists that are coming around these days. They have access to all of the histories and all of the art forms. They can go on the internet, and watch, listen and learn that way. And then travel is also easier, too. So they're everywhere, man. Everywhere I go I hear young musicians with incredible creative output, and it's incredibly diverse, too. There are all kinds of ways of making music. Like the words, "jazz," and "classical" and "pop" — they hardly touch on the diversity that actually exists.

I love it. You're doing it again.The positivity and a nice way of looking outward into the world. A lot of people will answer that question a little negatively. You mentioned the world getting smaller, but you're such a frequent visitor here to the Bay area — are there any places locally that you go to see jazz?Well, I was a member of, I was invited to the new international society of jazz arrangers and composers recently. And that was exciting to have. Have you heard of that organization? Chuck Owen and his band? In Tampa. Chuck Owen is a great composer and band leader.

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Yeah, he just got nominated for four Grammys with his band Jazz Surge.Absolutely, yup. So I attended the opening of that for a new society that he put together honoring jazz composers and arrangers, which I thought was kind of cool. There was nothing kind of like that. And that was fun. I sat in, played, but now I am coming to St. Pete to play with Dave Weckl and John Patitucci — we're putting the new Akoustic Band back together again. We'll be down here rehearsing, and we have two shows that we're gonna record everything live.

Oh, awesome.

We're making a documentary also. So when they come in for the rehearsal we're gonna film everything including the set up of the instruments, and how the whole thing is mic'd and recorded, we're gonna talk about it. We're gonna make it a candid thing with very little editing. And then record the two shows and put out a live package.

That's so cool. I was watching the something you and Gary did in the area. I think it was in 2008 I think — and before that it was 20 years. I wanted to ask you about the set that you will play with John and Dave. I love hearing you talk about your love for free improvisation and structured composition. Is there much of a balance when you play with them? I mean, I also bet you don't get nervous around cameras anymore either.

Yeah, the cameras are always on, so we never really play to them. We just make it relaxed. I was just thinking about that today because I was thinking about looking at trying to learn something about music publishing because I've written a lot of compositions, and I realized that when you compose a piece of music, basically what you're doing is you're improvising, but slowly because you're writing it down. You're documenting somehow. But you're basically improvising because you're inventing something new. You're writing a piece of music, so the impulse to, the skill, or whatever you wanna call it, to improvise is at the basis of all composition, so when we improvise we're really kind of spontaneously composing — we're composing all the time. So as a composer all you need to be able to do is capture to process, either on written music or on a recorder that then gets transcribed into written music, and you have your composition. So that kind of mix between a set piece of written music and how you improvise in and around it is the — I don't know, that's the mystery. You know what I mean?


Yeah.

There's a real blend. You start with the written notes. Or maybe you start with the improvised notes, spontaneously, and then you merge into the written notes. You come together and you play something that is prepared as an ensemble together, and if you do it well, sometimes the audience can't tell if you're improvising or if you're doing something written, which actually is kind of cool.

I gotta ask you about something kind of cool that you did in the past. A fan wanted to know. When are you  going to release the outtakes of Armando's Rhumba with Jean Luc Ponty & Stanley Clarke?

Did you say outtakes?

Yeah, outtakes from that.

There were none.

What? Wow.

Yeah, we looked that over, and actually years ago when were doing a re-release of My Spanish Heart. And we couldn't find any outtakes. Actually, we rehearsed and it was the first take that got put down, so there were no outtakes.

Wow. That is awesome.

Yeah.

I was thinking of John, and I almost feel foolish asking you this since you seem like you constantly move at a speed that doesn't give you much time to reflect. Last year a large album with live recordings from years gone by was released. Guys like John McLaughlin and Frank Gambale; Gary Peacock, Stanley Clarke and John Patitucci — I realize that you made a decision pretty early on that this was gonna be your life, but do you ever look back on your career and think, “Whoa! I’ve done a ton of stuff.”?

