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What Makes Chick Tick?

Jazz Legend Chick Corea’s Never Ending Musical Journey

By Tom Alexander

Solo Explorations. Another one of Corea's musical journeys.

Solo Piano. Another one of Corea's musical explorations.

FORT LAUDERDALE (Special to TSD After Dark) I saw Chick Corea again for about the thirtieth time in my life I guess. Its probably more than thirty times. I’ll be honest, I lost count about five years ago. I have seen him in nearly every possible context – duos, trios, quartets, quintets, sextets, septets, and with an orchestra in Purchase, New York playing the American debut of his first piano concerto way back in 1986. I was lucky that day, as I took my dad with me. It was the only time he ever got to hear Chick. He passed away later that year. The special moment of having my two heroes in life meet face to face was one of the great memories of my life.

Acoustic. Electric. Classical. Fusion.

Up until November of this year, I had seen him do nearly everything – except solo piano. The one thing I have longed to see for almost thirty years is to hear him play alone at the piano for an entire evening. My wife informed me she had a special birthday present in store. So on November 20th, besides turning the ripe old age of 47, I saw Chick practically in my back yard in Davie, Florida. He walked on stage in a setting that was like being in his living room, and played. I recalled hearing his Piano Improvisations albums for the first time. It was my introduction to his music. It was the singular game changer for me which altered forever the way I approached the piano myself. I remember reading a description of those records that has stuck with me all these years. “Piano Improvisations Volumes 1 & 2 are like turning a tape recorder on inside a man’s mind.” All of us that evening got to take a journey not only through his mind, but his soul.

Not that I needed any further confirmation of course, but Chick Corea proved once again he can do more things with music than anyone on earth. And yet he remains distinctly Chick Corea. His good humor and warmth have been a staple in his connection with the audience for decades. November 20th would be no different. The Boston accent has never left him despite living far away from the city for close to fifty years. Kind of like that favorite uncle who drops by and livens everything up, Chick is always the life of the party.  And you just never want him to leave. How about one more tune Chick? Of course he obliges. I hung back as I usually do to say hello. I was with my wife and son and he was, as always, warm, gregarious, and generous with his time.

Just Hangin'. My son Peter with Chick Corea in 2009.

Just Hangin'. My son Peter with Chick Corea in 2009.

At 69 years of age, Corea physically looks like a man twenty years younger. I’m twenty years younger and I don’t look like that. Owe some of it to genetics and a healthy portion of it to taking care of himself and you’ve got a road worthy warrior who’s travelled the globe hundreds of times and seen the inside of more hotel rooms than Conrad Hilton.

I suspect there is a third component to Corea’s sprite-like enthusiasm and Herculean longevity – he relishes every moment. He is a man who has personally told me in almost every interview I’ve had to good fortune to have done with him, “I’ve got a charmed life.” So when I asked myself “what makes Chick tick?” – its the love of music and the desire to constantly create and challenge himself.

It is simply the act of doing.

Well, that seems easy to understand. But is it easy to accomplish? If it was, everyone would be doing it. Somehow Chick Corea has found a recipe for success that is practically unprecedented for a jazz musician. He’s surrounded himself with the right people to handle the worldly tasks while he musters up the physical and mental stamina and endless creativity to write and write and write, then play and play and play, night after night. Chick would be the first one to tell you that people like Evelyn Brechtlein, Anna Robertson, and Bill Rooney are largely responsible for allowing him the freedom to do what he does best. And with his lovely wife Gayle by his side since the early 1970s, its easy to see why he calls it “a charmed life.”

This probably has something to do with why he never has a bad night. Never. He is always great. I can honestly say I have left every concert shaking my head in disbelief, feeling inspired, and yes, a little (OK, a lot) intimidated. But to experience hearing him play is always a joy. I walk out of a concert and can hardly wait to get to a piano myself.

I am not alone. Ask any of the other thousands of musicians who’ve been inspired by him over the years and they’ll tell you. His energy is contagious. His mind-bending creativity is awe-inspiring. His outpouring of music year after year is staggering (and record setting). You listening Guinness Book of World Records guys?

This is not an artist who has found a musical formula that works and has stuck with it for fear of veering too far off road and alienating his audience. This is an artist who has the confidence to trust his instincts, constantly change things up and challenge himself and the musicians he works with to blaze new trails. To some artists, that might sound like a frightening notion. And for the audience? What about an artist who is constantly evolving? Imagine being in the hands of the most experienced airline pilot in a crisis and knowing you’re going to be OK. In fact, better than OK. You land safely without a scratch. When Captain Corea is at the controls, its always a perfect day for flying.

I can’t emphasize this enough. And I challenge anyone who thinks I’m overstating this. We really are very lucky to be living at the same time as Chick Corea. They will talk about him decades and centuries from now as perhaps the most prolific and innovative jazz composer and performer in history.

Young Chick. Corea as a youngster back in Boston.

Young Chick. Corea as a youngster back in Boston.

At some point in his life, a young Italian kid from Boston decided he was going to take his startling talent, burning desire, and unmatched work ethic and never look back. And we’re grateful he did, because it gives us all something to look forward to and ask, “what’s next?”

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