Oh, of course. I peek at it, and I go, "Oh alright, well what I do know?" Because what I get from it, you know, you try, the things that never get erased from your memory — for me anyway — are the pleasure moments. The moments of success when you're doing something that you love, and you're exhilarated about it. Those are memories are real nice, but I don't wanna sit around with memories all the time. I mean, the pleasure, like for instance I've known and played with John and Dave, we put our trio together in 1983. We've known each other a long time, played a lot of music together. But when we get together we're fast friends, but we're playing something new. We have all the repoire going for us and now the game is to challenge each other into creating something new.


Wow, yeah. That's kind of what I expected to hear. Your energy is great. Did you really only last one year at Julliard?Well, a little longer than that. When I auditioned for Julliard I auditioned as a piano major. And there are certain things you do as a piano major, and the most important one is you're assigned to a piano teacher. Playing classical piano becomes a focus, and around that there are other forces. I don't know if they still call it the same, but there is a course called "L&M," which means "Literature & Materials," and you study the technical sides of music and so forth. But when I met my teacher, an older lady even at that time, who I was told was a great Chopin player. She asked me to, I played for her for a little bit, and she asked me to do some, uh, she asked me to play, I remember, and then I said to her, "Gee I'd like to learn something, I heard you were a great Chopin player, and would love to learn something about that." And she said, "Oh no, no, first you have to do...this." And she showed me this exercise on the piano that was not something I wanted to do. And I could tell that this was gonna be a struggle, this relationship. So, as politely as I could, I thanked her, and I kind of bowed out of that.

Oh.

But I stayed on for the rest of the year with "Literature and Materials," but by the end of the year I decided I wanted to stay in New York, find my heroes and play with them.

And you certainly did, and forgiving me if I am misquoting you here, Chick. You’ve talked about improving the morality and spiritual state of the world so that the music may be uplifted at the same time — could you elaborate on that a little bit?

Well, it's obvious to me that everybody, whether they consider themselves a professional artist or not, all people have a basic ability to create. I mean that's what life is all about, you create — you create something. You create. You create your life, and everyone has the creative impulse. It's just how you apply it. So I find that when I demonstrate competence in making a piece of music, playing piano or in a band, writing a composition, I can see nightly when I play in front of an audience — they get kind of inspired. And I get comments like that all the time like, "Well thank you now I feel like going back to my instrument," or "You make me want to create this," or simply brought them some pleasure. They don't have to go want to play the piano, so I find that that effect on people is a great effect, and it's something that I'm very grateful to cause that effect. It helps life feel a little better in the area, so I feel good. I feel like I am contributing something positive.

And I wanted to ask you, and forgive me again if I start to prod too deeply here. I feel like in '82 you were on L. Ron Hubbard's album Space Jazz. And he died, I think, four years later. And I believe you ended up creating your own compositions based on L. Ron Hubbard's short stories. Do you still use literary, you know books, and stories when you start to compose these days?

You know, I had a great creative time working with L. Ron Hubbard's fiction books. I did that one called To The Stars with the Elektric Band, and I did one called The Ultimate Adventure, which was more of a fantasy. And I found that I really did well, because he is my favorite writer, so his writing inspired me to make music. So those projects were special for me. Now I've actually got another project in mind based on another one of his novels, that I want to do very well. And that let me, also, wanting once again to look at the idea of writing music for movies.


Right. And I wanted to ask you since you had such a close relationship to him, and you read is teaching. You've mentioned that Scientology has really deepened your relationships with other people and find a purpose in your path. Scientology is still an out of the box idea for a lot of people. Especially in this area — it's very polarizing. I know that it's a big positive in your life. What kinds of things do you think get lost in the media today? And do you think that it's something to take into context when people take in your music? You have such a wide scope of work, but the two albums are in there. Is it something to consider, and what kinds of things do you think the media misses, maybe even specifically music journalists when they try and take your music in the context of your affiliation with Scientology? I know the whole Germany thing is weird, but I was wondering what that was like since the religion has meant a lot for you.

Well, you know. I basically ignore all of the criticism, and I personally don't put much worth in the media actually — do you?

Well. It's tough, I interviewed Talib Kweli, who is a rapper, and we were talking about Donald Trump and Talib mentioned that the media does not really hold Trump accountable. And I had mentioned to the effect that I think we do try and hold Trump accountable, and Talib said something to the effect of, "Well you try but then you back off and move to another thing." And I think that's a fair criticism. I am totally OK with criticism of the media and music media, obviously I'm biased. I feel like you can trust the media, and you can trust the questions that I ask. It is uncomfortable to ask the question of you because it is your own personal belief, but at the same time I feel like if I don't ask it, then I am not doing my job. I get what you're saying — you just ignore the criticism.

Why would I get into it? I've had such a fruitful career as a Scientologist since 1968. It's been such a beautiful thing in my life. L. Ron Hubbard is one of the great writers, one of the great inspirational philosophers of a long time. I'm not the only one that thinks that, by the way — millions of other do. So, that's my relationship to Scientology. As far as music criticism goes, or any kind of criticism, people are entitled to their own opinions, but I don't have to study them or reply to them. I can just say, "OK, that guy has that opinion. That's good. I'm gonna go over here, and do this.

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"You never took me as the kind of person who spend a lot of time worrying about what other people thought of him. I don't imagine that you could've composed so much music and done some of the things, especially when you did it with Miles' band, I just don't think the mind has a lot of capacity to process other peoples' negative opinions. I feel like artists are hard enough on themselves already.

Yeah, I mean the thing is I grew up in a culture of cooperation. One of the most ideal societies is a band of musicians who get together — at least the musicians I play with — get together and totally create, totally accept one another's creations to listen to my musician partner play, hear what he's doing and make something beautiful out of it. And know that he's doing the same thing for me. Like he's listening to me, and he's making something beautiful out of it. And since I was a small kid, with my father and his bandmates. That's always been the atmosphere I grew up in, and, I don't know, that seems kind of ideal to me, and I find myself lucky, in a sense, to continue to have relationships like that because that's what makes my life rich. It's what makes music rich — relationships. I'm gonna get together with John and Dave now, after so many years, and it's gonna be a blast.

Yeah, and even some of that stuff you did with Bobby McFerrin — it was great. Last question. You talked about making something beautiful. I don't know if you take your life in chunks of years, but we're at the beginning of 2018. This time next year, what do you hope to say you accomplished over the last 364, 65 days or whatever?Oh, just that I can make a lot of people happy as I go around and play my music. Inspire them, you know. Leave a bunch of smiles and, you know, please audiences, people throw their troubles away a little bit when they come to a concert. They walk about feeling a little bit better. I love to produce that effect. Plus, the fact that I'll come away with a lot of pleasure in having done that by creating my own music. Like it's my own special music, my own compositions. I feel honored, actually, to be able to do that. And people come and listen, and we call have a good time.

OK, I lied. I do wanna ask you one more. Where do you get your sense of humor. Sometimes you have some ultimate little one-liner jokes. You told one about a composer who wasn't "rich," but "baroque," and I had a reaction, but I had headphones in so everyone around me thought something was wrong. Where does that come from?Oh, my God. That's a groaner man, that one.

Yeah.

A baroque composer, I see. I don't know. I love the comedians. To be able to make an audience laugh. You ready? So a grasshopper walks into a bar. Have you heard this? So a grasshopper walks into a bar, and the bartender looks down at him and says to the grasshopper, "Well, what'll you have?" The grasshopper looks up, and says, "Uh, I think I'll have, uh, I don't know. Let me think about it." The bartender looks at him again and says, he says to the grasshopper, "Do you know that we have a drink named after you?" And the grasshopper looks up, and he says, "Really? You have a drink named 'Steve'?"


Oh, that is great.

That's a Steve Gadd joke.

Oh it is?

Yeah, you gotta hear Steve tell that.

Well thank you so much for your time. I know that we missed each other earlier, but I do appreciate it. You really are one of the greatest, so thanks for your patience and for the conversation.

Well, thanks, man. I appreciate the interest and the coverage. We wanna fill up the two shows, so let us know when you are gonna release the article, and we'll help promote it.

For sure, is there anything you wanted to add that we may not have hit on for you?

No, just, I would appreciate if you would include the details about the gig.

Oh yeah, for sure.

If you come to the show come by and say, "Hello."

Thanks, Chick.

Alright, great talking to you. Happy New Year.

Happy New Year, bye.

Alright, bye.